Actor Norman Bowman has performed alongside Jude Law in Henry V, played Ross in Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth and, most recently, was the eye-gouging Duke of Cornwall in Talawa Theatre’s King Lear… That’s why we’re asking him Six Questions about Shakespeare

What is the most recent play or area of Shakespeare you’ve worked on, and what did you get from it?

“The last area of Shakespeare was King Lear which was a year ago now. As a quick diversion, as I’ve got so much time off in my show, [Norman is playing Pat Denning in the West End musical 42nd Street] I’ve been  refreshing my memory of some of the monologues I’ve learnt over the years. I have to go up and down the stairs just to make a quick change and go back on stage and it’s so monotonous, so I’m going back over all those monologues. Just on the stairs, mind you, not on stage! On the stage I’m focused – I’m Pat Denning, America, 1930s. It’s because I miss it. It has been a year and, certainly with Shakespeare, you never want to stop learning because there’s so much to unearth.

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Photo: Faye Thomas

“When I finish, I’m almost slightly relieved because it does take a lot out of you. These jobs are three months at a time, they’re arduous, you know. They’re like triathlons! The last role I played wasn’t a nice guy [The Duke of Cornwall in King Lear], but I love it, it’s great. I love the antithesis. He died an hour before the end of the piece, so I did get big breaks, but what you do is measure your energy appropriately – if you have got an hour off towards the end, it doesn’t make what you do any less dense, or full on. It was a great one to be able to do. I never thought I’d do Lear as a play, and you’re watching other actors thinking ‘It would be good to have a go at that one as well, and that one…!’

“On a personal level, I’m always surprised to get employed when it comes to Shakespeare, but that’s the same as musical theatre. You do it because you love it. You don’t necessarily believe you’re going to be great at it, but it’s your passion that gets you through.”

What have you learned about Shakespeare that would have surprised your younger self?

“Crikey, everything! My younger self didn’t quite comprehend it. I keep saying to people ‘Those who have had bad experiences of it need a refresher, but you need it with somebody who works well for you’. It’s a bit like singing teachers – you can get through three or four before you find one that you feel good about. At school, I had a decent experience in English, but some tastes arrive later in your life. You might have hated asparagus when you were young, and then all of a sudden you grow up and acquire a taste for it. I don’t know what that difference is, whether it’s something that develops or about finding the right asparagus!

Norman Bowman (Ross) in Macbeth at Manchester International Festival. Photo by Johan Persson. sml
Photo: Johan Persson

“Until I got to college, I saw Shakespeare as like another language. I don’t think it’s essential, but I don’t think it’s an accident that a lot of academics ‘get’ Shakespeare. If you look back at your classic actors, like McKellen and Dench, they come across as supremely intellectual. Perhaps they were like that before the discovered Shakespeare, but I believe Shakespeare does that to you. I think it does absolutely enhance the grey matter. It makes you more knowledgeable and intelligent an actor. It’s like opera – once you get to the basics and understand the function, and how much it can do for you, I think the world is your oyster.”

Which Shakespearean character most resembles you, and why?

“Oh, boy! Do I know enough Shakespeare to even draw a parallel? See, this is it, this is why Shakespeare works – because there’s an element of everybody in everyone. It’s all human condition. It’s all because you can sit there as a person and absolutely relate to that character’s journey. If Shakespeare is done properly then that should be the case. I could easily relate to a little bit of Othello, I could easily relate to a little bit of Hamlet. When I’m older, no doubt I’ll be able to relate to Lear. It’s almost like the seven stages of man – you could pretty much find a character for everyone.

“Erm, Benedict from Much Ado About Nothing is a little bit more like me. It’s the gymnastics of relationships. It’s wanting to understand them and then not understanding them, and then getting them and not getting them! Also, that inability to truly communicate how you feel with somebody. Actually, I’m not sure I am that much like Benedict! If anything, when I was younger I’d probably be more like a Romeo with that wide-eyed wonder that comes with meeting somebody and everything else just fading into grey. Like I said, though, my knowledge of Shakespeare still isn’t extensive enough for me to make a truly informed decision with one character only.”

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Photo: Jonathan Keenan

If I ask you to give me a Shakespeare quotation what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

“I guess it’s ‘To thine own self be true’. There’s a poem called Desiderata, and the bulk of it points to this. You know, mindfulness is about this, meditation is about this. A lot of anything we relate to is about those words because it’s about how we feel. Too often, we step outside of ourselves and say what we think somebody wants us to say, or feign affection or whatever. If we could just be ourselves more often…”

What is your favourite Shakespeare related fact, myth story or anecdote?

“Have you read Shakespeare on Toast? [By Ben Crystal] It’s a bit like Shakespeare for Dummies, but it’s a bit more anecdotal. It’s full of stuff. For example, during the American Civil War, a soldier watching a performance of Othello was so taken in by the actor playing the dishonest Iago that he stood up from his seat, drew his pistol and shot the actor dead! I’m pretty sure I’ve read that happened back in Shakespeare’s time as well, because the audience was drawn in so much. Not because they were simple or anything, but because they allowed themselves to disappear into the performance a lot more that they felt so involved.

