Hello again, Shakespeare! Pamela Vera sat down with actor, Leo Bill to find out what it was like working with a legend and whether there’s such a thing as ‘Bard’ overload.
With The Tragedy of King Richard II in previews at the Almeida Theatre, I spoke with stage, TV, and film actor Leo Bill, to discuss the differences in stage acting, the relevance of Shakespeare and of course, the play itself.
Quickly getting introductions and pleasantries out of the way, Bill politely replies with a casual, “I’m doing alright”, when I ask him how he is. He begins to explain the rigour and physical stamina that is needed for theatre performance in comparison to TV or film: “It’s quite a knackering play, I never leave the stage. You get to a point where you can no longer see the woods for the trees, but you find energy that you didn’t even know you had.” How does he unwind after the exhausting rehearsals, whilst maintaining a work/ life balance? “Evenings have to be pretty chill. I see people and chill out. I cook a lot”.
Written in 1597, The Tragedy of King Richard II is Shakespeare’s analysis on medieval political theology and an examination on the emotions and limits of power. Bill explains his draw to the character of Henry Bolingbroke, “on the surface, he seems overtly masculine but there are many depths to the character.” As for the play itself, the attraction was the chance to work with Director, Joe Hill-Gibbins again. The actor has worked with him previously on numerous productions, one of them the Young Vic’s 2017 adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For Bill, knowing how a director works makes the beginning stages of a new project much easier, as he simply puts it, “You can get straight to the actual work”. Acting opposite Olivier Award winning actor Simon Russell Beale, who has starred in numerous adaptations of Shakespeare seems to have made a big impression. “Working with him is like watching some sort of Shakespeare masterclass – his handle of the language is amazing”.
I ponder the ongoing rise of Shakespeare’s work being performed all over world, constantly. With approximately 525 feature film adaptations of Shakespeare plays and ongoing reinterpretations of his plays on stage since, well virtually forever, it begs the question, is British theatre overloaded with the Bard? Are his plays still as relevant? In a creative field where opportunities for diverse playwrights are scarce, is it necessary to be constantly reimagining the same old plays from a white male, who died in 1616? Language has evolved (or devolved depending on your views), British culture and society has changed drastically since then. I look to Bill for his take on the subject. “Of course there’s still a place for Shakespeare!” he says with enthused conviction. “Not just because the writing is amazing, but people still go and see it. If people are still up for seeing it, then it has a place.” Fair play, of course Leo isn’t wrong, Shakespeare plays are still hugely popular with impressive ticket sales. So perhaps it’s worth examining why people still want to watch his plays. Maybe it’s the extravagant costumes, or the history and legacy of Shakespeare himself. For Leo, the popularity is due to the constant relevance that the plays hold.
The Tragedy of King Richard II details the surge for power in medieval England and with Brexit looming, the plot mirrors the unpredictable turmoil of current times. “Nobody knows what’s going on today. The play is very much in that same political landscape. It’s an isolation of power. The idea of seizing power and when you have it, it’s not as great as you thought it would be.” This all make senses, but do people want to be reminded of our political chaos, when an escape might be more enticing? “Above all, it’s just very human, so the play still relates today just for that, the human reason, the psychology and the emotions.” This is not to say that audiences should expect a Brexit centric focus rewriting of the play.
With my intrigue growing, I hungrily press Bill for more information on Hill-Gibbins’ adaptation. “Things have changed, characters have changed, some characters have been taken on as others, minor characters have been developed to have bigger roles. The approach of it is looking at it as a new play.” As exciting as this is, I’m not quite sure if Bill means he, as an actor needs to look at it in this way, the director, or audience..? Are all three parts required to equally do so? Bill’s authoritative tone helps my confused state. “What makes it modern is the experience and not for audiences to experience a museum piece”.
As eloquent as Bill is, talking to him just leaves me with more questions. If an experience is subjective, how do you measure an experience? What if some audiences want to experience a museum piece? How do you find the balance? I think there’s always dissatisfaction amongst audiences and critics; it’s either too experimental or you guessed it, not experimental enough. I somehow manage to put together my many scattered thoughts into a cohesive question: simply, how can the director and cast judge the right level of modernising the plot so that it’s seen as a new play? Leo confidently answers. “There’s no right, there’s no wrong. Some people will love it, some might hate it, or like bits and bobs of it.” His conviction of this thought grows even more as he continues, “having an experience is the important part. Even a terrible experience of a play is a good one, so long as you come out with something.” I’m quite surprised by his outlook on this, and perhaps even more at how comfortable he is to tell me that it’s okay to have a bad experience of a play, least of all, the play that he is in. Bill’s genuine openness is refreshing, his passion for the play has increased my curiosity to go and see it. With high ticket sales suggesting an already growing anticipation, I look forward to finding out what my experience of the play will be.
The Tragedy of King Richard II is playing at the Almeida Theatre until February 2. There will also be a National Theatre Live Screening on January 15. For more information and tickets, visit the website.