“To be or not to be, that is the question”… for some people at least. Others might ask “what shall we go and see in the West End tonight?” If one was speaking to Sian Thomas, the question would probably be “who do you feel like today?” as the Welsh actress has been playing both Lady Macbeth and Gertrude, in the RSC productions of Macbeth and Hamlet, since late February. As the RSC season has got underway at the Albery, Matthew Amer caught up with her to chat about the demands of playing two women…
“Sorry, it’s a bit mad here”, are never the most comforting words for an interviewer to hear at the start of a conversation, even if spoken in a voice as light and floaty as a chiffon kite. ‘Hi, I’m happy, relaxed and ready to wow you with my wit and many interesting anecdotes’ would be the ideal. Still, when you consider that Sian Thomas has been working away from home for the best part of nine months and has only just got back, you can understand the chaos that may have met her; a mound of unanswered mail, a plethora of pizza flyers and a fair few Betterware catalogues maybe.
It was early in 2004 that Thomas began stepping out onto the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s stage at the start of the spring season and, with a trip to Newcastle following, she has only just managed to get back to her usual haunts: “It’s like being away from your real home and your real life since February. I’ve just realised that I’m here.”
"Lady Macbeth is somewhere being cooked in Gertrude's juices."
Here she most certainly is, and for a while too. Currently, Thomas can be found on the Albery stage playing Gertrude in Hamlet, while after Christmas she will be back in the same theatre playing the manipulative Lady Macbeth. Having performed in two of Shakespeare’s most famous and best loved plays for the majority of the year, Thomas has come to an insightful conclusion. “I’ve thought so much about both plays, but the other night I thought ‘I’ve got it!’ Macbeth is a play about having, because they just want. They want the crown; they’re so desperate to have power. I think Hamlet is a play about being; about a state of being, about consciousness. To have both in your head at once is quite interesting, because they cross-fertilize and feed each other. While you’re being Gertrude, [Lady Macbeth] is somewhere on the back burner being cooked in Gertrude’s juices. So she comes out slightly different. Ha ha ha.”
While the thought of two of Shakespeare’s characters turning to cannibalism is certainly interesting, it was probably not what the Bard was thinking while churning out crowd pleasers. Instead, the bearded wordsmith was more interested in entertaining the masses with his own brand of timeless wit and agonised tragedy. Hence the birth of Hamlet as Thomas sees it: “It’s written as a wonderful adventure story, as well as a great redemptive one, because he actually does avenge his dead father in the end… And it’s an extraordinary play about the existence of man and humanity.” Not bad for a couple of night’s quill-wobbling.
"Hamlet really doesn’t figure much in my grand plan."
Like playing for you national team in the case of a footballer, or writing for the UK’s leading theatre website for a journalist, playing Hamlet is at the top of most male actors’ wish lists. In taking the role of the vengeful prince, they join the ranks of a whole host of theatrical knights, most of the great names in the history of theatre… and Mel Gibson. In the RSC’s current production, ex-Bond villain and offspring of Dame Maggie Smith, Toby Stephens plays the dotty Dane. Thomas has certainly been affected by his princely ways: “Toby is such a heroic Hamlet; he’s a golden boy that they all cheer and get over-excited about in a really lovely way at the end.”
“I thought it would be awful. To be honest I was dreading it.” This is, surprisingly, how Thomas felt initially at the thought of playing Gertrude. She quite fancied the manipulative evil of Lady Macbeth but, having played Ophelia earlier in her career, the move from young-yet-mad girl to motherly-yet-murderer-loving woman did not entice her. “I’d always thought the play was about Ophelia – which shows where I’m at! Now I think it is a play about Gertrude. In fact, I don’t know why it’s not called ‘Gertrude’! I think whatever part one plays, one suddenly sees the play from that person’s point of view. So automatically it became a play about Gertrude, rather than a play about Ophelia. Hamlet really doesn’t figure much in my grand plan.”
