Elliot Cowan (Macbeth) talks to Adopt An Actor about the 2010 production of Macbeth. In this first interview, he discusses his experience of Shakespeare at school, how he became an actor, his initial impressions of the play and the first day of rehearsals.
Time: 15 minutes, 15 seconds
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Transcript of Podcast
Hello, my name’s Ryan Nelson and you’re here for the Globe Education podcasts for Adopt an Actor for 2010. If you tune in each week you’ll be able to follow our actors as they go through the rehearsal period from the first line to the final bow. I’m here with Elliot Cowan who’s playing Macbeth in this year’s production, and I’m just going to jump straight in with what your experience of Shakespeare was like at school.
I think it may have begun with Macbeth funnily enough. Certainly the script I’m using for some of my referencing is the one I had when I was at school studying GCSE English, and I would’ve been in my lower fifth [Year 10], so I would have been about 14, 15 when I first came across Macbeth in that way, and I don’t remember seeing much of it any earlier than that, but perhaps I’m mistaken. I think I had a Shakespeare book of stories for children, reduced and simplified, I think I’d seen some Shakespeare animations on television and maybe, maybe a piece or two in the local theatre, but in terms of study or in terms of in-depth knowledge, Macbeth, I think, was my first Shakespeare play I tackled.
The copy I’m using with all its notes has reminded me how little or how much I knew or what some of my approach would have been, also the teacher guiding us through the meaning and the basic scenes of the play, ‘cause I’ve highlighted words or lines in that text as a 15 year old that seem somewhat obvious to me now, but I guess it reminds me of how opaque and difficult it can seem to a school pupil coming to Shakespeare for the first time. And I suppose now with the experience of having been to drama school and university I obviously don’t realise how much I’ve learnt.
And then throughout my schooling I suppose I touched on maybe two or three other Shakespeare plays, I remember going to the RSC a lot with my school, and seeing King Lear, we studied Antony and Cleopatra and we saw that play, I saw maybe a couple of others there and that sort of all began to focus my knowledge and my interest in Shakespeare and theatre as I neared the completion of my school education, but that all seems like a long time ago now.
Wonderful. You mentioned drama school and I’m interested to know then after school was that the next step for you, or how did you get into acting?
I was coming up towards my A levels, I was doing a theatre studies A level, English and another subject and it seemed that I was more and more interested in plays and doing theatre, I was in most of the school plays and when I was doing one of them, West Side Story, somebody saw me in that and invited me to try for the National Youth Music Theatre. I got into a show there that went up to the Edinburgh Festival, it was the first version of Whistle down the Wind, which was based more on the film by Richard Attenborough than the musical we now know, and that did very well for the NYMT.
By that time I was really galvanised and spending a lot of my time doing theatre projects, and looking towards doing a degree in drama. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an actor but I did really really find theatre fascinating and I wanted to learn more about its history and its theories and its practitioners or what it all means really. And I figured going to university, if I was going to do that, would be worthwhile if I chose a subject that I really was passionate about as opposed to a business degree or an economics degree or something where I think I could more readily expect a job afterwards. I was aware that 3 years at university could get pretty boring if I’m not really passionate about what I’m studying.
So I was encouraged by my parents to look into doing drama, and after and during my gap year which I took because I needed to see a bit more of the world than I had already, I started auditioning actually at drama schools and going to universities for interviews, having got my A-levels in my back pocket, and through that process I decided a degree was what I should do first as opposed to going to acting school, and I went off to Birmingham to do a degree in it, and that as I say covered all sort of elements of theatre: its history, its practice as well as its, you know, the actually acting and design and direction of plays. It covered all sorts of camps, and was a great experience and foundation to what I now know. And we did lots of plays that went up to Edinburgh festival, or went on tour or local productions and towards the end of that I started really refining my interest in acting and auditioned for a handful of drama schools (I got into a few of them, I think) and on reflection decided to go to RADA, which was another three year course, so I studied for 6 years before I finally graduated in 2001, as a to-be professional actor, you know, managing to get an agent and all that kind of thing in my last year there, so it was a long haul but it was more motivated by interest and passion for the subject as a whole, or the art as a whole rather than just wanting to be an actor come what come may, which is why I still have other interests in putting on plays besides just being an actor.
But I think having chosen that route it has equipped me to a certain degree in being able to approach Shakespeare with a little bit more directness, I suppose. But you can learn a lot through just going to drama school or from working professionally, you know, if you manage to work your way up through the ranks from being a child actor, say, but this is the way I did it and it’s worked so far.
You mentioned about that approach to Shakespeare and I think Macbeth is probably a play that is familiar to some people, whether by studying or film versions or seeing it in the theatre. But what are your impressions of it generally as a play?
Coming back to it I felt that the play seems to be more accessible than others I’ve had to read or wanted to read recently. And maybe that’s just because I did know it when I was younger and found it to be harder, and it’s just satisfying to realise you may have learnt something or gone somewhere in the last 15 years of your life. But I think it’s strikingly different and powerful, you know, ferociously and unrelentingly fast and thrilling as a play; it sort of is motivated by very keen and dark and powerful forces. It has more supernatural in it than some plays, so it seems to exist somewhat in the other world; it seems very specific in some respects to a part of the world, being Scotland in this case, than some other plays. The language seems to me very vital and very approachable, it seems clear in some respects how Macbeth is thinking and how some of the other characters are thinking, the depth of thought or the subject of thought is in an arena that no other play goes.
I think it’s moral consciousness and its relations to dreams and dark thoughts and nightmares is keener in this play than anything else, but it’s also very modern and I think it has been an influence on filmmaking and storytelling and other plays on similar subject throughout the 20th century, for instance. And I think it’s faster and short than some of his other plays, it’s more episodic towards the end and rattles on through the fifth act quickly and I think it gives us a wonderful example of Shakespeare’s dexterity and authority with language by this time, and how he has established some rules and then broken them as he’s developed as a writer, and this play is an example where he’s really on top of his use of verse, and his lean use of language and imagery and argument within his soliloquies.
