It brought the tragedies to London from Stratford last year; now the Royal Shakespeare Company is in the throes of presenting the Bard’s comedies at the newly re-opened Novello theatre. Hot on the heels of Twelfth Night comes The Comedy Of Errors, in which Christopher Colquhoun plays confused twin Antipholus of Ephesus. Caroline Bishop met up with him during rehearsals to talk Shakespeare, soaps and the shame of reality TV…
There’s nothing glamorous about the Royal Shakespeare Company’s rehearsal rooms in Clapham, South London. Like the weather on this early January day, the building is drab, cold and slightly damp. The main rehearsal hall is a large, empty space resembling an unkempt school hall – a bit shabby; plastic chairs stacked at the sides; an old, scrawled-upon wooden table and a broken swivel chair the only other furniture.
It’s a far cry from the newly refurbished and renamed Novello theatre (formerly the Strand), in the West End, where the RSC’s Comedies season, transferred from Stratford, is currently underway. Shakespeare’s earliest foray into humour, The Comedy Of Errors, is the second play in the season to take to the Novello’s stage after Twelfth Night closed on New Year’s Eve, and its cast are trickling into the Clapham rehearsal rooms for their first rehearsal of the new year.
Christopher Colquhoun apologizes for the echo in the large hall and pulls a plastic chair up to the table (graciously proffering the broken swivel). He’s come straight from Bristol, where he lives, to Clapham for this afternoon’s rehearsal of The Comedy Of Errors, in which he plays Antipholus of Ephesus.
“It’s just such a fun piece to be in,” he says. “For me, it’s really unlike any other Shakespeare because it’s so uncomplicated and unconvoluted. There’s no subplot, it’s very straightforward, and unlike a lot of the comedies which can be quite difficult to penetrate, this is just very simple and works on a kind of slapstick, almost Monty Python/Marx brothers silliness.”
Dwelling on Shakespeare’s favourite theme, mistaken identity, The Comedy Of Errors tells the tale of a pair of twin brothers, both called Antipholus, and their twin servants, each named Dromio, who are separated from each other in a shipwreck. Thirty years later the Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse arrive in Ephesus in search of their respective brothers. A series of baffling events then ensues, all caused by a bad case of mistaken identity. It’s a raucous, rude comedy romp in classic Shakespearian tradition. “I’ve never done anything that’s so blatantly humorous and at the same time still maintains a sense of the pain that is caused by this mistaken identity thing,” says Colquhoun.
“This is just very simple and works on a kind of slapstick, almost Monty Python/Marx brothers silliness.”
Though RADA educated, Colquhoun isn’t what you may consider a traditional candidate for the RSC. He has plenty of stage experience, but is most readily identified for his role as ladies man Dr Simon Kaminsky in Casualty, and, in aid of Comic Relief last year, becoming one of the singing celebrities cooped up in the Fame Academy house. Not a CV you’d expect of most RSC actors, but this background may go in his favour in terms of making Shakespeare more accessible to the average theatregoer. He’s happy to acknowledge that the Bard isn’t the most straightforward of playwrights, and is refreshingly honest in saying he doesn’t understand every nuance. “There are a couple of scenes that if you really tried to dissect them you’d go [whispers] ‘I don’t actually know what they’re talking about’, but we just do it loud and fast and throw in a few funny things and everyone kinda goes ‘wahey it’s funny!’”
Colquhoun also says he has had a very mixed reaction towards RSC productions he has seen in the past and what he calls “RSC acting” – though he finds it hard to pinpoint exactly what he means by this. “It was kind of old school English theatre. It’s not pretentious, it’s not pretending to be anything other than it is, but it’s just a world I don’t connect to and so I felt quite alienated from them,” he comments. The world he does connect to is growing up in a non-acting family in Sheffield and then Hull, where he lost interest in academic studies and started acting in the local amateur theatre company.
However, Colquhoun is at pains to point out that this particular production, directed by Nancy Meckler (who has previously directed House Of Desires for the RSC) doesn’t buy into that sort of acting, which, he says, is a relief. “I have always really admired the shows she has done with her own company [Meckler is the Artistic Director of Shared Experience], so it was really exciting to come and work here, with her. On the first couple of days the workshops she set up and her ideology behind how she wanted to attack the piece was very much in tangent with how I hoped we would work. To come and work with Nancy in a very rich and satisfying way was really good.”
