Our resident thespians Maddie Andrews and James Baxter-Derrington caught up with Marcus Griffiths, an actor juggling not one, but two, Shakespearean roles at the same time. Busy man. Luckily he kindly offered some time to fill us in on his time with the RSC. 

You’re doing both Cymbeline and Lear now, so how are you finding doing both? Is it challenging having them both on at the same time?

Yeah, yeah it really is. It’s the first time they’ve done a season here for a while in the main house, because usually in The Swan they do a repertory season with three plays and usually the same cast. This year we are doing the same thing, because we did Hamlet earlier in the year, and now Cymbeline and Lear. So, the process has been great because it’s the majority of the same cast, so the bonding experience is already there set in place. So you can work together and push each other a lot more – as actors and as also friends and colleagues as well. Yeah, they are two completely different plays in general, and especially the way we are doing them. Melly Still (who directs Cymbeline) her style of not just directing, but also rehearsing and pulling the whole show together, she comes from a design background. I don’t know if you’ve seen our version of Cymbeline but it’s a very visual kind of experience. Whereas Lear is a very bleak kind of play. But Greg, I’ve worked with him before, is a big advocate of clarity and keeping a pace on the production. It’s very streamlined, very stripped back, dark and atmospheric and all the rest of it. But yeah, it’s great to jump as an actor between those two genres within the same playwright. It’s a great experience. Rather than doing something like Lear with Othello or something, they are very similar tragedies, whereas Cymbeline is just a crazy fairy-tale, bonkers play. Particularly the way we are doing it. So yeah, it’s lovely to jump between them.

So you are Cloten in Cymbeline and France in King Lear, how? I mean apples and oranges; do you have a preference?

No, not really, I mean I do secretly love Cloten because he is just so ridiculous and he is a big baby. He is just the spoilt brat of the kingdom and gets whatever he wants and doesn’t have to answer to anyone. And that’s always fun to play. But also, I was adamant, even from auditioning with it, that I didn’t want it to be a pastiche or something that was too stereotypical or two-dimensional. So, me and Melly worked quite closely in making him at least, if not compassionate, then relatable. Like his situation is so crazy but there’s a method in his madness, and I try and bring it out of him instead of having him be this foppish, moustache-twirling villain. King of France is just a really good guy. Yeah, I’m playing him as this young monarch. He’s a suitor to Cordelia and sees a spark in her that isn’t attached to financial gain or you know, she’s not materialistic in the way her sisters are – she doesn’t have that kind of Machiavellian undertones. She’s very pure. I think he sees that and recognises that and kind of latches onto her in that sense. It ends tragically, obviously, but I would have thought in a different life they would have had a very happy ending together. Yeah, so they are very different characters and again, like the previous question, I like to jump between them it keeps it fresh and interesting.

“Ian McKellen was there, Judi Dench… my mind was just blown”

That’s entirely fair, you haven’t happened to see Imogen playing at The Globe, have you?

I haven’t! No, I’m really itching to see it! All of us are, actually. There’s no sort of ‘we’re over here, you’re over there…’

No rivalry?

No! Funnily enough, I’ve worked with the guy Matthew Dunster who directed that, was here last year and I worked with him in the Swan. With a play called Love Sacrifice.

I saw that actually, I loved that.

Yeah, I loved doing it, I think he’s fantastic. And he’s very bold, makes very bold choices. So when we get down to London that’s first on my list. Really can’t wait to see it.

So how is it working with Gregory Doran?

It’s great, he’s wonderful. I’ve known him for so long, it’s crazy to think. He’s kind of been a part of my whole professional career. Because when I was still at drama school (I went to Guildhall) in my third year it just happened to coincide with the opening of the new theatre, so a bunch of third year drama students were asked to audition to read a sonnet on the new theatre stage. Two people from each year at different schools were picked, and there was this big workshop audition thing down in the Clapham rehearsal rooms. Luckily, I got chosen to do it with about 12 other people – who were from completely different schools. So we came up here, I must have been 20 at the time, stayed overnight and it was a licensing event, so it was a big to-do. So, Ian McKellen was there, Judi Dench, everywhere you looked it was just famous old classical actors, you know? So, my mind was just blown. So we did that and he [Gregory Doran] was in charge of that, and that was even before he took over as artistic director. And then, my third job out was here doing Julius Caesar, and that kind of backed onto Richard II so I’ve worked with him quite a lot and he’s known me over the years – since I left five years ago now. So it is great, it feels like coming home here, particularly working with him. I feel we have a short hand, he knows how to work with me and I know the way he works and what he needs out of me and it’s a good kind of marriage of creative minds. He’s wonderful, he’s a great director.

