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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.

A lot of my teaching in America is based on John Barton's work. It's nothing original of mine. John gives every actor the tools by which they can open the canon at any page and have a line into the character. The character is the text. There isn't a character that lives out there somewhere that you've got to put on. The key, like with any art, is to be very, very simple. To cut away. You are the vessel through which Shakespeare speaks. And you've got to get your ego out of the way.

DC: You have taught many masterclasses for university students. Can you describe any differences in teaching American versus British or French actors?

In France, it is very difficult because Shakespeare is largely translated by Victor Hugo. And the natural rhyme of a line in the French language is a twelve-beat line, the Alexandrine, rather than the iambic pentameter.

The huge difference between American and English students is that Americans don't come with the baggage that English actors come with: "Oh God, it's Shakespeare. It's like doing the Bible." American students have a lot of energy. They are much more willing to jump and make a mistake.

There isn't such a thing as a national character. But on the whole, America is a much more energized, upfront, "what you see is what you get" culture.

In England, whatever you do, don't be passionate. Don't let your emotions show. I think that's probably why the English are such good actors - because their whole lives they've had to say, "I'm fine, thank you. My granny's just been hit by a bus, but we won't talk about it because it's not polite to be emotional in good society."

I enjoy teaching American students. There is a willingness to learn. English students are much more frightened because they carry a greater burden.

DC: What is a pet peeve for you as an audience member when you see a Shakespearean production?

Well, having been ill and being away from the theatre for 13 years until this production, if I went to the theatre and they were good, I hated them because I wasn't in it. And if they were bad, I hated them because I'd wasted an evening.

The thing, seriously, that gets me down most - I think because most drama schools train actors now for television because that is where the money is and we live in an age when [actors] want to be stars yesterday - is the lack of spatial knowledge on the stage. Especially on the thrust stage, there is always going to be someone in the audience that can't see your face, but that doesn't mean they don't know what you're feeling. But you've got to be aware of working on the diagonal all the time.

DC: Describe your feelings about returning to stage in this production.

It couldn't have been a greater gift for me. To work with Greg [Doran] again, and in his first production as Artistic Director - and who better to be Artistic Director than Greg? Greg was an actor and he trusts us. In the rehearsal room, there's no difference between the leading actors and the juniors straight out of drama school. He's one of the nicest blokes you can imagine. His prime work ethic is to be truthful to the text. He doesn't try to lay anything on the text, like some young directors do. There have been some young directors here that I've wanted to say, "If you think the play needs that much packaging, why the hell are you doing it? Do us all a favour and leave Shakespeare alone, will you?"

DC: Although the Duchess is a very serious role, you manage to find a lot of humour in the part.

Well, it's in the text. I've played more tragic roles than comic, although I like to think of myself as quite a funny lady. We all have our family wounds of one kind or another. I've got lots of wounds I can stick my finger in when I have to play a character. I used to joke that I suffer for a living.

RICHARD II transfers to the Barbican in London on December 9 and runs through January 25.

Photo: Courtesy Royal Shakespeare Company

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