Tony and Olivier Award-winning actor Roger Rees brings his fascinating and hilarious one-man show What You Will to the West End this September. In it he interlaces his favourite Shakespeare soliloquys with reminiscences and observations from his 22 years as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company. We interviewed him about the upcoming show, an evolving labour of love that has wowed audiences across the pond.
After a Stateside debut for the show in 2007 and a 2010 run in Stratford-Upon-Avon the show is finally making it to the West End. Was that always the plan to get it into London and why has it taken so long?
About six years ago I was planning to do a modern poetry evening at the Folger Library in Washington DC. Beth Emelson, she runs the theatre there, asked why, “It isn’t just an evening of ALL Shakespeare?”
From Beth’s point of view this seemed very suitable; the Folger Library owns the world's largest collection of the Shakespeare’s printed works and is the primary repository for rare theatrical materials from the early modern period (1500–1750). Well, Beth’s ‘bug’ got in my head, and I tackled the idea. I went to the great writers and the poets and to school children and old actors remembrances and cobbled together a programme. In those days it was a little less personal than it is now. Gradually over the course of these six years the public have responded more and more to the tale of a young uneducated lad taking this most eloquent of subjects, the Bard himself. I’ve performed it almost everywhere in America, now we’re in London – next the WORLD!
The production is a mix of hilarious theatrical anecdotes and some of your favourite soliloquies from the great man himself. After 22 years as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company does it feel like you have The Bard coursing through your veins?
As the co-director of the recent Broadway hit, Peter And The Starcatcher – I know a Star is necessary to make a play work. The Star might be a live, living, TV or film Star, the Star might be the play itself, or, better still, I feel, the idea might be what sells the evening. With Peter and with What You Will, I’m lucky enough to be working with great stars - one, Peter Pan and the other William Shakespeare; these guys, are, like Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Luke Skywalker, too, endlessly fascinating characters, they embody everything we wish for ourselves, they are better at what they do than we, and, we find ourselves willing, delighted, and not a little flattered, to hang onto their coat-tails for an hour or two.
You've played Hamlet, Berowne, Posthumous, Rodrigo, Gratiano, Claudio and Benvolio amongst many other Shakespearean roles. Do you have a favourite character to play, and is that from or different to your favourite play?
I was in the Royal Shakespeare Company for 22 years – so I’ve played many, many roles, big and tiny, in the Shakespearean canon. I don’t have favorites; I really just do what comes next. I have a secret longing to play Othello; of course, that’ll never happen – but the character is so very moving. If it is by Shakespeare, Cymbeline is my favorite play by Shakespeare.
Your life is based in the States and you were last in the West End in Waiting For Godot in 2010 opposite Sir Ian McKellan. How does it feel to be heading back to the UK for this show, and do you find a noticeable difference with London and Broadway audiences?
Before working in Waiting For Godot at the Haymarket, alongside my dear friends, Ian McKellen, Ronald Pickup and Matthew Kelly, I’d not played the West End since Hapgood at the Aldwych in 1988. Before Godot I hadn’t worked with Sir Ian for at least thirty years! Actors, unlike ballerinas or soccer players, just keep on going and going ‘til we drop!
There in the West End with Godot, in my off –hours, I revisited my favorite, star-haunted corners of ‘Theatreland;’ as a schoolboy, I was never at school; obsessed with History and Theatre, I was to be found in the West End, hanging outside stage doors, looking through dock-doors to the darkened stages, catching matinees or fantasizing what the area looked like when Garrick, Cibber or Henry Irving and Ellen Terry performed there.
Oh, and the difference between American audiences and English ones? There’s none – save one! Broadway audiences appreciate you noticing when they get up to go to the bathroom during a show, yes, they appear very proud of their destination! Conversely, British audiences creep to pee; red-faced and ashamed lest we guess where they’re going, or, even worse, dare to imagine what they’ll be doing when they get there. This is an important and fascinating cultural difference.
Will you be heading to your Welsh hometown of Aberystwyth while you are back?
I have no immediate family left to me; some very nice cousins who live in the South of England are the end of my personal dynasty. Regretfully, I won’t be going to Wales, this trip, beautiful though it is.
Peter and the Starcatcher which you co-directed on Broadway was the most-nominated Broadway show at the 2012 Tony Awards - congratulations. Do these awards ceremonies help to give a sense of validity after the long hard slog of putting a show together that you can't always feel from smaller productions, low-key productions?
Peter And The Starcatcher, to give it its exact nomination, was “The most nominated new American play in the history of the Tony Awards” And the Tony Awards have been going since 1946. The play by Rick Elice was nominated for Nine Awards, and it won Five. Pretty good! Do it right, do it to please you; recognized or not - you feel good; the size of the playground doesn’t matter.
Is a one-man show such as What You Will the ultimate challenge for an actor - to try and hold the audience's attention singlehandedly?
Yes! I keep praying someone else will come on.
You are also known for your US TV roles on much-loved sitcom Cheers as Robin Colcord and as Lord John Marbury in political drama The West Wing, as well as numerous movies such as The Scorpion King, Frida and The Prestige. Does having a higher profile from these other genres help accessibility to theatre roles do you think?
That’s the way fame works. Though, me – I ain’t renowned – I’m sort of middling. People chase after me on the street, and, mostly, to be irritated they know my face but not my name! Many point rudely, shouting, “What’s your name!!” I’ve found – if I say my real name, interrogators PRETEND to know it, “Ah, yeah, right –ROGER REES! I knew it! It’s ROBERT REECE, Sheila!” As though my name has merely slipped their mind; never owning they’ve never heard of me. I call myself, “Emily Pankhurst,” of late - it has the exact same effect!
What You Will sees you recount some theatrical disasters - do you have an theatrical anecdote for when against all odds something unexpectedly went right?
There’s always someone in the audience who’s never ever seen a play; I enjoy us doing our best to win them over. Should they like us, should they have a good time – fingers crossed – they’ll buy a ticket to another play.
What You Will opens for a limited three week run at the Apollo Theatre on the 18th September. Book tickets here