This is Simon's first blog post. This week he discusses how he became an actor, his preparation for playing Timon and creating a back story for him.
Transcript of Podcast
Becoming an actor
I didn’t have the kind of start that some actors do – going to the theatre, and looking up at the stage and seeing some great actor and thinking, ‘I want to be up there in the bright lights’. I just started doing it. I went to lots of different schools, because my parents moved around a lot, and I think I found it quite difficult to turn up at a new school and make lots of new friends, because I wasn’t a sportsman. When I found I had some sort of talent at acting, I would join the drama club in each new school and find friends that way. I sound like a right old nobby-no-mates, but that is pretty much how it worked! I then studied drama at university and went on to do a drama course. My professor thought I should go to drama school, so even at that point, I wasn’t thinking that I wanted to be an actor; it was just something I did, so I’ve sort of fallen into it by default.
At university, I did a lot of acting as well as the theory. To my shame, I directed King Lear, which was the height of hubris. Given that the play’s all about old age and what it’s like to be deceived and betrayed by younger people, what do you know about that at the age of 21? Consequently it was an absolutely rubbish production, but it was quite good to dive in at the deep end. We did The Comedy of Errors at the Edinburgh festival; I think that was probably all the Shakespeare I did while at uni, but I’ve done lots more since I graduated. I’ve never actually performed in a full production at the Globe, though I think I took part in some of the Read Not Dead readings, many years ago.
Initial response to the character
I’d never seen or read the play before, but when I did read it, my initial response to my character was: ‘My God, how am I going to do this all this ranting, all this cursing, all this deeply felt hatred and loathing of humanity?’. But it’s all about rehearsing, and finding the detail, finding the wit and humour within it so that it’s not just shouting. And Timon is the most glorious part, because it’s such a great acting opportunity. You go from a man at his happiest, surrounded by his friends who adore him (or so he thinks), a man basking in the sunlight of his friendships, to a man who literally dies of a broken heart, betrayed and bruised beyond repair. It’s a very great irony that the more hateful he becomes the more inventive his language is.
Researching the part
There are no expectations of me or the play. With any of the great roles that actors and actresses want to play – Hamlet, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Beatrice or Benedick – you have this initial excitement that you’re playing a part like that and then you think about all the great performances you’ve either seen or heard about, all lining up behind your shoulder. And then you have to think about what you can do to make your performance different, and if you will be as good as them. That’s the pressure when you’re playing a great Shakespearean part, but I’ve never seen Timon of Athens performed, so I’ve got nothing nagging at me, going ‘Ooh, but you won’t be as good as him’. It’s all fresh, and I’ve got to make of it what I can and be as good as I can be, but without people hovering behind me. I’ve heard of other great actors playing Timon – Paul Schofield, Jonathan Pryce, David Suchet – but I don’t know anything about how their performances went down, or what difficulties they had with the role. An actress friend suggested that I research what they said about the part and read the reviews but I don’t really want to. This particular actress was playing Beatrice-Joanna in The Changeling, and she knew it was a difficult role that people had had a lot of difficulties with in the past, so I think maybe that’s why she wanted to see what the pitfalls were. I might do it after I’ve played the part, but I trust my director so much, and our own instincts as a company, that I want to uncover what it is that we discover. It just feels a purer thing to go at it on our own for the time being.
Creating a back story
I see the character of Timon as troublesome, because you’ve got to make him trusting, but not foolish. Why would you give all your money away? On some level you think, ‘Oh, you fool! Did you not see that coming?!’. But you can’t make Timon a fool; you have to make him inspiringly generous. He’s like a character I played in Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, called Nicholas Ogarev, who was a revolutionary poet and a friend of Alexander Herzen. Herzen hung on to quite a lot of his money, even though he was espousing communism (or the beginnings of communism); unlike Herzen, however, my character Ogarev didn’t hang on to his money but gave it all away. He felt that it didn’t belong to him, and he had a duty to give it to other people so he deliberately made himself poor so that he would be on a par with everyone else, and whatever he had he gave away. We discussed it in rehearsals, and we had a theory that even though Shakespeare doesn’t provide us with this information, that maybe Timon was orphaned very early in his life; he’s come into all this money with no concept of where it’s come from or how it was made and that he hasn’t earned it himself. But instead of being a spoilt brat rich kid, he feels that his duty and mission is to use the money well and redistribute it to people. Obviously, there’s no speech about Timon’s heritage, but with our history of a post-Stanislavskian approach to researching a role, you can’t help but ask the questions: What are his sexual inclinations? What are his parents? Why does he not have children? The only way I can justify Timon’s character is that he is on a single-minded mission to give. Every relationship needs give and take, and he’s not very good at taking from people; he only wants to give, which I think is why he doesn’t do relationships. In this performance, everyone else gets drunk, and he doesn’t. If any girls come onto him, he politely disengages himself from them and he gives them to other people. He just wants to be a conduit.
These comments are the actor's thoughts or ideas about the part as she goes through the rehearsal process – they are simply her own interpretations and frequently change as the rehearsal process progresses.