Last night was a first for The Show Must Go Online, as they welcomed back alumni from previous shows in the series for this week’s production of Richard III. I think I speak for most (if not all) of the regular audience members when I say that we’ve become rather attached to the team and all those who tread the virtual boards as part of the brilliant casts of each play – so I thought it would be good to hear from some of the familiar faces who made their return this week.
I posed some questions to Luke Barton (Proteus – The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Hastings – Richard III), Kristin Atherton (Talbot – Henry VI, part one; Queen Elizabeth – Richard III), David Johnson (Henry VI – Henry VI, part three; Ghost of Henry VI – Richard III), and Lucy Aarden (Julia – The Two Gentlemen of Verona; Lady Anne – Richard III) about their experiences.
What drew you to the project in the first place?
LB: When Rob first organised the project it was right in the aftermath of the lockdown and the sudden closure of theatres for an indefinite period of time. It has thrown everything up in the air: what kind of business will we come back to? When will theatres be able to operate as normal? What kind of work will theatres be looking to do when all this is over? How do we continue to make theatre in a world where everyone is at home? I think I was attracted to the chaos of it, and how experimental it was. But I think most importantly I was attracted to the idea of bringing people together who missed the theatre, including those who work in it and those who had their tickets cancelled for shows they were looking forward to. It feels like the aim of the project is about the love of it, and that’s the best part of it for me. It’s a challenging time for everyone, and it’s nice to have something that brings us together and allows us to escape for a few hours. I love being an actor, I love Shakespeare, I love the theatre, I love Rob Myles and Sarah Peachey, so I was very keen to get involved.
KA: Rob (who’s the original brains behind the project, with his wife Sarah) and me go way back! We’ve acted in Shakespeare so many times for the brilliant Merely Players (directed by another TSMGO alum, Scott Ellis), where the concept tends towards bare-bones, inventive staging, gender-blind casting and a throw-yourself-in, work-with-what-you’ve got ethos. And we discuss and debate Shakespeare together like absolute nerds even out of the rehearsal room! So when lockdown happened and he first suggested the concept over Facebook messenger, I knew it would be an amazing project and Rob’s ideas for it would be ones I was absolutely on board for. I just had to cross my fingers and hope he’d actually cast me! I can’t think of a better project – even without the framework of lockdown – because the idea that actors from all over the world can connect in this way feels completely magical. The fact we have to source props from whatever we have at home, and find ways to touch each other ‘onstage’ when we can’t in real life, dials our inventiveness right up. And you’ve got all the intimacy of television with the immediacy and energy of the stage. So, everything about it really.
DJ: My wife, Melissa Barrett (who is also my theatrical collaborator – we’re both the Artistic Directors of Sun & Moon Theatre) is the social media guru for our theatre company, and she found out about the project in the early days of the lockdown. We watched the first performance The Two Gentlemen of Verona which happened to star a friend of ours Emily Carding, in the role of Lucetta. Following this we both added ourselves to the mailing list in order to keep up to date with the project going forward. However, I did not put my name forward for any parts until Henry VI, part three as this is one of my favourites of the History plays (second only to Henry IV, part one). I originally applied for a different role than the one I got, but I was really thrilled to be cast as King Henry.
LA: As soon as the theatres were closing and my acting gigs were getting cancelled, I saw Rob put out a tweet asking if anyone would be interested in some online Shakespeare readings. I think I was one of the first to reply because I just needed somewhere to expend my creative energy and I wanted to continue to be in the virtual ‘company’ of other actors and creatives, even in isolation. I’m also a huge fan of performing Shakespeare so it was a great opportunity work on some of the plays that I was less familiar with, and keep my skills sharp.
What was it like going from playing Proteus to playing Hastings?
LB: Well, I really enjoyed playing Proteus and Hastings. I suppose I was much more nervous playing Proteus because it was the first show, so we were finding it in the moment a lot more, exploring the potential of the format and how to make it work, which was exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. Things like handshakes, passing props, kissing, all had to be worked out, and then we didn’t know if it would work until it happened. With Hastings, I could relax a lot more, because the format has settled and I could enjoy playing around with that. We know what works and push to find new innovations within the format. But the great thing about playing Hastings was, it being a smaller role than Proteus, I could sit back and enjoy the fantastic work of the rest of the cast much more, especially once I was *spoilers* killed off.
What was it like going from playing Talbot to playing Queen Elizabeth?
KA: It’s wonderful to go from one end of the Wars of the Roses to the other in that way; from gruff soldier on the battlefield to Queen plotting in darkened corridors! In my mind they couldn’t be more different humans but the stakes are life and death for both of them. For Talbot the world is simple – country, King, God. He’s all earth and strength, and Shakespeare gives him speeches that are sparse, direct and full of quiet humanity. He’s surrounded by men who love him and who he loves, and in some respects he’s the hero of Henry VI, part one. Whereas Elizabeth is having to operate in a world of intrigue and faction – there’s no knowing who is your friend (even within your own family), who can be trusted, and where the power truly lies. She’s not born to power so she’s having to create it for herself and ‘play’ the role of queen in a court that is full of constantly shifting sands. She’s never going to be a Margaret (or indeed Talbot) and go to the battlefield herself for her son – she has to operate through the men around her, and as they disappear through the play she becomes more and more alone. But her scene with the other queens and with Richard shows she has an incredibly sharp mind, a quick turn of phrase and she uses everything in her metaphorical armoury for the sake of her family. But the journey of both characters is immense and – I think – heartbreaking.
What was it like going from playing King Henry VI to returning as his ghost?
