As the Royal Shakespeare Company moves into the Roundhouse for its London season, Matthew Amer talks to the company’s Romeo and Juliet about the young lovers, Rupert Goold and having no life.
Romeo and Juliet: the world’s favourite lovers, a byword for romance all the globe over. Imagine them, the passionate lovers whose depth of feeling for each other surpasses life itself. I bet you are not imagining Romeo with uncontrollable hat hair, are you? Nor a Juliet sipping soup in a cavernous Clapham rehearsal room? But this is exactly how I meet Sam Troughton and Mariah Gale, the rising stars currently taking on the iconic roles in the Royal Shakespeare Company production playing at the Roundhouse.
“I hadn’t really thought that I was ever going to play Romeo,” Troughton admits, as he runs his hands through his hair, nonchalantly remodelling the unruly mass created by his bright red bobble hat. “Once you get [the role] it’s great… and then you go ‘Oh f**k,’” he laughs.
“I suppose maybe it can be frightening beforehand,” Gale, naturally the quieter of the pair, chips in. “The weight of the part and its history. You worry about it up to a point and then you get in a rehearsal room and if you forget that the balcony scene is the balcony scene, then you realise it’s just a conversation between two people who are floundering just as much as we all do.”
Prior to meeting the leading pair, I read the reviews from the show’s run in Stratford-Upon-Avon, where it premiered earlier this year. According to the critics, Troughton and Gale do anything but flounder. A wealth of four-star accolades have been aimed at the production and its two leads, which leaves them with a lot to live up to when they perform in London. “You don’t want to be like a sporting team that are being talked up for a world cup,” says Troughton, with one metaphorical eye aimed squarely at England’s summer footballing flops.
The problem is, even without the reviews, the combination of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which has such a history of quality productions, and director Rupert Goold, who can do very little wrong at this time, would raise any expectations.
“I honestly didn’t have a life”
The director – who has enjoyed recent success with Enron, Macbeth and Earthquakes In London – both actors confirm, is a joy to work with. “It’s nice,” explains the softly spoken Gale, who had previously worked with the RSC Associate Director on his production of The Tempest, “because Rupert would come up with an idea and we’d go ‘Hahaha… oh, you really mean that?’ You’d think ‘God, that’s random’ and you’d try it out and realise it’s brilliant. He’s got a really unusual imagination and it isn’t just for the sake of being perverse, it’s always connected to what he wants to illuminate about the play and what he wants to reveal about it.”
“And it rubs off,” Troughton continues, seamlessly picking up his co-star’s train of thought. “It encourages you to use your imagination in the rehearsal room, which is what you should be doing. There was lots of stuff that was stripped away and ideas that went and came back, and some stuff that was never used.” Among them, he elaborates, was the thought of Verona – where the play’s action takes place – as an asylum. This framing of the show was never used, but “the remnants of that have fed into all sorts of parts of the production.”
As the pair relax – the slightly more timid Gale lounging back in her chair, the forthright Troughton fiddling with a packet of Rizla – they share a little more about the rehearsal room and, in particular, the idiosyncratic, sporting way Goold would share notes with Troughton. “I was hitting the ‘Banished’ scene too hard and he said to me ‘It’s great passion Sam, but it’s a bit too Twickenham at the moment and we want Lords. You’re opening the batting, you’re not in the scrum.’” The director spared Gale the sporting allusions, but barely had to begin a sentence for her to understand his drift, such is their shared experience.
It is lucky that everyone got on so well in rehearsals as, unlike many acting jobs, Romeo And Juliet and the entire RSC season at the Roundhouse – which also includes Antony And Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, The Winter’s Tale, As You Like It and King Lear – is part of a project that has drawn the company together for three long years in a scheme unlike any seen for many a year.
The ensemble of 44 actors was assembled in 2009 knowing that they would continue to work together on a variety of projects for a three-year period. Different selections from the ensemble have taken greater and lesser roles across a number of productions, rehearsing during the day, performing in the evening, working with a collection of directors, including Goold, David Farr, Lucy Bailey and RSC Artistic Director Michael Boyd.
“I honestly didn’t have a life,” Gale smiles as she talks about the time spent in Stratford by the ensemble. “You’d start rehearsing at 10:00 and you would finish the day at about 17:00ish. You’ve just got time to walk down to the theatre, queue up for dinner, eat dinner, go to the warm-up, get into costume and before you know it it’s the half hour call. You finish the show at half 22:30, out of the theatre by 23:00 and then you’ve got lines for the next day.”
“When it’s great, it’s great. When it’s s**t, it’s s**t”
“But you just do it,” Troughton responds. “There is sometimes a release about thinking ‘I’m just not ready to go on and play whoever.’ Just shut up and get on and then actually you find different gears and different ways. You won’t get phased very easily again by another job. You feel like you can do anything, because you kind of have to.”
“Everyone in the ensemble has made a leap of faith to be here,” offers Gale, and she is right. The rep system, which much of Britain’s theatrical tradition and reputation is built upon, and which the long ensemble replicates over its three-year period, is rarely seen any more and certainly not on such a timescale and with such a prominent company. There was very much a sense of a step into the unknown being taken by the ensemble members.
For Troughton, who is most easily recognised for his stint playing Robin Hood’s sidekick Much in the recent BBC series, the thinking behind the ensemble was one of the reasons he so wanted to be involved. The idea of immersing himself in a theatrical community, or working with and for his fellow company members over a period of time, proved irresistible after years away from the stage. “I don’t think it defies just the industry,” he suggests, “but also society.”
While reinventing the RSC as the home of communism teeters precariously on the edge of pretension, Troughton, his hair now casually ruffled, brings the conversation crashing back into earthy reality with his description of acting as a career: “When it’s great, it’s great. When it’s s**t, it’s s**t.”
Plain speaking it might be, but you can’t argue with it. Luckily for Troughton, Gale and the rest of the long ensemble, at the moment, it is pretty great.