This is the first time Colquhoun has taken a lead role in an RSC production. He previously worked with the company in the 1993/94 season in Stratford, in which he took various bit parts in King Lear, Woza Albert, Moby Dick and The Merchant Of Venice. As one of the ‘players cast’, he would arrive on the day to be cast in whatever role the director wanted – which could mean turning his hand to the vital role of “second spear-carrier to the right”. It was certainly a valuable experience and, he says, he witnessed many great performances by great actors. “But how many times can you watch the greatest piece of acting ever?” he adds. Now, with a larger role, “I’ve not become remotely bored with it. I’m still trying to make little things I’m not quite happy with work, so it’s great when you’ve got a lot to do because there’s an eternal challenge there.”
“But how many times can you watch the greatest piece of acting ever?”
Since his first foray into the RSC world, the 35-year old actor has made his name by starring in Saturday night hospital soap Casualty from 2002-2004, a programme which arguably reaches more viewers and certainly has more deaths than any Shakespearian tragedy. He says at drama school most people snobbishly said they’d never do adverts or soaps, then three years later were begging for such an opportunity. “Your attitude completely changes when you get a reality check about the business.”
Taking a soap role is no longer the barrier to credible stage work it once was, feels Colquhoun, and the fact he is in an RSC production and fellow soap stars Nigel Harman and Sarah Lancashire are also currently on a West End stage, is evidence of this. “I think that 10, 15 years ago there was a different attitude and if you were in a soap, you were almost stigmatised and people didn’t want to touch you after that,” he says. “That’s definitely changed and now we live in the cult of celebrity so it’s very useful to do it [soaps]. It’s useful to give you profiling in the public mind and also useful to let producers and TV directors know that a) you can do it, and b) are marketable to that audience.” The money’s better too, he smiles. But TV doesn’t beat the buzz from theatre, he says, nor “the immediacy of an audience’s response and the arc of telling one story – the beginning, middle and end.”
Casualty had its own challenges, though – working shifts at all hours, having a different director and new actors for each episode, and dealing with the changes in his character that the script writers developed over the series. “I joined Casualty as this kind of cheeky chappy; by the time I left I was a drug-addled nightmare of a man who’d f**ked up a countless number of women’s lives! It’s exciting in one way… but it means it can be quite tricky to figure out how to play things.”
It is also very easy to get comfortable, he says, and many actors get a reality check when they finally leave the nest and realise they won’t necessarily get more work immediately. Colquhoun, though, was lucky, starting work on Belonging, a TV series broadcast in Wales, and then moving on to play the lead in the Laurence Olivier Award-nominated musical Simply Heavenly at Trafalgar Studios 1 last year. Disappointingly for Colquhoun, the show closed early. “It was a small theatre and they couldn’t really afford it. I think they had a show that could take over from us that would be a lot cheaper to produce. I was really sorry for that to end when it did.”
“I’d watch it back afterwards and just cringe – ‘Oh my God, I’m out of time, I look bad, I’m moving badly!’”
Musical theatre is something he would like to do more of, but demonstrating his singing prowess is not something Colquhoun feels he did to the best of his abilities on Celebrity Fame Academy, the reality-TV singing contest which he took part in for Comic Relief last year. It may be the hand over his face, the cringing expression taking over his eyebrows or the wry laugh, but I get the impression this was not an entirely joyous experience. “I’m still in therapy about it!” he laughs. He was the fifth celebrity to be voted out, and is annoyed with himself that he didn’t do his singing ability justice, something he puts down to his shyness at being constantly on camera. “I personally am not very comfortable being spied on by cameras 24/7. That was the hard bit, but then the difficulty of that translated into doing what I know I can do far better than that, in front of an audience. I’d watch it back afterwards and just cringe – ‘Oh my God, I’m out of time, I look bad, I’m moving badly!’”
His embarrassment was all in a good cause, however, as the programme raised funds for Comic Relief. “It should be the thing I’m most proud of in my life, it’s certainly the thing I’ve done that will have had the most impact on the world, so in a sense I should pat myself on the back. But it’s just that inner voice that goes ‘Ooh, cringe! It makes it a little bit easier knowing that Germaine Greer failed so badly on [Celebrity] Big Brother!” he laughs.
Almost a year on, Colquhoun may not have quite recovered from his reality TV experience, but his career thankfully hasn’t suffered the same humiliation. As he prepares to open at the Novello, he has the possibility of a film in the pipeline and would be keen to join another West End show. In the meantime, though, it’s back to rehearsals in Clapham. Into the shabby hall come Colquhoun’s fellow cast members; the plastic chair is put back, the piano wheeled out and I’m ushered though the door.
The Comedy Of Errors is playing at the Novello theatre until 28 January.