Ah, the month of March; in any normal country it would be the time of year when spring is in the air. In London, though, everything is still decidedly wintry, apart from the step of actor Joseph Mydell, which, despite the chill, has a distinctive spring in it. There is, of course, a reason for this; he has an exciting couple of months. Currently he is appearing in As You Like It at the Novello theatre, while his new film Manderley has just hit the cinemas. When mid-April rolls around he moves to the Soho theatre where he plays Zimbabwe’s eponymous president in Breakfast With Mugabe. Matthew Amer caught up with him for a chat.
It is 17:30 and the Schubert Bar at the Novello theatre is deserted. Joseph Mydell has just finished rehearsals for As You Like It and is in need of a chocolate lift before heading back on stage that same night to put into practice what he has been working on during the day. Instead, he has to talk to me.
Today’s rehearsal has been the first that director Dominic Cooke has attended; until now he has been preoccupied with opening The Crucible in Stratford. With Cooke’s input, the As You Like It cast has been refreshing the show for the London stage – the production was originally staged in Stratford in summer 2005 – and a London audience that, according to Mydell, differs in mood from its Stratford counterpart. “They are people that are having to deal with getting to the theatre, the hustle and bustle, the traffic,” Mydell says of London’s theatregoing community. “There’s always some kind of annoyance. They’re much more used to being a bit more jarred and jagged, so they appreciate it when they see someone else coping with a jagged point of view on stage.”
"You live and then you die; that’s it."
Mydell is revelling in the role of Jaques, the melancholy wit, in this production of As You Like It. One of the perks of the role is that he delivers the famous ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech. Though it is one of Shakespeare’s most famous scribblings, it does not carry the most uplifting of messages. A handy translation by Mydell into the modern vernacular leaves: “You live and then you die; that’s it. If you’re lucky you might live through these different stages of life… and then you die.” Fun stuff. Surely repeating night after night this nihilistic view that life is what happens before death could get a touch jading? “I don’t think it could ever be soul destroying because Shakespeare doesn’t allow you to indulge in that kind of thought,” argues Mydell. “The imagery is so sharp and so pointed, and some of it is quite funny.”
Mydell’s next role could, however, stray into the soul destroying category as he moves from playing a melancholic nobleman to depicting the most notorious despot in Africa, Zimbabwe’s president Mugabe. Fraser Grace’s Breakfast With Mugabe, in which Mydell plays the eponymous leader, runs at the Soho theatre from 11-22 April as part of the RSC New Works season. It is set in 2002 as Mugabe is forced to see a white psychiatrist to help him with his problems; he is being haunted by a ghost, Macbeth-style.
It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Grace to have created a truly monstrous Mugabe, the kind of pantomime villain that would have had Soho audiences booing as he entered stage right in a puff of green smoke. Instead, Mydell explains, Mugabe’s character has been dealt with in an admirably even-handed fashion. “It’s not necessarily a flattering portrayal that Fraser Grace has written,” Mydell says, “but it by no means just demonises him as the press has done. You’re getting to see the man behind the mask; you see what makes him tick and you also see the chink in his armour. I think that’s very important and I think dramatically that’s what makes it interesting, because once you see those chinks, and once the psychiatrist role-plays into some of the areas that he’s protective about, then you see him become slightly undone, and when he becomes slightly undone he’s even more dangerous because you’ve exposed him and he doesn’t like that.”
“You don’t leave the play without becoming aware of Mugabe’s position,” Mydell continues, “how he got there and what he’s had to fight against, but you deplore how he maintains that position and his abuse of power. It’s an enormous creation, a kind of Frankenstein creation of a man who is both powerful and weak in the face of demons that are haunting him. I have a wonderful Dr Frankenstein.”
"He kicks hard. That was the frightening thing about doing the part."
The mad scientist Mydell refers to is the play’s director Anthony Sher, a man who, in Mydell’s words, “has played monster after monster after monster”. Among the array of monsters in Sher’s back catalogue are Hitler, Iago and Macbeth, though when they began working on the production, it was Mydell’s talent for empathy in which Sher was most interested.
It is all well and good writing plays about historical figures considered to be evil, the key to this is that they are already dead. Hitler, Stalin et al can’t take offence at or revenge for a play’s depiction of them. Mugabe, on the other hand, is still very much alive and kicking and, as Mydell puts it “he kicks hard. That was the frightening thing about doing the part.”
In fact, it seems that the President of Zimbabwe has already heard of the play’s existence and has taken a keen interest in it. The first time the play was performed in Stratford two men, who Mydell describes as looking “like two bad actors in a bad James Bond film,” attended the performance complete with ominous notebook accessories. If some of you are making the assumption that they were just critics playing up to their reputation as the theatrical mafia, you would be wrong. They were instead officials from Zimbabwe; knowing glances passed between them and a Zimbabwean musician working on the production. “Maybe by this time [Mugabe] might have a copy of the play,” Mydell offers, “I don’t think that’s far fetched.”
Playing President Mugabe has been a real eye-opener for Mydell, who now views power as “very seductive” and can understand how people who wield it subsequently abuse it to gain as much as they can. This is not to say he approves, rather that the strength of the temptation has been made clearer for him. That does not mean he will be trading in his current profession for the heady world of politics. He has very clear views about certain American thespians that did the same: “They were never actors,” says Mydell, “they were people who wanted a position of power, and they got it. How they got it and how they maintained it is their business!”
"You want to match your ability and your noggin, your tongue, everything, to this wonderful language and this richness of imagery."
Like so many actors, Joseph Mydell makes a habit of returning to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company. His first performance for the Stratford company was playing the bloody sergeant in the 1987 production of Macbeth; he has been coming back ever since. When I ask why, Mydell, in a way which seems typical of the Shakespeare-phile, quotes Hamlet – “The play’s the thing in which we’ll catch the conscience of the king” – before going on to explain his Bard-ian babblings. “You come back for the plays; you come back to do more Shakespeare. You don’t know it all and there’s an inexhaustible mine of discoveries always challenging for an actor. You want to match your ability and your noggin, your tongue, everything, to this wonderful language and this richness of imagery and you want to do your best.”
It’s not just As You Like It and Breakfast With Mugabe that are currently on Mydell’s mind and, as I try to wrap up the interview, Mydell offers one last snippet of information. “I’d like to make a plug for a film I’ve just done because I’m very proud and because it’s opening,” he throws into the conversation. Go ahead Mr Mydell, the floor is yours: “It’s called Manderley and I’m playing a character who’s really like the village idiot. I loved it, working with [director] Lars von Trier. It’s the sequel to Dogville and it’s opening at the Odeons as we speak.”
So there we have it, this spring is possibly the first time that a single actor has been seen in the West End as a dictator, a melancholy nobleman and an idiot in the space of a month. If all the world really is a stage, Joseph Mydell seems to be doing a pretty good job of dominating the West End corner of it at the moment.
As You Like It closes at the Novello on 25 March. Breakfast With Mugabe runs at the Soho between 11 and 22 April.