Q and A with David Dawson who plays Romeo in the RSC tour of Romeo and Juliet.
This is the first time you have worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company. How do you feel about that?
The RSC is one of those very special companies that’s drenched in history. If I think of all the actors that I admire and respect on the British Stage, the majority, if not all of them, have worked for the RSC at some point in their career, and have honed their craft because of work they’ve done with the RSC. So I’m now proud to be joining the list of people to have tread the Stratford boards.
Something I’ve found overwhelming just from these few rehearsal weeks being with the RSC, which in my eyes makes it a complete one-off, is the vast amount of support you are given in areas such as voice, dialect, movement and fight work. There’s even Latino dance classes and Christmas concerts! You really feel like you’re part of a company. There is so much enthusiasm from everyone who works for the company, and that enthusiasm is completely contagious! It was brilliant that we were given the opportunity to meet all of the people who will be working on this show; something you don’t normally get to do. For example we visited Stratford at the start of rehearsals and had a full tour of the theatre, wardrobe and the huge workshops that build our sets. We got to meet all the crew and the band, so it’s not the actors on one side, and then everyone else on the other. It’s a complete company spirit with no room for egos!
What is particularly exciting about working for the RSC is their determination to take Shakespeare out of Stratford, to the rest of the UK, and their desire to get young people to see these very special plays. I am so delighted the RSC is offering people aged between 16 and 25 the chance to buy a ticket to all of its shows for just a fiver! For a young actor like myself it’s very rewarding to think I may be performing in a play to people who may never have seen a Shakespeare play before, and who now can afford to, including many of my mates. It’s mine and the cast’s job to
to make sure their first taste will be the first of many.
Is working with the RSC something you’ve always wanted to do?
The only real desire I have as an actor is that each role is a big challenge, and that it differs completely from the last character I played. Romeo is one of those fascinating Shakespeare characters and you couldn’t get much different from Smike in Nicholas Nickleby, the last role I played on stage. The fact that Romeo and Juliet is with the RSC made it even more appealing.
How does it feel to be playing the lead in what is one of Shakepeare’s best known plays? Do you feel any pressure?
(Laughs)….I didn’t ’til you said that! I haven’t really thought about it. But no, I don’t really feel pressure as such. As long as I get completely involved and fall in love with the character I’m playing, and immerse myself in the world of Verona and being Romeo Montague then hopefully actor’s nerves won’t come into it.
Of course, it’s great being in one of the most famous stories ever written. I suppose because everybody knows the tragic tale, our challenge is to make it all the more terrifying and moving, because you know what’s going to happen as the world and Fate turn against the lovers.
Can you tell us a bit about your background – where you come from, where you trained and the work you’ve done since leaving drama school.
I was born in a little industrial town called Widnes, which is between Liverpool and Manchester. And I’m lucky that I have a very close family who all live there, dog included! (Charlie Dawson). Since the age of one the world of make believe was far more appealing to me than real life. I’m quite a shy person myself so feel quite liberated being someone else. As a kid I used to raid my parents’ wardrobe and create characters for me and my little brother to play. Oh god! I remember covering my face in talc, wrapping an old purple rag around my neck and being The Joker from Batman, and not coming out of character for two days. I think I really worried my parents!
I went to a drama club in Widnes, and the leader went to Liverpool John Moores University and then became a professional director, creating a company with a group of actors called Barefaced Cheek. I was only 17 at the time, and she asked me to join them for a national tour of Therese Raquin – I loved it. That was my first professional experience.
At the same time I’ve always loved to write and still do. I wrote a play called Divorced and Desperate and we played it at the Queen’s Hall Theatre in Widnes. It sold out, so the next year, when I was 19, I thought it if I can do this in Widnes, I could do it in London. I thought ‘what the hell, Be Brave’, and if you are brave, all you need is a little bit of money and I think you can do anything. So I wrote begging letters to actors, and Julie Walters (one of my favourite actors who I’ve got to work with before I die!) and Barbara Windsor (you’ve gotta love the Carry On films) both very kindly gave me some money to bring my next play The Boy in the Bed to the Tower Theatre in Islington.
By now I had moved to London and was living with a mate, and I auditioned for RADA. Whilst I was auditioning, I was working for a Silver Service Butler Company. It was great fun because I love people watching. I got to work at Christie’s and Sotheby’s Auction houses, and for Beckham and the England Squad, and Princess Anne.
