BWW Interview: James Cooney Talks HAMLET Tour

BWW Interview: James Cooney Talks HAMLET Tour
Kevin N Golding, Patrick Elue
James Cooney in Hamlet

Almost two years after its first performance, the Royal Shakespeare Company's critically acclaimed Hamlet returns to the stage. A revival of Simon Godwin's 2016 production, this international tour brings together old and new faces.

As the tour reaches its London leg, James Cooney spoke to us about returning to the play, the bond between Horatio and Hamlet, and dealing with self-doubt.

What was your first experience with theatre?

I remember when I was very young going to what I assume was a pantomime. I say that, because my lasting memory of it is a beach ball being batted around the auditorium!

But I didn't go to the theatre much as a child. It wasn't until I was about 11 and I actually got into it by doing it. We did a show in my primary school in north Manchester, which was called Harry Potter and the Ruby of Radcliffe (not sure we would've had the rights to that...).

I played Harry and doing that, I just felt like it was very natural. My teacher Miss Campion thought the same thing, so she suggested to my parents I go to Stagecoach in Salford. And that teacher (she's now Mrs Brown), she ended up coming to see Hamlet at the Lowry a couple of weeks ago. So it kind of all came full circle.

And how did you then become an actor?

I didn't really know about drama school until I got to sixth form college. A drama teacher called Mr Campbell suggested it to me, and a couple of people he knew had been to Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts.

So I checked it out and I remember on the open day feeling like this is exactly the right place to be. So I ended up going straight to LIPA from sixth form, and since then I've been jobbing, very slowly building up theatre credits mainly.

A number of which are with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Because this isn't your first time at the RSC or performing Hamlet.

No, and my first production with the RSC was actually Hamlet in 2016. That's the production we're revisiting and touring at the moment. So that was my first season there, and we did Hamlet, Cymbeline and King Lear.

We were rehearsing Hamlet for four weeks, then the next four weeks we rehearsed Hamlet and Cymbeline. And then when we opened Hamlet, we went straight back into Cymbeline rehearsals during the day, while we performed Hamlet at night. So it was a real baptism of fire.

And as we learned from the Rome ensemble last season, on top of the rehearsals and performances, you've also got understudy runs.

BWW Interview: James Cooney Talks HAMLET Tour
Paapa Essiedu in Hamlet

Yes, it's intense. In my last season here, I had a role and understudied in all three shows. So I had about ten parts going around in my head at one time. It really tests your stamina and skill as an actor. You know, I think I managed to cope with it (the creatives obviously feel like I did well enough, as they've asked me to come back!).

You also have to become reliant upon your instincts, because you can get called upon. I was understudying Iachimo during Cymbeline, and Ollie Johnstone was taken ill an hour before the show was due to start. So I was ready and warming up to do my other part, and then all of a sudden I had to just completely change. I had to start thinking about Iachimo's track, what he's thinking, what he's up to. And so you just have to dive in.

We managed to get through, but it was a real test. And it's something you don't get the experience of in drama school, or even in most traditional plays. We tend not to have those big understudy companies that play in rep any more. So it's been a real learning ground and opportunity for me.

What's it like returning to a play you must be so familiar with, and essentially re-rehearsing it?

It can be a blessing and a curse in a way. For those of us who are returning, we performed it every night for six months and those choices are still ingrained even two years later. So when you come to rehearse it again and you're working with new actors in new spaces, you soon realise that the old choices that you made may not work anymore.

And yet at the same time, those of us who are returning have this whole well of information and knowledge to draw from. So it was great for me that I was returning to the production, but in a different role to the one I played in 2016.

Back then, I played Rosencrantz and I also understudied Horatio; this time, I'm taking on that very role which I understudied. So I've got this groundwork, I've got this foundation that I can now build upon, and can play with and make my own. Actually, I think that's another thing.

It's something I also need to remember more as an actor. When you approach a part, you're always so conscious of saying, "I'm going to make it my own". But just by you being you and you being who you are as opposed to another actor, it will just be different.

So it's been very exciting to do this process, because despite the fact that this production has the same director Simon Godwin, the same actor playing Hamlet, and a few of the same actors from 2016, it does feel very fresh. It feels very alive and new, because even with those of us who have returned, we are different people to who we were back in 2016.