“The other one is the superstition that you ought not to utter ‘The Scottish Play’ [Macbeth]. If it’s to be taken as truth, it’s that you’re dooming your production to failure and, if so, in the olden days they would then put on a production of ‘The Scottish Play’, it was a guaranteed sell-out. I mean, I’ve said it in Drury Lane and, so far, we’re still running, but I couldn’t see them putting on ‘The Scottish Play’ instead of 42nd Street!”

You have the power to cast anyone in the world, actor or otherwise, to play any Shakespearean character. Who do you choose, and what role do they play?

“Gosh, I’ve seen Jacobi do Lear, which I thought was incredible. I’ve seen Branagh do Macbeth, which I thought was incredible – to be that close and watch it was amazing. Jude Law doing Henry V, come on, I’ve seen so many good ones it’s so hard to come up with a new one! I’ve seen Ralph Fiennes do Coriolanus. When the day comes for him to do Lear I would love to see that, but that doesn’t feel particularly imaginative!”

We met with scholar, author and poet Paul Edmondson for a delightful catch-up chat in Stratford-upon-Avon during the recent celebrations for Shakespeare’s birthday

Paul Edmondson

Paul Edmondson

 
Which play or area of Shakespeare are you working on right now? And what are you getting from it?
“This week I’ve spent a lot of time in New Place garden with the sculptor Greg Wyatt who’s produced those lovely sculptures inspired by Shakespeare’s plays which are installed there. I’ve spent a lot of time – and I’m doing it again this evening with a special group of VIPs – looking at Greg’s sculptures with Greg. It’s about me talking about how he made the sculptures, but then reflecting on them as responses to Shakespeare’s works. So, this week I’ve been very much in my head with The Tempest, Julius Caesar, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, Henry IV Parts One and Two, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet! Those are the eight sculptures.

“One of the great things about them is that they work on you like a Shakespeare play, each sculpture, because they draw you in and the more you look at them, the more you notice – details, a face emerging, a hand. They’re a great highlight for visitors. In fact, only two days ago when I was there I saw a young father with his five-month-old son, reading him the script  – all of them have got quotations from the relevant plays – from Julius Caesar, as if somehow this was having a positive impact on this five-month-old son. I took his photograph and asked if I could use it and he said yes, feel free to use it. It was most touching, because when I look at people interacting with these sculptures inspired by the plays, I know of no other sculpture like them in the world.

“I mean, I can think of sculptures inspired by individual characters and Shakespeare himself, but not in a response to an entire play – it’s more like a painting. People reach out and touch them, and Greg said this is the highest compliment a sculptor can have, that you somehow want to become the work and reach out and touch it. This five-month-old baby was doing precisely that – it was reaching out to want to touch Julius Caesar!”

What have you learned about Shakespeare that would have surprised your younger self?
“This isn’t recently, but I think I would have been surprised about how many books he used to write the plays. I’d have been delighted to know that as a younger self – the bookishness of Shakespeare’s intellect, his sense of study before putting quill to paper. Each play was a significant research project, he wasn’t just dashing these off. Although, of course, they were written at different speeds for different occasions. So, I think that would have been something I’ve learnt since my younger self that I would have been pleased to have known.”

Which Shakespeare character most resembles you?
“Robin Goodfellow in a Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m not going to expand on that one!”

If I asked you to give mne a Shakespeare quotation, which is the first one that comes to your mind?
“‘If this be magic, let it be an art lawful as eating’ which is The Winter’s Tale as Hermione’s sculpture is coming to take her long lost husband by the hand. That’s in my head because of the sculpture in New Place. I remember the novelist Salley Vickers said to me that was her favourite line in Shakespeare and that’s resonated with me.”

What is your favourite Shakespeare myth?
“My favourite Shakespeare myth is the deer poaching story from nearby Charlecote. I think there’s more than a grain of truth in that myth. It rings true to me, but it does have the status of myth.”

You have the power to cast anyone (actor or otherwise) to play any Shakespearean character. Who do you choose – and which role do they play?
“I would like to see Sir Stanley Wells play Hamlet. Although he wouldn’t want to do this, in my imagination that would embody Stanley’s pre-eminence in Shakespeare studies. Hamlet is the greatest role in Shakespeare, therefore let’s have the greatest Shakespearean of our own times play him. If I was thinking about an actor, I’d like to Shakespeare himself perform Hamlet. Can you imagine? Apparently, he never did because it was written for Richard Burbage, but it would be great to Shakespeare himself play a role in one of his plays. You’ve got those two outlandish bookends, as it were, but I would also like to see Kenneth Branagh play all the other parts he is qualified to play, but hasn’t!”

Paul will be appearing at the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival, which runs from 18-25 June. Go here for information and tickets.

Shakespeare Magazine 08 celebrates the theatrical event of 2015: Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet

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Our 10-page feature explores Benedict’s Shakespearean story and includes beautiful images and a full Barbican review.

Also this issue: our essential visitor’s guide to Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon (with a nod to Stratford, Ontario).

Plus! Shakespeare in Scotland, Shakespeare Video Games, Richard III in California, and Painting Shakespeare with artist Rosalind Lyons.

As always, Shakespeare Magazine is completely free, so please read it and share it, and help us spread the word of the Bard!

Go here to read Shakespeare Magazine 08