I think his characterisation, his psychological characterisation, is really in-depth here. For me it just seems so accessible and relevant and I look around and there are lots of examples to pull from, as there aren’t always with court plays or comedies or political plays that seem somewhat archaic, but in this one it seems very vital still.
And of course you’re taking on the figure in the centre of this web of ambition and violence and guilt. As an actor then, do you prepare prior to the rehearsals or do you prefer to approach the rehearsal rooms as a blank slate?
Well I suppose I was fortunate enough to do the former and to prepare. Because it’s an undertaking and the nature of theatre production in this country is that money is always in short supply and time is always in short supply, so we can’t take our time really in getting a show on - we have five weeks to get from beginning to end - and in a big theatre like this with a large company and a difficult play compared to a two hander, say, in a small theatre that’s in a modern vernacular, you need to have time to get to know it and get it under your skin. So as the central figure of this story I really have to take the responsibility on and work hard in preparation for my rehearsals, so I have arrived knowing the script intimately and my character and my speeches very well, it’s not all perfect or learnt yet, but it’s in a stronger place than I would expect to be for other plays and other parts. It’s just a big challenge so you can’t waste your time I think.
I got to know about it about three months ago and I started work immediately. And it’s lead me down various routes of investigation and planning and research, some of which will be fruitful and some of it won’t, you know. I’ve also talked to a great number of people about it, including some people who’ve played Macbeth and are well known for doing a good job. I’ve read about other productions, loosely, not too specifically. I’ve read about certain psychological illnesses or conditions, some experiences by people who are in, say, in the military, or experienced battle and war scenarios, I even spoke to a murderer actually, a man who’s been inside for 20 years, who’s recently been released 5 years and has come out and he’s rehabilitated and he’s now a writer, and he’s written extensively about being in prison, so he was open to having a conversation about it.
So yeah, this is all about finding as many ways to feed your imagination, because Shakespeare’s imagination is second to none. We all have more imagination than we perhaps give ourselves credit for, and this world is perhaps limited somewhat by being spoon-fed with imagery or images and sound and information to such an extent that we don’t perhaps allow our brains to do as much imaginative thinking as Shakespeare may have done. However we’ve got that capacity within us to relate and to associate with what he has written about and that will only be more potent and suggestible by things you might chose to research or to read about or other poetry that comes to mind, or paintings. And for me as an artist whatever it must be, whatever my medium, it’s good, necessary to furnish the room inside your mind with as many images and reference points as possible, so when you’re calling upon certain words or when Shakespeare asks you to say certain words you can call upon an actual image or experience and emotion evoked by these things somewhere in your own experience. So, yeah, that’s where I’ve arrived at the beginning of rehearsal, and we’ll see where it takes me.
Absolutely, that’s fascinating, I’m quite excited to see which bits come to the surface over the next couple of weeks. The last question then is really for people who might not know what actually happens on the first day of rehearsals and what you got up to.
Well, it’s always nerve-wracking, no matter how much preparation you’ve done or how many times you’ve come to a production for the first time, you know, start a new job. There’s a sense of anticipation arriving at the theatre the beginning of Monday morning, normally, and you’ve got a read-through that you know is coming, and the cast come together for the first time, some of whom you may know already, and the director you may have worked with before. In this case I’d done some preliminary work with the director [Lucy Bailey] and two other actors, main parts, Lady Macbeth [Laura Rogers] and Banquo [Christian Bradley], who we could get some time the week before anyone else to lay some things down in foundation.
But needless to say we were all thrown together feeling anxious and in anticipation of hearing the play for the first time which is an interesting sort of litmus test or sort of… it’s an experience that needs to be credited with some influence over the rest of the rehearsal period. It’s suggestive of what might be happening hereafter, in terms of people’s intensity or their humour or their friendliness or their knowledge of the text. And Lucy Bailey our director and Dominic Dromgoole the artistic director and all their teams welcome us all aboard and then we get our heads down and we start just experiencing the words as a company for the first time.
After that we normally have a brief chat, a break for lunch and then go for a tour of the theatre to get to know it and also we then have a look of the model box, which is a big breakthrough for the initial experience of the cast because the designer [Katrina Lindsay] and director have been working off in isolation for many weeks on what their ideas of the play are and what the themes they want to highlight may be. And this is all represented in a beautiful box built by the designer and his or her assistant, and they introduce us to what we might be doing, from what we might be wearing, where we’ll be coming in from, what might be suspended above us, what the atmosphere and the world of the play as they see it is going to be. Asnd that will pertain to everything that we have to say, the scripts the lines, the images, the soliloquies the characters have will have some resonance to the space as designed by the designer and director.
And then after that we did some voice work, we had some singing, we were introduced to our composers, some of the song ideas he’s working on, Orlando Gough, and then we worked with our choreographer and his assistant, Javier and Michael, on just finding out what our bodies felt like, and how stiff they were and what they might be used for in the play, as Javier de Frutos as our choreographer is going to help realise the witches, the apparitions and some of the banquets and perhaps some of the fights and what-have-you to create a more than just linguistic world for the play. And then we normally finish off the day with a drink and then heading off home in preparation for the forthcoming five or six weeks.
Sounds like a very well deserved drink after the first day.
It always seems like it, yes!
That sounds like a lot of stuff that’s going to be coming over the next couple of weeks, so hopefully you’ll come back next week and we’ll find out what exactly you’ve been working on. Thank you very much for today.
Of course, yes, a pleasure. No problem.