Originally written for Exeunt.
Orlando. Horatio. Bertram.
Not a bad list of names for someone who’s only in his second season at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Last year, Alex Waldmann starred in Maria Aberg’s startling production of King John as the eponymous monarch whilst also taking roles on Richard IIIand A Soldier in Every Son in the Swan Theatre, but now he’s pulling in crowds for the bigger RST. When I spoke to him, the curtain had just come down on Hamlet, in which Jonathan Slinger plays the Dane, and it was a matter of hours before As You Like It kicked off later that evening. In their time off stage, he and the company head down the road for rehearsals of All’s Well That Ends Well.
“It’s like a sport,” Waldmann tells me energetically, “You’re tired but you’re also really match fit.
You’re spending all day with Shakespeare and things inform one another. You spend a morning downstairs and an afternoon upstairs and you find certain things: for example, both Hamlet and As You Like It end in the mud and the rain, just in very different ways. And just because of where your mind is, other things spring out at you: things like similarities in the text or the idea of grief and being torn away from family”.
Waldmann flits between discussing the three shows with which he is involved with extraordinary speed, debating the anarchy of As You Like It one minute and the father/son relationship in Hamlet the next: “We’re all mad in the second half ofAs You Like It; we all do ridiculous things for love, as Hamlet does ridiculous things out of grief and his love for Ophelia. They’re such extremes – love and grief – and somewhere in the middle they make you go mad.”
He’s thankful that Hamlet and As You Like It came first, because for Waldmann, All’s Well That Ends Well is “the most difficult of the three, by a mile” due to its lack of on-stage drama and preponderance of objects and letters which makes the play “a study in how what happens off stage subtly changes the characters when they’re back on stage”. He’s due to play Bertram, the young soldier who somewhat messes around the play’s heroine, Helena, though like the work he did on King John he wants to shy away from the popular conception of the character: “King John has this reputation of being a weak, bad king, and rather than just playing a buffoon I wanted to play someone that the audience could watch making bad decisions and his dependence on other people, but I also wanted in the first half people to realise that there is potential in him. And it’s the same with Bertram, who has this reputation for being a cad and I think, because no one’s born evil, why does he act like that? What is it that’s driving him?… So the challenge as an actor is to accept that, even though you always want people to like you, it’s okay for people to not like you. They just have to understand you.”
This desire to reach out to an audience is one which drives Waldmann, and every step of the way they are at the forefront of his psyche. He, Pippa Nixon (Ophelia in Hamlet and Rosalind in As You Like It) and Aberg – who have now collaborated together twice and will almost certainly do so again in the future – are keen on creating “a great evening out” which just happens to be Shakespeare, which is why they constantly try to find new ways of communicating ideas to their audiences.
So they aren’t sacred about the text? Waldmann pauses. “Actually, I think we are sacred in that we’re reverent to the way it’s written and we don’t try and naturalise it to the point where you ignore the verse – it is heightened language. Instead, we inhabit it and make it active, and that’s what makes it come alive. So I think we probably are in a way quite sacred. And despite the production values, hopefully we do enlighten the text. The irreverence we do have is trying to throw away what people have done before and what people think the scene should be. With King John, people either loved it or they hated it, but that’s much better than people being indifferent”.
But though All’s Well That Ends Well is a lesser known play and may invite this sort of radical reinterpretation, director Nancy Meckler is instead attempting to bring out the “fairytale” aspects of the piece, considering how the off-stage actions can be represented “visually” in order to make it clearer. The “loosely twentieth century” setting has meant Waldmann has been able to embellish the character by considering how he may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder upon returning from the war: “What fits for me is that he’s forced into a spot where he has to lie, but he’s like the naughty brother coming back at Christmas where people just treat him like a liar, and he falls back into that. He’s battle scarred and he’s a different man, but it’s not going to be a happy ending because [Helena] is going to have to look after him for the rest of her life”.
Waldmann admits that he’s “nervous” about playing Bertram, especially seeing as he doesn’t have the crutch of Nixon or Aberg with this particular production, though the rest of the ensemble are just as supportive now that they have “a shorthand” as a company. “Betram wasn’t a part I’d always wanted to play but then you think if you get the opportunity to play a really interesting part in a rarely done play at the Royal Shakespeare Company, why not? You get a chance to work with another director and it’s going to push me as it’s by far the most difficult one. In some ways it’s much harder to be playing Hamlet or Orlando because they’re iconic, but with Bertram you can really make something your own and you won’t be compared”.
For me, allowing actors to play unexpected roles is one of the joys of the repertory system, though the RSC’s three-shows-in-one-season ensemble is a far cry from the long-term contracts and giant repertories of many European theatres. When I suggest that we could learn from this set-up, Waldmann explains that, during rehearsals, “Maria brought over 35-odd people from the National Theatre of Sweden. They don’t work during the summer, they’re on a permanent contract, they only do five shows a week, and when they perform in the evening they stop working at three – so they couldn’t believe we still do eight shows a week and rehearse during the day”. They are in the enviable position, however, of having far larger public subsidy thus allowing them to hire actors for far longer periods of time, a luxury which even the RSC is unable to afford.
But even in this repertory-lite, its clear to see the benefits for actors and audiences alike, and Waldmann’s own experiences are demonstrative of its success: he and Nixon were involved very early on in the process for As You Like It, meaning they feel a real “sense of ownership over it” and allowing them to go further than they would if working with new people. “We just spark off each other and we push each other and challenge each other and bring out the best in each other”.
As often happens with conversations about Modern British Theatre, Simon Stephens’Three Kingdoms gets mentioned as a touchstone, and though Waldmann didn’t see it, Aberg did, and the way in which it influenced has been palpable in the rehearsal room, as the company desires to create that “great evening out” which simultaneously challenges and provokes. “And that’s why I’m gutted I didn’t see Three Kingdoms; people either loved it or they hated it. Last year, we did a talk about King John and the audience was divided, and we had a really interesting discussion and I said “Isn’t it better that you were made to feel something?” […] And the thing about “that’s what Shakespeare intended” – how do we know? He had deadlines and a company of actors and had to make money.
People said in the talk-back “where in the stage directions does it say that light up a cigarette?” and it’s a great question but there are no stage directions. And people last year were complaining about Pippa playing the Bastard even though three hundred years ago she wouldn’t be playing Rosalind. If you can’t imagine stuff on stage you can’t imagine it anywhere and hopefully with As You Like It we’ve been true to the story and captured a spirit that’s in there. And I don’t know if that’s the spirit Shakespeare intended but it feels like it was – that anarchy and freedom in the forest. You have to digest his extraordinary words through us rather than think “This is what we should do”. And with All’s Well That Ends Well that’s going to be harder”.