Actor Ben Walden is a man on a mission to educate and inspire. And his weapon of choice is Shakespeare. All of which makes him the perfect candidate for a rare interview by award-winning teacher, author and contrarian Phil Beadle.

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“He has kill’d me, mother.”

I have witnessed this epitome of weakness delivered so thoughtlessly as to render the desolation of Macduff as kindergarten mawkish. The forlorn bleat of an innocent without a name as he’s descended into the writhing masterpiece of eternity comes usually in Disneyfied pastels. Not so the last time I was in the same dark room as this line. I sat, horrified, on an uncomfortable bench with two of my three sons flanking me, both of them rigid with fear as The Porter brutally slammed down a trapdoor, through which, milliseconds ago hard light shone, disappearing it, and along with it the anguished cry of the death of promise.

The second time I met Ben Walden the conversation went like this:

Ben: “What did you think?”

Phil: “Yeah, it was great. Really good.”

Language can be drivel. What I had meant to say about the touring version of Macbeth that I’d just seen in Deptford that Ben directed was that it had all the visceral thrill and panic-inducing horror of the Hellraiser films. But I didn’t.
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The reason my words disappointed me so particularly is that the first time I met Ben Walden I thought he may well have been one of the coolest people I’ve ever encountered. Unassuming in a pastel V-neck in a circle of middle-aged white men of above-average professional capital at the AGM of the firm we both work for, Independent Thinking Ltd, he introduces himself in anger: fists of tears which he cannot and vehemently will not suppress roll down his cheeks. The object of his anger? What the proud philistine Michael Gove – He’s dead. He’s dead. That B-movie, lowlife, literate bozo is dead! – is doing to arts provision and education for working class children. I understand the anger that gave vent to his tears, as I feel it acutely myself.

The third time I met Ben Walden I left a decade-and-a-half old yellow corduroy jacket containing my phone and house keys in a pub in East Grinstead. I couldn’t be bothered to go down there to pick it up, and miss it still. I then left the notes for this interview in Montenegro (it’s a long story) and that is why this interview is five months late.
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I had met with him to discuss the impact of Shakespeare on his life. If you do not know who Ben Walden is, and you should, he was a member of Mark Rylance’s original company when the Globe opened, is an actor of seriousness and note, and now runs a company, Contender Charlie, whose mission is to bring the power of Shakespeare’s text to inner city kids, and who subsidises this work, which they do for next to nothing, by giving presentations to corporate clients on what they can learn about leadership from Henry V. I ask him some penetrating questions:

Phil: “What lessons from the plays have you applied to you own life?”

Ben: “I was sent to a boarding school when I was a kid, and as a result have always despised not only the concept, but the human manifestation of ‘repressed Englishness’: their reticence, their poison, their cowardice. For me, people should speak what they feel, and because of this Edgar’s line in King Lear – ‘The weight of this sad time we must obey. Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” – reverberates strongly with me.”

Phil: “How much of the language infiltrates your own day-to-day expression?”

Ben: “The best way to explain this, Phil, would be for you to watch Kate Tempest’s ‘My Shakespeare’.”

[I watch it five months after our meeting, after my notes finally return from their sojourn in the former Eastern bloc. I don’t buy Kate Tempest as a performer, but the passion is clear, as is the fact that she’s distanced being a drama school cockney infecting culture with lies. “He’s not something boring taught in classrooms in language that’s hard to understand. He’s not just a feeling of inadequacy when you sit for an exam”].
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Phil: “Tell me the shape of your year?”

Ben: “There’s a lot of airports. And those gigs that require air travel pay for the work we do with kids from different environments.”

Phil: “What different environments? What do Contender Charlie do… in exactly seven words?”

Ben: “Help kids find purpose and meaning. Can I have four more?”

Phil: “Grudgingly…”

Ben: “…By examining their feelings.”

Phil: “What are your feelings about the philistinism of Gove trying to make drama and the performing arts not formal GCSEs?”

Ben: “For me, whether Shakespeare is on the curriculum or not is an irrelevance. Humans are naturally ritualistic. Making drama not a ‘proper’ GCSE doesn’t change that. People will still seek the spiritual. Shakespeare, himself, was a deeply spiritual anarchist, in touch with our deepest nature. His work remains vital no matter what space policy-makers have him in this week. Kids will always connect with it like I did. Shakespeare came close to saving my life. When I was overwhelmed as a young adult, I would read a speech for solace and read it again and again. The transient whims of policy-makers are just that.”
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Phil: “Put the four great tragedies in order of something other than their greatness.”

Ben: “Can I put them in the order of how much I like them?”

Phil: (Murmurs assent)

Ben:Lear, I give 11/10, Macbeth 10/10, Othello 9/10 and Hamlet 8/10.”

Phil: “Harsh on Hamlet?”

Ben: “It’s arrogant playwriting. And he is self-indulgent as a character. It is really Shakespeare examining depressed adolescence. Hamlet is caught in his own depression and his own pain, and is a bad lesson. In life, you have to rise above your own pain to see the profundity in and of everything – to see the ‘special providence in the fall of a sparrow’. True wisdom is in being truly present emotionally, facing pain and meeting it head on. Truly wise people don’t fall off the wire.”

Go here for more on Ben Walden and his work.

This interview originally appeared in Shakespeare Magazine Issue 6. Go here to see the original version.

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