Roger Rees is back on the London stage. But who exactly is this Laurence Olivier Award-winning actor? Caroline Bishop finds out.
Roger Rees is theatre personified. The Welsh-born 65-year-old wrote a play aged 12, spent 22 years acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company, has won Laurence Olivier and Tony Awards, wrote and tours a one-man anthology about Shakespeare and has become a theatre historian in his spare time. Yet his name is not the draw at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, where he is to star in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot this January; rather it is the better known moniker of Ian McKellen that is the enticement for many of the ticket-buying public.
Rees may have as impeccable a theatrical pedigree as McKellen – he played Malcolm to McKellen’s Macbeth in 1976, with Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth – but among his 65 celluloid outings he has never sported “a long, white beard,” he says with a hint of mischievousness on his debonair face. But Rees doesn’t mind that it is McKellen’s Middle Earth alter-ego that may be drawing people to Beckett. “The sense of popularity in an actor is essential,” he says when I meet him at the Haymarket prior to rehearsals. “You might be the best Hamlet of your generation in the bathroom but unfortunately you have to come out and do it on stage and it’s best to do it to people who would fill the house. The whole point is it’s about getting as many people to come and see the play as you can.”
They came in droves last summer when McKellen and the equally popular Patrick Stewart teamed up for Sean Mathias’s revival of Beckett’s obscure play at the Haymarket; the production was so successful that it is returning for a second run this winter, with Rees taking over the role of Vladimir from his old friend Stewart.
“I think Shakespeare, were he alive today, probably would be making movies in Hollywood”
“In my small way,” says Rees with a smile, “there’s a few middle aged women who saw me in Cheers and they might come too, so that’s good.”
Such is the nature of fame that Rees is better known for playing Kirstie Alley’s boyfriend Robin in US sitcom Cheers than for his huge back catalogue of theatrical performances for the RSC. “I used to be the voice of Virgin Atlantic in America and some people only know me for that,” he adds. “But the daunting thing is that more people will see you on one episode of Cheers than will ever see you in the theatre all your life.”
Is that a depressing thought? “No, it’s lovely. To go to that many people in some fashion is very good.”
But – apart from those Cheers devotees – Rees’s name is largely unknown this side of the Atlantic. It wasn’t always so. In 1980 he scooped Theatreland’s biggest accolade when he picked up the Best Actor Laurence Olivier Award for playing the title role in the RSC’s epic The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby, subsequently collecting the 1982 Tony Award for the same role. Four years later he played Hamlet, with Kenneth Branagh as Laertes, Brian Blessed as Claudius and Frances Barber as Ophelia, all of whom are now arguably better known than Rees.
“I just do whatever comes along next. People say you have a wonderful career and they don’t know that all I do is just whatever comes along next,” says Rees by way of explanation for the route his career has taken since then. What came along next precipitated a rather drastic change. He was performing in Los Angeles in the transfer of Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood in 1989 when the producers of Cheers saw him and offered him a role. “Tragically at the same time I lost the last remaining members of my family,” he says, “so I had to deal with that in those early days of Cheers. The cast members were really exceptionally kind to me at that moment and helped me get backwards and forwards and tidy up things, and it seemed appropriate that I would then live in America.” He describes it, using American vernacular, as a “freeway crash” in his life. It led to his departure from the RSC after 22 years and a permanent move to the States which has meant he has not been seen on the British stage since.
“It’s a wonderful life that you can just get opened up to so many different experiences”
Such was his voracious appetite for Shakespeare that he could easily have stayed. “I suppose I was a little templated by being [at the RSC] that long, and I think some of my sense memories suggest that it would have been happy times just to be there all the time, just live your life at Stratford Upon Avon, just doing plays forever, Shakespeare plays. But I’m glad that I did eventually move to America and I think Shakespeare, were he alive today, probably would be making movies in Hollywood or something.”
Shakespeare to Cheers may seem like an abrupt transition, but Rees downplays the about-turn. “Acting’s all the same. You could make that your headline if you want,” he says smoothly. “Some of those actors in Cheers are spectacularly clever actors, making you believe that what they do is real; it’s just acting you know.”
Since moving to the US, Rees’s career has developed in a hugely varied and eclectic fashion, encompassing films such as Robin Hood Men In Tights and The Pink Panther, American TV drama including Grey’s Anatomy and The West Wing and several Broadway outings including Indiscretions, for which he received a second Tony Award nomination. He has also dabbled in musicals, directs theatre and opera, teaches, writes plays with co-writer Rick Elice (the writer of Jersey Boys), and recently appeared in a Chinese movie, Almost Perfect, for which he had to learn some Chinese. “It’s a wonderful life that you can just get opened up to so many different experiences,” says Rees. “I’m really lucky that perhaps I’m not working in a bank, yes, but even working in the theatre in an imitation of working in a bank. My life isn’t like that. I actually get to do many many different things and travel all over the world and I’m very lucky in that respect.”
Amid this smorgasbord of experiences, his love of the Bard has remained a constant. Drawing on his experience of knocking up short anthologies as gap-fillers while touring with the RSC – they would perform them at the end of each week while the scenery for the main play moved to the next venue – in 2007 Rees created What You Will, an anthology that combines his love of theatre history with anecdotes from his own experiences performing Shakespeare. “My little show is really about encouraging people to think about the human being in the middle, that Shakespeare was just a guy, as I say in America, that Shakespeare could have worn a pair of Levis.” He has even thrown in a spot of ukulele playing.
“I used to be the voice of Virgin Atlantic in America and some people only know me for that”
His mission to humanise Shakespeare was also a theme of his three years as Artistic Director of the prestigious Williamstown Festival Theatre in Massachusetts, where he encouraged young people to claim theatre for themselves. “In Williamstown before I got there generally the young people were just meant to learn theatre’s hard and sweep the stage and make scenery all night and actually I think one of the things I enjoyed doing was making it a little better than that, [so] that they would get educated, and it wouldn’t be so exhausting that [they] wouldn’t start to understand how great the theatre is and that it belongs to them and it’s in their hands now. Because Shakespeare, except for Ken Branagh perhaps or Ian [McKellen], we don’t have that many great public and iconic examples of it now that we’ve lost Olivier and Gielgud and Guinness and Ralph Richardson and people like that. So you have to somehow give it to them and let it belong to them and I’m interested in that.”
It is clear that Rees has packed a lot into his 20 years away from the London stage. It is no wonder that he doesn’t see his return in Waiting For Godot as a major landmark in his career. “I don’t really make the distinction between the internationality of a stage, I just think it’s a stage,” he says mildly.
But back he is, and with the possibility of touring What You Will in the UK – “there’s some talk of it” – and even the chance of him returning to the RSC once more – “I’ve got my eye on Old Gobbo at the minute” – perhaps we will see a little more of Rees in the UK from now on and his name may begin to resonate with a new generation of audiences. Those with tickets to see Waiting For Godot will be first in line to witness the return of this veteran British talent. “In Japan,” laughs Rees, “in the Kabuki, they stand up and yell out ‘you’re a very good actor’ so if anybody wants to do that that would be good.”