Last year we caught up with actor and author Nick Asbury while he was co-starring in Shakespeare in Love: The Play. He entertained us with tales of his Macbeth-quoting father, what it means to commute between London and Stratford-upon-Avon, and tackling Shakespeare’s History Plays – not once, but twice!

As a resident of Stratford-Upon-Avon, how do you feel about Shakespeare’s houses and the tourist trail? Do you interact with it?
“If you go into the centre of town it’s inevitable, it’s all around you. My partner’s daughter goes to school near Anne Hathaway’s Cottage so it’s pretty unavoidable for us. The schools go and walk around Shakespeare’s Birthplace and I tell her how lucky she is to get to see all of this. She does appreciate it.
“Then, of course, inevitably you’re walking down Henley Street and there’s a thousand tourists in the way… But I’d rather live there and celebrate it than not.” 

Do you have a favourite place in Stratford-Upon-Avon? Somewhere you’d like to sit and spend a Sunday, perhaps?
“The Welcombe Hills. It’s as big as Hampstead Heath, but sometimes you can go there and be the only person there. There’s the most stunning view across the Malverns in the West, the Feldon parkland to the East, and all the way over to the Cotswolds, and over the whole of Stratford. It’s an incredibly peaceful and beautiful place. Because I know that Shakespeare used to walk across there every day to his Grandparents in Snitterfield, there’s a link between history and now and the future. It all feels rather circular once you’re up there. It’s wonderful.”

Is that something that resonates with you on stage also? Do you ever think “I’m walking in the man’s footsteps” and reflect on that?
“I think any actor that has done a lot of Shakespeare feels that to some extent. There is no doubt that living in Stratford and coming to London to perform for a week then going home at the weekend is a rather extraordinary journey.
“I come from the middle of nowhere in Herefordshire. I’m a country boy who went to London when I was in my early twenties, and tried to make my way, then progressed to Stratford. Shakespeare was up and down like a whore’s drawers, by all accounts. It is a very particular place, Stratford. It’s on the cusp of North, South, East, and West. Between the Forest of Arden and the wheat fields of the south east of England – Shakespeare grew up straddling all of these things.”

Nick in the RSC’s Histories, 2006

Nick in the RSC’s Histories, 2006

There’s often a London versus Stratford divide. People debate which is the true spiritual home of Shakespeare and which is the lesser…
“Well, they both are! One informs the other, and in my opinion it’d be difficult for any artist, let alone a playwright, to not be informed by who they are and where they come from. Similarly, all the arguments about who wrote Shakespeare and so on are utter spurious bollocks – and you can quote me on that.”

How is the Shakespeare in Love show?
“It’s brilliant. It’s a really fun show to do. I’m playing the baddie Colin Firth part, so I get to literally twiddle my moustache. It’s just great fun! What it does do is take these wonderful verses from Romeo and Juliet and add something that makes it clear. You have people in the audience who hear these great tracts and go ‘Oh yes! Now I understand it!’ And that is a wonderful introduction to Shakespeare. It may be a flight of fancy, but it’s a wonderful tool.”

The RSC’s Courtyard Theatre – Nick appeared in both its first and its last performance. Pic by Nic Asbury

The RSC’s Courtyard Theatre – Nick appeared in both its first and its last performance. Pic by Nic Asbury

Do you have a favourite Shakespeare film?
“Blimey. I’ve never even thought about it! I saw Roman Polanski’s Macbeth at school and was very marked by it.”

Do you recall your first Shakespeare experience?
“My father used to just quote Shakespeare all the time, then after a while I realised that it was only ever Macbeth. He’d been in it six times – he was a rather noted Lady Macbeth at school, I think. So he’d say ‘Oh, what’s that line?’ and we’d say ‘Well, it must be Macbeth’ and he’d say ‘Well, how do you know!’. Bless him.
“I did see a wonderful production of Macbeth, I’ve no idea who it was by, in the old Nell Gwynne theatre in Hereford. Not much came to Hereford in the ’70s. It must have been a kid’s production. They did Macbeth with four actors and I remember being completely mesmerised. We were about 50 miles from Stratford so we used to go on school trips and stuff. I saw Johnathan Pryce doing his Macbeth there – it all revolves around Macbeth, doesn’t it? I saw loads of productions there – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Winter’s Tale, all that sort of stuff, in the early-to-mid-’80s.”

