As a 45-year-old Coriolanus at the National Theatre, I worked hard to grow a credible warrior’s body.
The fighting area was a sand pit. Some of the audience sat on the stage among the actors. There were problems! Irene Worth as my mother was one of the answers.
I grew up in postwar Wigan, in a theatre-going family, so it didn’t seem odd that my big sister Jean should take me to my first Shakespeare when I was only seven years old. It was Macbeth at the local amateur Little Theatre. Seven decades on, I can still see the dried-up rhododendron branches through which Macduff’s soldiers unconvincingly impersonated Birnam Wood.
By the time I was 12 I’d made my Shakespearean debut as Malvolio in Twelfth Night at Bolton School. Theatre-going was my hobby; acting was a by-product.
In my teens I saw great Shakespearean performances. We used to queue for half-a-crown standing tickets at the School Camp, under canvas along the Avon. I marvelled at Laurence Olivier’s Malvolio and Ian Holm’s King Henry, and their brilliance put a brake on my own ambition to act professionally.
At Cambridge I played Justice Shallow in John Barton’s undergraduate production of Henry IV Part 2 and decided I never wanted to stop acting.
You never see a bad performance of Shallow. The script is too deft and actor-proof. It could have been written by Chekhov: his first words, to his aged cousin, are, “Come on. Come on, come on, sir. Give me your hand, sir, give me your hand.” Without a stage direction, Shakespeare tells us that the cousin is deaf – or that Shallow thinks he is! – and with that set up, the old gossip can reminisce, gabbling on to his cousin, who isn’t called Silence for nothing.
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