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!”

A new book demonstrates that the legendary ‘curse of Macbeth’ – as depicted in BBC2 TV drama The Dresser – is in fact a relatively modern invention

Watching the excellent adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s play The Dresser on BBC2, there were many moments that tickled our Shakespearean tastebuds.

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Not least of these was when ‘Sir’ (Anthony Hopkins) inadvertently says “Macbeth” in the theatre, and a panic-stricken Norman (Ian McKellen) has to lead him through a strange theatrical ritual to negate the resulting ‘curse’.

The Dresser
Interestingly, a new book, Anecdotal Shakespeare by Paul Menzer, suggests that the infamous “curse of Macbeth” that has supposedly plagued theatres for 400 years is in fact an invented tradition – with no records of it ever being mentioned earlier than 1937!

As The Dresser is set circa 1940, however, that would make it just about historically accurate to include the so-called curse of The Scottish Play.

The Dresser
On the other hand, this vintage clip from the BBC’s Blackadder, which is set in the 18th century, although utterly hilarious, would seem to be somewhat lacking in historical verisimilitude.

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But then, as Shakespeare might have said, why let the facts get in the way of a good story – or, indeed, a great gag?

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Anecdotal Shakespeare
is out now, published by Arden Shakespeare/Bloomsbury.

(Thank you to reader Gordon Kerry for sending us the Blackadder link)