Tag Archives: RSC

Saw Richard ll this week. It’s abt regime change, the director says.

For the first time, a live performance at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford on Avon, was filmed and shown in cinemas worldwide on Nov 13. The play, a favourite of the RSC’s new director, Greg Doran, was Richard ll with David Tennant in the lead.

It’s a play in which the long speech figures big time. Most of the speeches are about England – its greatness, its magic, its heroic nature. When the speeches are finished, everyone gets back to the business of killing each other. Those they don’t kill, they betray.

It’s a marvellous production with a wonderful set enhanced by an ingenious system of lighting – all explained to us, on screen during the interval, by lighting designer Tim Mitchell.

Shakespeare knew how to end a play, the final moments often handed to the director on a plate. In this play, Richard is deposed by his enemy Bolingbroke, incarcerated in a cellar and finally killed by those he had trusted. Thus  Doran has Bolingbroke – in an attempt to portray himself as a good guy really – speaking his last lines: “I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land, to wash this blood from off my guilty hand…” as the saintly figure of Richard ll appears aloft, clad in a white gown. It’d make your heart bleed and that’s what Shakespeare is good at.

Walking home, I thought of the playwright’s take on politics and decided that the only safe position to hold must have been one of cynicism – especially in the turbulence of Tudor times.

Those speeches reminded me of former British politician Jonathan Aitken who, when his corruption was about to be uncovered by the Guardian newspaper, tried to  scare off the press with the following speech: ” If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the  simple sword  of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play, so be it. I am ready for the fight.”

You have to laugh. When it comes to blatant tub-thumping, that little speech it’s up there with some of the patriotic speeches in Richard ll.

Shakespeare had a handle on politics and we can learn from him: view most politicians with a degree of cynicism and you won’t be disheartened when you find it was all lies.

Aitken, by the way, was found guilty and sent to prison.

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Always the bridesmaid: an actor on what it’s like to be an understudy



“Covering McKellen An Understudy’s Tale” by David Weston.




I was given this book because I like Ian McKellen. If you’ve seen his Richard lll (on stage or on the screen) you’ll understand why and if you’ve never seen his Widow Twanky, you’ve never lived.

This book, however, is about David Weston and the year he spent understudying McKellen’s Lear. It’s full of actor’s anecdotes, of how the cast got on with each other, of the squabbles backstage, the awful lodgings, the boredom of waiting around in airports, the lonliness of being away from home. And if you’re a few minutes late arriving at the theatre, you get booked. Never happened in the old days.  There are health and safety forms to be filled in: can you kneel/can you push and pull/do you have difficulty standing for a long time? And don’t even mention the “gift” the cast received from the RSC at the end of the run.

Above all, it’s about the thoughts of an ageing actor (Weston is in his early seventies) who, having played all the parts, is now ending his career relegated to the role of understudy though to an actor he admires and to whom he is touchingly loyal for, in the whole year of the tour, McKellen doesn’t have as much as one night off. Not a sore throat, not a stubbed toe, nothing.

There is one heart-stopping moment when word comes through that Sir Ian has failed to turn up at the theatre. And in Hollywood!

Weston takes up the script and starts to look at the first scene. It’s seared into his brain, he says. He’s advised to stay calm, that they’re trying to locate McKellen and, hell’s bells, they do: he’d overslept and couldn’t get a taxi. But he’s on the way.

I dropped this book in the bath – hence it’s decrepit state – but I kept on reading it throughout the year. I had to: McKellen’s Shakespearean voice resonates and his willie’s not bad either – for a 68-year-old, as noted by the New Zealand Herald.

His understudy is grateful for any crumbs that might come his way and some do. Like the critic who wrote: “One of the great pleasures of an RSC production is the attention that is lavished on the minor parts.”

Weston does get a chance to play Lear when, back in London, they have an understudy run through.  He lets his friends know, his agent, anyone that might be interested in seeing him do Lear. And you know what – it’s cancelled and he has to phone everyone to tell them not to bother coming.

A few weeks later, he gets a second chance when they finally have the understudy’s run through. This time, he plays Lear to an invited audience which includes his two daughters and afterwards Ian McKellen hugs him and says he almost envies his having two such lovely daughters. It’s that almost that gets to you.

Weston has understudied all of them: David Warner,Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi and his insider’s take on the RSC is marvellous. For anyone in love with the theatre, this is their book but if you ever think life is passing you by, imagine what it must be like to be understudy to Ian McKellen. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

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