On that same note of people you’re working with, how is it acting alongside Antony Sher? He’s an enormous name.

Yeah, you know what it is? It’s crazy, I tell people this and they find it hard to believe, I don’t know if it’s just this company – it might be the national or the globe or other places – but particularly the RSC, all of the star wattage, the feeling of ‘he’s the lead, he’s the knight, he’s Sir Antony, and we are over here as the company’, there is really none of that. The ‘Company’ in Royal Shakespeare Company, is a big part of the plays they put on here. It’s a group effort. So he just, yeah, he just slotted right in. The first day was obviously, was like [nervous nod] ‘Antony’, then you know, before long he just becomes Tony. I mean, we all call him Tony Sher, and he’s not exactly one of the lads down the pub with us buying rows of shots, but…

That would be incredible

You know what I mean? Last man standing.

It would obviously be him.

Yeah, exactly, exactly it would have been. Yeah, but no, he’s great. He’s a really nice guy, very sweet and kind of quiet almost, but just electric on stage – and in the rehearsal room. I mean what you see there, I think he had some time to prep for this coming off the Henry IV’s they toured to China, and this has been in the works for a while. But from the very first day he was just burning from the first bar. He’s a real titan of the classics, he is wonderful to watch. Very inspiring.

“I mean, we all call him Tony Sher, and he’s not exactly one of the lads down the pub with us buying rows of shots, but…”

Do you find yourself just watching him act, like ‘wow’?

Yeah, for the first bit. Because you know, my big scene is right at the start of the play, so he’d just be waiting for his line and I’d be like ‘oh! I have to reply to you!’. It was really interesting because obviously he’s Greg’s partner as well, and there’s a lot of references in the piece to the ‘hot blooded France’ and ‘France in collar parted’, so I have to get quite worked up and shout at him. I am the only one who has, I suppose, a dynastic right – because we are both technically monarchs – to address each other in that sense. So, Greg kind of came over and in my ear was like ‘why don’t you just really, really have a go at him this next time’ and I was just shaking there like ‘oh my god’, and I just went for him. And then afterwards, when we’d finished rehearsing and he walked over to me and I was just like ‘oh god, here we go’ and he was like ‘that was great, I haven’t had someone shout at me in twenty years! It was wonderful!’ so I was like ‘score!’. But yeah, so it’s been great working with him.

That is incredible, you’ve also done a live screening of Cymbeline and Lear is coming up.

Yeah, well Hamlet was the first one, then Cymbeline after that, now Lear is next week. Next Wednesday.

How is that? Is that completely nerve-wracking?

It’s an interesting process. The first one they did was Richard II, which I was in. It is so interesting to see how the whole thing has grown, because I don’t think people really knew what to do. In terms of do you make it like a film or do you just film the show? And it’s sort of a bit of both, a bit of a marriage of the two, and when we were doing Richard II I remember there was only one camera. So it was just sort of this crane camera there, they could kind of move it around and kind of circle the stage, but it wasn’t as mobile as they would have liked. So a lot of the shots are quite static. Coming back this season and seeing how it’s really technically evolved – they’ve got real craftsmen in like cameramen, and DOPs and all these people who know a lot about it. There’s around five cameras now, one on each side of the stalls, there’s a drone camera that kind of swoops in. It’s really evolved. It really has. So, at first coming back to do this, it was quite arresting at first. I remember in the Hamlet one, in fact, Gertrude comes in and tells me Ophelia is dead. This is almost the emotional climax in the play, and I didn’t know but as I was breaking down and hearing this news, in the corner of my eye comes this camera [he motions to indicate something coming right into his face] and I was just like ‘really?’. And I understood they just want to get it. It can be a bit distracting at times, I won’t lie.

