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Rachel Pickup

First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 22 April 2008

The Old Vic’s spring of Shakespeare continues, as English Touring Theatre’s production of King Lear follows on from The Tempest. Cordelia, Lear’s favourite daughter and saving grace is played by award-winning actress Rachel Pickup. Matthew Amer helped her limber up for her performance whilst having a quick chat about the importance of performance length, wood and Yoga…

King Lear is already one of the most critically acclaimed productions of 2003. Having garnered a reputation while touring late last year, it has picked up where it left off receiving encouraging reviews since opening at the Old Vic. Do the cast actually read the reviews? “I, probably foolishly, do. Hardly anyone else in the cast does. I’m the one idiot who does, because I’m a masochist, I think. It’s a shame if sometimes there aren’t good reviews and one is judged on that, rather than word of mouth from people who’ve seen it. So far (touch wood) we’ve had cheers every night, which is a fantastic feeling. That’s who we do it for [the audience]; we don’t do it for the one critic who might be having a bad hair day.”

One reason that the production has been so acclaimed is for its clarification of one of Shakespeare’s most complex texts, making the plot easier to follow and shortening the performance. “From a mercenary point of view, you can’t sit in a theatre for four hours. It’s difficult. So hopefully it’s only three hours and forty-five minutes!” She laughs, then pauses, reconsidering the marketing ramifications of her last comment. “It is long, three hours with a fifteen minute interval… which isn’t bad for Lear.”

King Lear is a harrowing play at the best of times, exploring the nature of human reason and the personal, political and cosmic effects the loss of this reason can have; themes that become infinitely more resonant in a world being torn apart by war. “You do kind of get things into proportion. If it does remind people about the nature of killing and the pointlessness of it, our smallness in the face of the world and all those cosmic things, then great.”

On a lighter, interior design based note, Pickup’s dressing room is tiled from floor to ceiling with mirrors and has a cheeky shower standing proud in the corner. For those who enjoy watching while they wash or seeing themselves in suds, this would be a dream scenario. “Stella McCartney designed this dressing room, you know. Apparently there used to be a neon strip saying ‘Stella’ across there [she points to the back of the worryingly positioned shower] and then they decided to put in a shower for everybody to look at you in.”

An interesting dressing room for a classical actress, one might think, but be comforted by the fact that the shower is filled with more flowers than an Interflora delivery van on Mother’s Day; presents from those who have seen and loved the show. Timothy West’s performance, in particular, has garnered a great deal of praise. “I can honestly say, regardless of the fact that I’m working with him, I think he’s astonishing in the role, hand on heart astonishing. All the young ones sit around saying it’s like a masterclass watching him and being on stage with him.” But the awe and privilege of working alongside him is tinged with pangs of guilt, “he’s putting up with the fact that I’m taller than him. He’s got to carry me on at the end and I tower over him. Cordelias are normally little and petit.” After a four month tour last year and a couple of weeks of this run, West must be used to the strain of picking up Pickup at the end of the show. “He’s done the weights now and he’s rock solid.”

“He’s done the weights now and he’s rock solid.”

All this talk of exercise is clearly not healthy but it continues as ‘work-out of the moment’, Yoga, becomes a point of contention. “I do a bit of Yoga in the morning, it’s great.” Yoga, a form of exercise which seems to be purely about defying the laws of physics which generations of men have worked for centuries to prove, by bending the body into eye-watering positions whilst standing on one leg. “That’s one of my best poses actually (standing on one leg) – the ‘Tree Pose’.” Ah yes, bending into ridiculous positions and giving said position a completely irrelevant name. “I know, like ‘Bar of the Gate’. I don’t even know why it’s called ‘Bar of the Gate.’ You’re on one knee and that leg’s out there,” [picture the demonstration in a mirror covered dressing room, if you will] “and you go over and you’re meant to put your hand on your foot… I really don’t get very far. My ‘Bar of the Gate’ is very open… wide open.”

Yoga, a Schwarzenegger-esque Timothy West and porn-fantasy dressing rooms are not necessarily what one would expect from a production of King Lear and the hallowed ground of the Old Vic, a venue most actors dream of playing. “It’s a big thing for me for two reasons. Every great person has been through these doors. You can’t get away from the history of that. On top of that, this is where my Dad [Ronald Pickup] made his debut. Going backstage you see all the posters of Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, Vivienne Leigh and Olivier. It’s just thrilling.”

Pickup grew up in a house firmly ensconced in theatre. Her father has worked extensively in the theatre throughout a long and illustrious career. Her mother was also a theatre regular until she stopped working to start a family. Although Pickup shies away from the idea that her career was predestined, “it sounds so corny when you say it”, she admits that being brought up in a theatrical family had a big effect on her. “I was lucky in that I was never, ever taken to a first night or to hang out backstage. The first play I saw of my Dad was when I was about ten, and we just saw the play and that was it. I actually feel grateful that I haven’t hung out in dressing rooms because it give you rose-tinted spectacles about the glamour of it. What I saw more of was sitting at home being unemployed.” Although luckily for Pickup senior, this wasn’t a problem too often.

"I feel grateful that I haven’t hung out in dressing rooms because it give you rose-tinted spectacles about the glamour of it."

Pickup junior, however, who is still building a reputation in the business, knows all too well the pit falls of being a struggling actor. “Being unemployed and being deprived. Not only being deprived of what you love doing and what you need to do, but being utterly powerless within it. As an actor, because I don’t write and I don’t have my own theatre company I’m utterly dependent on other people putting on the plays, movies or television productions and wanting me to be a part of it. But then when you’re doing a job like this you think ‘that’s why I sit through all of that’. I feel very lucky at the moment, I really do.”

This statement is followed by a flurry of wood touching, no mean feat in a glass-based dressing room, but luckily for Pickup a strip of veneer is close at hand. She’s a superstitious actress and thoughts of mentioning a certain Shakespeare play set in the land of kilts and haggis are quelled faster than you can say ‘is this a dagger which I see before me’. “I’m very superstitious… stupidly. Don’t say the Scottish Play in here!” Hmmm… “Don’t even think about it!” MacBe… “If you do I will hurl your tape across Waterloo Bridge!” Fair enough then. What Scottish play? Never heard of it. “My rule is don’t say it, and touch wood.”

Cordelia's alternative scalp massage was always a winner with Lear

The superstition certainly paid off last year when Pickup won the Manchester Evening News awards for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Time And The Conways. “It’s a meaningless little thing I suppose, but you can’t get away from that thrill of being acknowledged. So it was brilliant.” Does the award have pride of place in the centre of a mantelpiece perhaps, or in a display cabinet? “It’s sitting in my bathroom holding back the shower curtain.” Interesting showers seem to be a passion of Pickup’s life, “well everyone goes into your bathroom, don’t they, so everyone will see it. It’s all tactical.”

The future seems bright for Pickup following her reception in King Lear, but what would she ideally like it to hold for her? “I’m dying to do some Tennessee Williams. The part I most want to do I’m a bit young for. I’m not going to say what it is because it’s not one of the classic Tennessee Williams that’s done all the time. So I’m going to keep it to myself because I want to be the first one to do it. It would also be nice to have some choice, to have four scripts land on my doorstep and for me to say ‘I’d like to do that one because that is the one that excites me most.’”

A heady blend of wood-fondling (the veneer may be completely eroded by the end of the run) and talent should see this future come to pass. But I fear for the life of anyone who accidentally breaks the mirrored tiling in Pickup’s dressing room…

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