And you ended up becoming a Shakespearean actor yourself.
“I joined the RSC and did Michael Boyd’s original productions of Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3 and Richard III, and then repeated them all again in 2006 and 2008. I actually think Henry VI Part 2 is now my favourite play, which sounds a bit wilfully different but it’s just because I’ve done it so much. I play the Duke of Somerset and in that particular play I think he’s got about ten lines, but he’s on all the time. It is a wonderful piece of theatre. Shakespeare never writes a line for someone that isn’t needed, so in my view there has to be a reason why that person’s onstage. There should never be any spear carriers in Shakespeare. There always has to be a reason for that person to be on stage, so the stakes are withdrawn if you have a spear carrier, because what are they doing there? Everyone has to have a purpose.”

When you look back at that extraordinary journey with the History Cycle, is there a moment that you remember particularly clearly?
“There are hundreds. In the Histories company of 2006-8 we lost three fathers. A baby was conceived, born, and a year later got up and said some words on the stage – in the same job! When she did that we realised the length and importance of a job like that. We had shared so much together. Birth, marriages, death.”

These people must be like family to you?
“Oh yeah, they are. It’s unlike any other job, and when we see each other we just click straight back in. It’s wonderful.”

If in ten years time they said ‘Let’s do it again’, what would you say?
“Yeah. I don’t think I’d have a choice. You can never recreate the past, but you can ignite the present. We did the original Henry VIs, then took what we had and made it, hopefully, better when we did it again. If we kept that spirit maybe we could do it again!”

Midsummer Night's Dream on Meon Hill, Warwickshire – Pic by Nick Asbury

Midsummer Night’s Dream on Meon Hill, Warwickshire – Pic by Nick Asbury

Is there a character in Shakespeare that you haven’t had a chance to do but you’d love to play?
“Macbeth I haven’t played. I’d love to. I’d love to do Coriolanus as well. I’d like to do something funny. I’d like to play Benedick. I’ve played Jacques and that was wonderful because Jacques is described as being melancholic – a misery guts – so in my mind it’s fairly boring if you turn up on stage being melancholic and a misery guts. You play it light, funny. It’s much more interesting to see someone hiding depression, which a lot of comics do, of course. They hide behind the funny, then you see a glimpse of darkness every now and again, at the end of the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech or whatever. I loved playing Jacques purely because of that.”

A big part of the RSC is bringing Shakespeare to new generations and young minds. Is that something you’re passionate about?
“Shakespeare can be incredibly accessible if it’s done in the right way. It doesn’t matter whether the audience is adults or children. Kids, when they listen to adults talking, will siphon out what they don’t understand. They take it for granted that they won’t understand everything, so they just take what they can get from it. As a consequence they’re there in the moment and really enjoying it.”

Nick’s book “White Hart, Red Lion: The England of Shakespeare’s Histories”

Nick’s book “White Hart, Red Lion: The England of Shakespeare’s Histories”

Are you working on another book?
“Yes! It’s a novel about a bloke in 1561, a historical novel based on the research I did for White Hart, Red Lion. Which was three years worth of research and I did another year’s worth of research slightly later on, and on the civil war. I’m about a third of the way through it. It’s been slightly put on hold by doing Shakespeare in Love. I thought I was going to be able to write during the day and perform in the evening, but it’s virtually impossible. Having two different head spaces is hard. I cannot wait to get back into the book.”

Finally, how would your sum up Stratford-Upon-Avon to somebody who’s never been there?
“It’s not just pretty, it’s a living place too. It’s not just the theatre, not just Ye Olde Stratforde, there is a life and a breadth to it too. It’s a rather wonderful English town in the sense that it’s cosmopolitan, it looks outwards.”

For further reading, check out these Shakespeare books by Nick Asbury:

Exit Pursued by a Badger: An Actor’s Journey through History with Shakespeare

White Hart, Red Lion: The England of Shakespeare’s Histories

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