DJ: I found that playing King Henry was really rewarding on a personal level, as I really appreciate the quiet and contemplative nature of his character more and more as I mature as an individual and as an actor. Something really nice about being able to carry over the role from one play into the next was a sense of resolution – before he dies King Henry anoints young Richmond as “England’s Hope” and also makes a prophecy to Richard before being fatally stabbed. As a ghost Henry is able to see these two things come to fruition – to afflict Richard with guilt for his murder, and to give a blessing to Richmond on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Field. Henry was not a violent man or an angry man in life, but since he was murdered his spirit had unfinished business – and the “Despair and die” refrain shows an angrier and more vengeful side to his character. Although it was only a brief appearance, I was very glad to have been asked back to complete Henry’s story.
What was it like going from playing Julia to playing Lady Anne?
LA: Julia was a much lighter character who appeared more frequently in the play so I remember frantically running about backstage (in my flat) drawing on moustaches and getting my dog ready for his entrance. There was a more chaotic, comedic feel to Julia and in fact that whole show, as we were finding our feet and finding things in the moment. With the experience of one show under my belt already, I had a little more time to think about Anne’s characterisation. I decided to make her glamorous, sassy (hence the cigarette and different hats) and headstrong, and it was great exploring her dynamic with Richard (Ashley Byam). We experimented with movement and intimacy, all within this strange new medium.
What do you feel has changed the most since your first appearance?
LB: I think the thing that has changed the most is the development of TSMGO conventions. Each week, there is a loyal fanbase of viewers who participate in the live YouTube chat (some of whom are getting up at 4am to watch the shows live in their time zones!!!) – the digital groundlings – who reflect on the play, throw in some absolute gems of knowledge about the plays, history and characters, play games, ask questions and really have become a wonderful and quite central part of this project. I think that what is great about the development of the projects is also the ingenuity in pushing the boundaries of the format. In Two Gents we were like “OK, these characters pass a note to each other, and then kiss…how will we do this?”, in Richard III, there is a battle, ghosts and a drowning in the Malmsey butt. Every week, the plays are presenting new challenges for the cast and crew, and every time it works you get excited about seeing how the team will tackle a bigger challenge, because it’s very satisfying. I personally am very much looking forward to ‘exit, pursued by a bear’. I have to say, one of the best things about the project for me is also the community of actors that are bring brought together. In Two Gents, I got to work with some great actors that I’d never worked with before, from all over the world! Then, as I’ve watched the subsequent shows, you see all this amazing talent doing their thing and I think “God that person’s good, I’d love to work with them!” And in Richard III, I got to join some of these actors from the previous productions, which was fantastic. I can’t wait to see that community of actors expand in the coming weeks and months. I should also add, that Rob and Peachey are working so bloody hard on this project and I think they’ve made something really wonderful in this difficult time and I’m grateful to them for letting me play a small part in it.
KA: Every single week gets more inventive! From prop passes to fake blood to drownings to ghosts. I watch every week absolutely thrilled at how these big ‘set pieces’ are going to be achieved. I was working with a bowl of raspberry jam and soil from my garden on Henry VI, but Dom and the ensemble in this week’s show smashed it out of the park with their head-to-toe blood fakery!
DJ: I think that there are numerous small changes which improve the production process week by week as the format becomes more refined. For me, coming back into another performance in this format I felt much more at ease – as I spent much of Henry VI, part three getting used to Zoom and figuring out how everything worked.
LA: Since my first appearance, it’s been great to see the community of regular audience members growing. It means so much to us actors to be able to see familiar names cropping up in the live comment feed and it’s so empowering to see such positive, immediate feedback coming in in that way. I can’t not mention how astounded I have been by the work Rob and Sarah have put into the management of the whole process. It continues to grow in scale & momentum and is just so slick & impressive, from casting right through to performance; their time and energy has created something that’s immensely satisfying and educational to be a part of, every time.
Are there any other characters you’ve got your eye on for later in the series?
LB: Well, I mean, where do I start? There are so many characters that I would love to play! There are some real bangers coming up in the chronology too: Love’s Labour’s, Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Twelfth Night, Midsummer… Actually, the great thing about Proteus and Hastings is that I’ve never played either of them before. I think I did one Proteus monologue at drama school for radio or something, but other than that these characters were completely new. I’m going to apply on the mailing list each week, and if I’m lucky, Sydney and Rob will let me have another go in the future. And I would say to the actors out there who are keen to get involved, sign yourself up to casting email, because it’s a fantastic project to be involved in!
KA: Having played Talbot (& previously Cassius for the RSC) I’ve got more and more excited about playing more traditionally ‘male’ roles in future – especially ones I just know in the ‘real world’ I’d never get to play. The idea I would lead the legions of English armies as a 5’3″ English Rose type would be laughable to most casting directors! So with that in mind Mercutio, Jaques, Hamlet maybe (hey, a girl can dream). And at the opposite end of the spectrum I’ve always wanted to play those two utter powerhouses – in their own beautiful ways – Beatrice and Lady M. But Rob may have had enough of reminding me not to yell into my laptop mic, so we’ll have to wait and see!
DJ: I’m not sure how much detail I should go into here – I’d certainly love to get involved in future productions, but I am also aware of the need for inclusivity with The Show Must Go Online, as well as the ever-expanding volume of applications week on week. Nevertheless I will certainly put myself forward again: I’ve already mentioned Henry IV, Part one as I’d love to get a chance to play Hotspur (a favourite role I’ve never played before).
LA: Shakespeare has written so many iconic female heroines that I’ve been desperate to play and I can think of at least five right now that I would love to work on in this format, but I’ll have to leave that up to our wonderful casting director Sydney Aldridge to figure out. The Tempest, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It are the ones I’ve got my eye on, but all of the Bard’s plays are worth exploring and I would be honoured and thrilled to be asked back for any of them! The weeks I’m not involved though, I’ll certainly be tuning in and following along to see the incredible ingenuity and surprises they have in store.