I got into RADA and bloody loved my time there. Before I went, I was actually very anti-drama school, but I respected a lot of the actors that came out of RADA, so in a very crude way, I thought it must be doing something right. You were told to treasure your regionality, and they said ‘we’re going to give you a theatrical suitcase, and give you lots of tools to put in that suitcase and you can pick and choose what works for you.’ In the 3rd year I was chosen to be involved in a Laurence Olivier Bursary competition, and had to perform 2 monologues on the stage of The Mousetrap. It was my first exposure to casting directors and agents, and I won a Special Commendation Award.
My first job out of RADA was in a production of Richard II at The Old Vic with Trevor Nunn. I went in to audition and read for a character called Aumerle. I went away and my agent got a call asking me to come back and read for Richard. I thought it was very strange as I knew Kevin Spacey was playing Richard. A day later I got a call saying they’d like me to understudy Kevin and play The Groom. That was a brilliant experience, although I got to know the dark side of being an ambitious understudy, as I fell in love with the part of King Richard, and was always dying to play it. There was a kind of black wish that if Kevin slipped one night, I could go on. But he never missed a performance. Damn him!
I loved playing The Old Vic, one of the most beautiful theatres in London, and I was very glad to return there the next year to play Frank Rice in the 50th anniversary production of John Osborne’s The Entertainer. It was a great cast, with Robert Lindsay and Pam Ferris playing my parents, and it was set in the 50s, like our production of Romeo and Juliet. And I’m really proud to have worked with an RSC actor called John Normington who played my granddad in the show. It was his last play before he died. Like me, he was Northerner, and there was so much generosity and depth to his performances, he was a real inspiration to me. A great actor.
One night Lady Olivier came to see the show; she appeared in the original production, alongside her late husband, Laurence Olivier, who had played the title role. She had tears in her eyes, and it was great to know we’d got her approval.
My favourite project so far is The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby Parts I and II. It was so epic in scale. I played Smike, an abused boy with severe learning difficulties; it’s a character I’ll never forget. Some roles just always will stay with you. At the time I think I spent more time as Smike than as me. I kind of had this dark corner back stage, and when I wasn’t onstage I’d go sit there on my own as Smike.
The show ended up doing well, so the producers brought it back for a UK tour, and then it went into the West End and then over to Canada. It was great to return to a part a year later. It felt like you had the broad brushstrokes, and now you could add all the finer details.
We got to play the Gielgud Theatre in the West End, and I was really chuffed and very proud to be nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Newcomer In A Play, which was a brand new category that year.
Can you tell us a little bit about what audiences might expect from this production of Romeo and Juliet?
There is a real feeling of danger and style to this production. All the gangs of sharply suited Verona boys carry flick knives at all times, and with the live band playing threatening and sexy Italian music throughout it gives the play a real dark edge.
Neil Bartlett, the director, is also incredibly instinctive and challenges you right out of your comfort zone, encouraging you to be brave, which makes me very excited about being involved with this show.
What I find so special about this play is that it’s about that one love in your life that you’ve either experienced or wished you had when nothing else matters but each other. When being with that person is the only thing that makes complete sense, and you will do anything so long as you are together, which can be very dangerous. It’s the many overwhelming things physically, sexually, emotionally that are all happening to your body for the first time. I think what people love about the story is that Romeo and Juliet do so quickly, what people often wish they could do. People have lost that hope and fearlessness because it feels the world is against you, and sadly it’s the world that brings them down.
Romeo and Juliet is performing up and down the UK before it comes into Stratford. Are you looking forward to going out on the road? Do you have any connections with any of the areas the show is playing?
I love touring because every city takes a show to its heart very differently, and as an actor you get to learn a lot about stamina. With Shakespeare especially, it requires you to commit with your entire body. It’s also great that with the £5 ticket offer for 16-25 year olds young people can come and see Romeo and Juliet in their home towns rather than having to commute all the way to London.
I’ve visited some of the theatres we’re taking Romeo and Juliet to before. We took Nickleby to Milton Keynes last year, and a World War II play called The Long and the Short and the Tall to Norwich in 2006. I can’t wait to play Glasgow – I’ve heard the theatre has a really good following for drama. And I’m really excited to be playing The Lowry, Salford as it’s the first time as a North West boy that I’ll be performing in my home region. I know my mum’s got a coach of about 40 coming!
And there’s something very romantic that we open the show by the seaside in Brighton at the beautiful Theatre Royal.
Ending up in Stratford and on the Courtyard Stage for Christmas will be the icing on a very exciting cake.
What’s on Stage………10th December 2007