BWW Interview: Tim McMullan Talks ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA

BWW Interview: Tim McMullan Talks ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
Tim McMullan and Alan Turkington
in Antony and Cleopatra

Having played Sir Toby Belch in the National Theatre's Twelfth Night last year, Tim McMullan returns to the Olivier for another Shakespeare play: Antony and Cleopatra.

Taking on the role of Enobarbus, he shares the challenges and rewards of playing this character in this particular space and time.

What was your first encounter with Shakespeare?

I remember being really, really young (about three or four), seeing an open-air production of A Midsummer Night's Dream somewhere in Oxfordshire near my grandparents.

I remember everyone laughing and myself not knowing what on earth was going on! I remember being horrified by someone being turned into a donkey, and not knowing why everyone else thought it was funny!

But I think it was probably my O-Levels, doing Julius Caesar was the first time I came into close quarters with Shakespeare. And around then, I started being in plays and I played Falstaff in Henry IV: Part 1 at school with a pillow stuffed up my jumper!

Did you do much Shakespeare at drama school?

Not very much, actually. We did lessons in verse, but the only Shakespeare we did was Twelfth Night. I played Malvolio and that was just a riot that play.

By that stage, I really liked Shakespeare. He was a fact of life. I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company and I definitely had an ambition to be in Shakespeare plays in my career.

BWW Interview: Tim McMullan Talks ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
Georgia Landers, Sophie Okonedo
and Gloria Obianyo in
Antony and Cleopatra

So aside from that starring turn as Falstaff, what was your first Shakespeare production on stage professionally?

I think it was The Merchant of Venice at the Crucible in Sheffield. And then I played Oberon twice in quick succession, once at the RSC (in that very controversial Richard Jones production).

But then all of a sudden, I seem to have done quite a lot over the last few years!

Can you take us through a couple of those recent roles?

So I did the Globe a couple of years ago and played Jacques in As You Like It and Prospero in The Tempest. And then here at the National, I played Sir Toby Belch last year and now I'm back again playing Enobarbus.

And working across Comedies, Histories, all these roles have such different challenges. That's one of the extraordinary things about Shakespeare: you're always given a completely different person to play with, a completely different vocabulary and rhythm.

Looking back to last year, can you share Sir Toby Belch's particular rhythm?

I loved that role. I think if you'd caught me about a year ago, I would have chewed your ear off!

What I remember about him is this absolute anarchy. His colossal energy and lust for life and devilishness. You know, he's quite often played as this drunken irrelevance and we tried to make him much more attractive. You really wanted to be at his party.

Moving on to Antony and Cleopatra, how familiar were you with that history?

Pretty familiar, I know about it from school. And I knew the play quite well before, well enough to know that I wanted to play Enobarbus at some point in my career. But I'd never been in it before professionally.

BWW Interview: Tim McMullan Talks ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
Tim McMullan and
Nicholas Le Prevost
in Antony and Cleopatra

What drew you to that character?

I think honestly, a lot of what I have done over my career has been overtly theatrical. So characters like Sir Toby Belch have been things that I've celebrated doing, revelled in, and hopefully have carried them off. But Enobarbus is so different.

He's kind of got this unvarnished quality to him, which I find really attractive, really beguiling. He's a truth teller, he has to say what's on his mind. But there's no theatricality about it, he's quite blunt. And I wanted to try that.

Also, there's certain Shakespeare roles that I know that I won't be asked to play. You know, I was never love's young dream, let's put it that way! I was never going to be the matinee idol Hamlet and I figured that out pretty quickly. And it's perfectly acceptable to be realistic about that. But there are other roles that I know I might have a chance of playing, and I figured Enobarbus might be one for me.

So those were some of your initial impressions of Enobarbus. Did any of those impressions change in the rehearsal room, working with the director Simon Godwin?

Well I've worked with Simon before, so we know each other well.

We talked quite a lot about the route I could go down. And he knows that I've kind of got a tendency to go up a lot of blind alleys and climb up a lot of trees and have to come down again! You know, trying lots of different things.

So I was absolutely adamant that Enobarbus was going to be Northern Irish. I didn't want him to be middle class, to have my RP voice. And my family background is Northern Irish so it was a natural fit for me. So Simon played along with that for a little bit and then he said, "I'd really like to hear you do it, just in your own voice. Just for a day or two..." And we never went back to the Northern Irish!

As you mentioned, you're drawn to a certain theatricality. How have you found playing this kind of character and that rhythm?

You know, I find it difficult. All my instincts and defence mechanisms in front of an audience are to entertain them in the way that I know how. So to let go of that and just try and let the words come out very naturally. Having the courage to not do anything, not do too much. Just try and be as unadorned in my performance as possible.

Simon said a very good thing to me: "Enobarbus is like Tourette's for the truth". He just has to, he can't help himself. And it's finding a way of allowing that to come out that's almost not like acting.

BWW Interview: Tim McMullan Talks ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
Ralph Fiennes in
Antony and Cleopatra

It does seem like Histories are getting a resurgence. Why do you think we keep returning to them?

The key is that many of them are about ambition, ruthlessness, human frailty and the use and misuse of power, and how those things play out. With Shakespeare's very best plays, including the Histories, there's a universality which resonates.

And the mistakes which our politicians are making, the things that are happening in contemporary conflict, we find parallels within Shakespeare's plays.

There's a lot of the Histories which get pushed to the side and are not done as much as the 'big ones'. I noticed that Queen Margaret is going to have her own play (she's in four plays originally), in a production helmed by a female team at the Royal Exchange.

How have the first couple of performances been? And for you, returning to that Olivier space?

It's a very big space, the Olivier. I've been in quite a lot of plays there and like I said with Twelfth Night last year, those shows quite often involved big theatricality which is designed to fill that space. So that's a double difficulty for me: trying to do that plainness on a huge scale.

But the previews have gone well, I think the reactions we've been getting are good. Antony and Cleopatra is a very difficult play to do, there have been a lot of famous misses. But I think we are going to hit with this one!

Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre until 19 January 2019, with a live broadcast into cinemas on 6 December 2019

Photo credit: Johan Persson

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