So, you’re looking forward to the next one then?

Yeah, I can’t wait. I know, I know. They can come out of anywhere, they can come out of the floor I don’t know. It’s really growing. But they’re great. They’re great to do, and it’s great they can reach out to people who obviously can’t make it out to see the shows. Particularly with Hamlet, you know because we aren’t doing that in London, that had a fantastic response. Cymbeline as well. So, people can go all around the world, we are hearing people in Texas are watching Cymbeline, and people in LA and China. It was great to hear.

You’ve also done film and TV stuff as well, right?

Yeah, I do those.

And you’ve done really well! You got the BIFF best supporting actor, congratulations on that!

Yeah, thank you, yeah. That was great. I have. I’ve been very lucky to have had a – thus far – a varied experience. But yeah, the filming and TV thing is another side I enjoy, the training I had at Guildhall was very classical. So this feels more in my comfort zone. You don’t do much film and TV at most drama schools, but particularly at Guildhall because it’s quite traditional. We only had about a three-week workshop, in our second year, in between Chekov, Ibsen and Shakespeare and all this kind of stuff. Restoration. So yeah, I remember I think Skins was my first TV job, and I did that about a month after leaving. I just remember thinking, walking on set, why are there so many wires on the floor? It’s just so artificial. Like you’re in this pokey kitchen, and I had to have a scene with someone and there’s just a light there, the boom guy is literally just out of shot behind me. It requires a different skill set. So, I’ve enjoyed building that side of the craft. Because it is a craft, I have such a respect for screen actors, because you don’t know how hard it is to capture real kind of truthful acting when there is just so much distraction on set. Because there are so many people around, and to find a way to sort of fade it out in a way – and just distil it down to what the actual scene is about person-to-person. I’d love to do more of it.

“we are hearing people in Texas are watching Cymbeline, and people in LA and China”

Do you think you have a penchant for one or the other? Do you lean more towards stage as something you enjoy, or is it just both are different?

I think both are different, I enjoy both for different reasons. I love films, I grew up watching films, and I didn’t go to the theatre a lot as a kid. There aren’t many actors or creative types in my family. So all of my, I guess ‘cultural appropriation’ towards acting and my passion for it comes from films. But theatre was something I did a lot of at school, and then obviously at drama school, so I kind of hold them in the same esteem but I love them for two different reasons. Which I think is healthy, I don’t think you should have one preference or the other, particularly if you’re an actor. I think you should want to do as much varied stuff as you can. So, yeah I love the stage and don’t think I could ever leave the stage, but movies and stuff like that is something I’d definitely love to evolve in my career.

So, what is next for you after all of this?

I don’t know! There’s whisperings of me going to the States for a little while, early next year, maybe for pilot season. But this goes on to the Barbican and we don’t finish that until 23rd December, and we started rehearsals on 4th January so this has been my year at the RSC, which I wouldn’t trade because it’s been a great year. But yeah, you know, speaking about film and TV, maybe moving away from it for a little while, try to get some screen credits under my belt. But who knows? It’s kind of the fun of it, and also the terror of it, is that you don’t know. It makes it all exciting.

Fantastic, is there anything you wanted to say in particular about Lear, or Cymbeline, or Hamlet, or just the RSC itself? Is there anything you want to tell us about it?

Well, I’d just say, I don’t know, is this a magazine for drama students?

No, no it’s just a magazine for as many people as possible.

Right, yeah I guess I’d just say come on down to the RSC. You guys are right here on the doorstep. There are some great shows here, and they do other things, they do workshops, and seminars, and Q&As, and talks, and touch-tours, and they just have a whole network of things that they do here. For anyone interested in drama or Shakespeare, or in general the RSC, come down and experience some of it because it is just a great cultural hub of this great man’s work. So yeah, get involved.

Beautiful, thank you so much.

Thank you guys!

King Lear is being broadcast to cinemas, including Warwick Arts Centre, on Wednesday 12 October. You can get your tickets here: https://www.rsc.org.uk/king-lear/in-cinemas

Maddie Andrews & James Baxter-Derrington
@Mads_Andrews & @jamesbaxterd

Image: Ellie Kurttz 2016

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