BWW Interview: Beth Hinton-Lever and Community Cast Member Jackie Talk AS YOU LIKE IT at Queen's Theatre Hornchurch
Following last year's rousing production of Pericles, The National Theatre's Public Acts scheme has returned this summer with As You Like It. It's adapted by Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery, with music and lyrics also by Taub, and directed by Douglas Rintoul.
BroadwayWorld sat down with Beth Hinton-Lever, a professional actor playing Jacques, and Jackie, one of the community cast, to discuss why Public Acts is important for society today and how the 100-strong cast encourages audiences to reread Shakespeare's classic comedy in a new, dappled light.
Jackie, can you explain the rehearsal period for the community members?
Jackie: We started in workshops. There's six of us in the show from The Golden Years Group, which is for over-60s. I never thought any of us would be on stage. On the day we started, we had a suitcase thrown into the middle of the room and we were told to take five items and to make a play. The whole experience is amazing. Rehearsals are hard and none of us have done this before. We go to the theatre, but we never knew what happened behind the scenes.
What have you learnt about the background workings of a theatre?
Jackie: The amount of work and organisation is unbelievable. There's boxes and lists, and everyone is helping one another. Everybody realised they can do this and how fun it is. Through the workshops, we have all increased in confidence. It's been the best thing for everybody. We've gone to the National Theatre and sang on the train on the way back. All the groups have a go at everything. It's brought so many people together to laugh.
Beth, coming from the professional side, how has this project been different?
Beth: It was daunting before I went into the room - the idea of working with that many people was scary - but as soon as I stepped in, it was pure love and joy. On the first day they sang the closing number to us, and it was so moving to have over 100 people singing because they love it. It was incredible and something I've never experienced in a professional setting.
I've learnt a lot from watching people who do not know the play speak it so truthfully. It continues to be a special and incredible project. The spectacle of Public Acts is something you can't describe. Life now is lonely - we're all on our phones all the time. This project has taught me to not scuttle to my phone during a tea break, but to chat to someone. It's important to chat.
What have you learnt about As You Like It through doing the play?
Beth: I didn't get to see Pericles, but a friend of mine, Garry Robson, was in it. I messaged him after my audition for As You Like It and he said I HAD to take it if offered. Jacques is a part I've always been interested in. This project has changed me and made my life a lot harder, as I never want to leave it. It's such a beautiful take on the play. Everyone in the community is on stage as an Ardenite, which is joyous: they sing of finding hope and love. It's a way of being in the play that I've not seen before.
I know the play well, and one of its speeches is an audition piece I use, but I've learnt that melancholy doesn't mean melancholic or being dour. It's actually just being aware. I'm quite a political person and the role for me is increasingly about listening. It's nothing about being blunt or too sharp to cause pain, but it's about saying the more affecting things. Knowing it's a comedy, I've always read the play for the humour and now I read it for so much more. I see so much more in the heart of it that I would previously have thrown away as a gag.
How does the 'All The World's A Stage' speech change when all the world is quite literally on the stage?
Beth: It's here a beautiful musical number that opens the show. The seven ages of man goes through the piece, and that's what keeps Jacques questioning. She finally gets help at the end from a perfect six-year-old. We have people coming on with me and it's difficult to stay in character and not smile.
Jackie: Whenever you look at her, she's always smiling.
Beth: We have generations coming on and at the end I sing a reprise. Unfortunately, the character doesn't get to interact with the community one on one, but in the songs I get to acknowledge everyone on the stage.
As an actor I suffer from stage fright, so the thought of opening the show with a solo terrified me. When we ran it through with the movement I realised I'm never alone, which is a line Jacques also sings. I know no matter what, there are 100 people behind me supporting me. It's such an incredible experience as a performer.
The context of Public Acts, then, seems to have changed the character of Jacques, who is often alone?
Beth: She observes and she's a social anthropologist. She likes watching and making notes. I've always seen her as a satellite, but she's very much entwined with the company. There's a number called "Under the Greenwood Tree", which is about inclusivity, and though she doesn't much care for singing and dancing, she is involved.
For me, she is fuelled by joy, love and curiosity, and whenever she's trying to needle them, it's an attempt to make them do better. It's taken a while to find this Jacques, but we've found a version of the character where she is part of the community but also has the ability to take herself away to learn.
Pericles emphasised redemption and acceptance - what do you want audiences to take from As You Like It?
Beth: For me, it's the spirit of community. When you first see everyone in Arden, it's such a special moment. I think the nature of the character and the way the characters change in the finale, the way our actors perform their roles just feels important. We have such a range of people and bodies - everyone is on stage doing the same thing. If the audience could just take the sense of togetherness and working together in any context, you can... how am I trying to say this?
Jackie: You can do anything.
Beth: Perfect, Jackie has this. Everyone in our Arden is colourful, with beautiful large smiles. Designing the set to fit 100 people was a challenge for Hayley Grindle, but, importantly, the company is the set. It's an important concept - communities can build anything.
Jackie: The group I work for has people with disabilities, but here we're all one, and that's how it should be.
Beth: I'm quite used to being the only disabled body on stage. Being here, that doesn't matter. Everyone here is at their utter best, and the few of us professionals have had to work at a higher level because of the support. It's humbling and exciting - I can't recommend this more.
How does the musical aspect of the show help those who might feel intimidated by Shakespeare?
Jackie: The feelings and emotions that are in the songs are really special. I don't know where we'll be when the show's finished. Meeting all these new people, it feels like being part of a family. You can sit and laugh about things - it's opened a new world to us. I listen to the ladies from my group and I'm so glad they had the chance to be involved. We work a lot with older people and doing this has been amazing.
If you knew someone who wasn't sure about partaking in the Public Acts scheme, what would you say to them?
Jackie: Get out there and do it - it'll be the best experience. When we began workshops, we weren't forced to do anything. Everything comes naturally. My mum is in the show as well and she's stubborn, but she loves it. I think everyone should have a go.
If you both had to describe the experience in one word, what would it be?
Jackie: Incredible. Amazing.
Beth: If I'm allowed a hyphenated one: life-affirming. Genuinely. I wish everyone could experience what we have in this community. It's a very special five shows.
As You Like It is at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch until 27 August
Photograph credit: Camilla Greenwell