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BWW Interviews: Jane Lapotaire Talks RICHARD II at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

This is the first interview in a six part series for Shakespeare Spotlight featuring players of Shakespeare.

I recently sat down to chat with Jane Lapotaire in her dressing room at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre as she prepared for a matinee performance of RICHARD II. As we talked, Lapotaire chortled over a greeting card (sent by a long-time actor friend) that featured a spotted pig wearing a crown. Lapotaire explained the joke: the pig was a Gloucester Old Spot - a sly reference to Lapotaire's role as the Duchess of Gloucester in the production of Richard II currently playing to sell-out crowds.

Lapotaire's delight in the silly joke might surprise audiences who know her primarily as an interpreter of tragic classical roles. In a career that spans almost five decades on the stage, Lapotaire has played most of the major female characters in the Shakespeare canon, including Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra and Katherine of Aragon. She is revered in the acting world, where she is considered one of the greatest classical performers of her generation. Alongside her work in the Shakespearean repertoire, Lapotaire has enjoyed great success on the Modern Stage. Her performance in Piaf earned her a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical (although she emphatically claims, "I am NOT a singer!").

In RICHARD II, the Duchess of Gloucester is a small but meaty role that provides Lapotaire ample opportunity to showcase her vast emotional range. She is in superb company: her castmates include David Tennant, Oliver Ford Davies, and Michael Pennington.

DC: You have described your work in the classical theatre as a vocation. Can you explain?

You don't join a company like the RSC or the National to become either famous or wealthy. Vocation is A VERY OLD-fashioned word and I wish it was used more. In the past, teachers used to be described as having a vocation, and so did nurses. I'm sure it's true in the US as in the UK, that both those jobs have been belittled because we live in such a deplorable market economy that if you can't measure it and sell it, it's devalued.

You do classical theatre because you love the work. This [the RSC] is my home. This is where I started work in 1974. You do it because you love having voice warm-ups. You love having text classes. Because you're learning all the time. You do it because of your soul. Your soul needs it and you give of your soul.

DC: Who do you consider your greatest artistic mentors?

John Barton, of course, who was one of the founding members of the RSC. Peter Hall hauled him out of Cambridge University, and that was the beginning of actors not being frightened of analyzing Shakespeare's text. John absolutely demystified the text. He taught us to analyze why the character speaks in rhyme, or why a character goes from prose to verse or verse to prose, or why the regular line becomes irregular.

Years ago if you came out of an RSC performance and you said, "I never understood a word," you thought, well, it must have been good. Singly, for me, John Barton has been the greatest inspiration and the person I've learned most from. And I think that would be true of most actors my age. Those of us who were in his television programmes Playing Shakespeare had it, as it were, from the horse's mouth.

I was performing in New York in Henry VIII when John flew over [for a workshop] and people like Kevin Kline were in the classroom. So his influence has been worldwide.

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Debra Charlton Debra Charlton is the author of Holistic Shakespeare: An Experiential Learning Approach (Intellect Books 2012). Her reviews and articles on Shakespeare training and performance have appeared in numerous publications. Most recently, her chapter on Sarah Bernhardt was published in Women in the Arts in the Belle Epoque (MacFarland 2012).

Debra Charlton received her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin with a specialization in Shakespearean theatre.  She joined the faculty of Texas State University in 1999 where she served as Director of Graduate Studies in Theatre until 2013. At Texas State, she established and supervised the production dramaturgy program at Texas State, and founded a summer Shakespeare intensive in Stratford-upon-Avon, UK.

Dr. Charlton began her career as a professional actor at Houston’s Alley Theatre.  She has since directed many productions, including King Lear, The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Blood Wedding, The Importance of Being Earnest, and The Winter’s Tale.   She has also worked as a production dramaturg on many plays, including Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night, Oklahoma!, A Little Night Music, Arcadia, The Art of Dining, and The Learned Ladies.


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