BWW Interview: James Cooney Talks HAMLET Tour
James Cooney, Kevin N Golding,
Paapa Essiedu and Patrick Elue
in Hamlet

Were there any new thoughts that you wanted to explore more with Horatio this time?

Yes, definitely. One thing in particular that me and Paapa Essiedu spoke about before going into rehearsals was just how close Horatio and Hamlet are. They have a bond that Hamlet doesn't seem to have with anyone else in the play.

Hamlet has this fondness and admiration of Horatio that is said in just a few lines, but seems very rich: "Give me that man / That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him / In my heart's core...As I do thee". That just tells a lot about who Horatio is and who Hamlet is.

They become like a yin and yang: Hamlet sees things in Horatio that he wishes he were able to draw upon. And Horatio does the same thing. I think Horatio looks at Hamlet and sees his ability to connect with people, his spontaneity and his freedom. And he actually really admires that, because Horatio is all about that intellect and calmness. He wishes he had a little bit of what Hamlet has sometimes.

We also wanted to figure out how these two have come to form that strong bond. And one thing that we decided upon in our backstory isn't really shown on stage, but it's the thought that maybe they've been through this kind of national service together.

Maybe they've been on battlefields and have seen harrowing or difficult circumstances, things that are very traumatic. All of these things that they've had to go through, that's given them this camaraderie. I've spoken to a few people who've served in the forces, and often they don't want to be very open to civilians about it, because you'll never be able to understand it unless you've been through it.

So we decided that maybe that's something that the two of them can draw upon, which no one else around them can quite connect with.

This production is touring around the UK and internationally. What's it like taking a show to different venues, and how does it change?

I think it's absolutely been an eye-opener, remembering just how much a space can really affect what you're doing on stage and how that story is communicated to an audience.

We played a thrust stage at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, where you felt like you could just directly talk to the other actor opposite you and 75% of the audience could see what you were doing.

The first thing that we realised early on in this tour is that with proscenium arch, you really have to share so much with the audience out to the front. And it's amazing how things can just get lost in a proscenium arch. You realise when you're sat out there that it doesn't matter how good your acting is; if I can't see it and I can't hear it, I'm no longer engaged as an audience. So we've been very conscious of adapting and sharing our stories out to the audience.

And that's one of the great things about touring: you're practising and honing this skill every week. Each theatre is slightly different week by week, and audiences are very different night by night!

In Hull, for example, it was some people's first ever Shakespeare, and it really is a joy to find those audiences who come to it completely fresh. Because that's what we as actors are trying to do every night: we're trying to imagine that this is the first time that this has ever happened.

BWW Interview: James Cooney Talks HAMLET Tour
Paapa Essiedu and
Ewart James Walters in Hamlet

You recently tweeted something very open about coming at a play anew each night: "Don't think I'll ever get to grips with how to deal with feeling like you didn't hit the mark at a performance." How do you deal with that?

I suppose the reason I tweeted that was to help myself deal with it. In a way, I needed some help, I needed my friends to see that and say, "Yes, I get it. Me too."

And funnily enough, the next day our director (I don't think he had seen the tweet), he wanted me to come in anyway and reconnect with the story. And that's so important, remembering that every night is new.

That's one of the tricks to being an actor that is just so unique. We're currently in our fifth week on this tour. Things have become so ingrained that you think, "There's that choice again: this is the moment when I get angry or sad at this".

You start to get into a pattern and it's about being able to reconnect to why those emotions and why those choices ever came out in the first place. So I think being able to talk to Simon and going back over that story bit by bit, piece by piece, that was very helpful.

You know, it may not feel like a great night for you personally, you'll know that you have done better. But being able to brush that off is one of the great challenges as an actor. Accepting of the way things are, rather than how you think that they should be. And thankfully, the next day I felt like I was much better!

Finally, have you had a favourite stop on the tour so far?

Well I'm from Manchester, so to be able to take it there was great.

I had a lot of family and friends who came while we were there, and my Mum and Dad would never go to Stratford-upon-Avon (if it weren't for the fact that I worked there in the past). So they actually got to come and see a Shakespeare play in their home town, and I think that meant a lot to them.

I think it's a great reminder to some people: yes, you want everyone to come to Stratford and experience what it's like there. But of course, some people don't have the time, the inclination or the money to go. So when the RSC comes to your back garden, it really means a lot.

Hamlet at the Hackney Empire until 31 March, then transferring to the Kennedy Center, Washington USA

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

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