During the Hamlet rehearsals, Thomas’ initial doubts and concerns made way for a much brighter reaction to the matriarchal role. “It’s been a bit of a revelation working on it, because it is underwritten, that’s sure, but if you dig away, it’s all there. She starts as kind of vain, very spoilt, slightly hard – because she’s a survivor, she’s not just a soppy victim like she’s often played; she’s hung onto her power. [By the end] she becomes a mother and a grown up, rather than an aging princess who’s rather spoilt and lovely and has everything she wants.”
"To turn it into someone who wants to f**k their mother reduces it slightly."
The most obvious, and arguably overused, means of spicing up Gertrude’s role is to dabble in a little oedipal fun. Hamlet, while lusting for revenge, often finds himself lusting for his mother in a not entirely healthy way. Not in this Hamlet though: “[Toby Stephens and Michael Boyd] thought that the kind of Freudian, incestuous take was superfluous and something that had been imposed from a later time – which is probably true – but, as Gertrude, there is an element there which I think one could explore, but they didn’t want to. I was only Gertrude and not Hamlet, I didn’t get much of a say” Thomas adds with her tongue firmly in her cheek. “I think it can get in the way and diminish the whole thing. It’s such a huge play; to turn it into someone who wants to f**k their mother reduces it slightly.”
Royal Shakespeare Company Artistic Director Michael Boyd is the man pulling the strings behind the scenes of Hamlet. It was his choice to leave the incest alone and tackle the most monumental of plays in the tradition it emerged from; as a revenge tragedy. Thomas is certainly a fan of Boyd and his methods, having previously worked with him “a long time ago, when I was much younger.” These previous roles include playing the title role in Hedda Gabler, Desdemona in Othello, and appearing in Howard Barker’s A Passion In Six Days “which involved having to sing and take all my clothes off on the Sheffield Crucible stage, where they do the snooker. Not while they were doing the snooker, I hasten to add.”
Thomas describes Boyd’s way of working as “a wonderful journey. He makes you go down lots of different alleys and then slowly hold all the reins together in your hand to see what a complicated mix you can get. Yet, if you see it you’ll think too that Hamlet is incredibly clear.”
"It involved having to sing and take all my clothes off on the Sheffield Crucible stage."
Thomas’ first ‘big break’ came “long ago, back in 1978 or something” when she auditioned for, and was accepted by, Glasgow Citizens Theatre. The Scottish company, headed by the triumvirate of Philip Prowse, Giles Havergal and Robert David MacDonald, has been hotbed of talent where, among others, Mark Rylance, Tim Roth, Pierce Brosnan, Rupert Everett, Francis Barber and Macbeth’s leading man Greg Hicks, all plied their trade. “All sorts of extraordinary people started there. All very different, but similarly joined at the hip because you started at that stable.” Thomas’ voice gets little more wistful and a breath of excitement slips into her speech as she talks about her time with the Citizens. Before joining the company, after working in rep for a couple of years, Thomas was starting to get disillusioned with the business. Things changed when she joined the Citizens: “They gave everybody a kind of relish. They used to take you on tour to Europe and you’d get cheered and flowers thrown at you in restaurants, and the whole restaurant would stand up and go ‘bravo’ when you walked in. It was thrilling.”
Since her time at the Citizens, Thomas’ career has flourished. Subsequent roles with the RSC, National Theatre, Shared Experience, and in productions across the West End and the regions have made her a theatrical favourite. On television, Thomas’ face has been seen in an array of guises, from costume dramas (Vanity Fair) to cop shows (The Bill, Inspector Morse, Taggart). Often, though, her most talked about credit is discussed not because of the unremitting quality of her performance, but because of one line spoken to a fellow performer off-stage.
The play in question is Up For Grabs, in which she starred alongside the mockney queen of pop Madonna. Initially the reception received by Sian from the woman who single-handedly made conical bras cool was as chilly as a snowman with an ice-cream. “On the first day I went up and gave her a hug. She froze, because obviously you’re not meant to do that.”
It was Madonna’s onstage antics that really annoyed Thomas. Queen of pop she may be, but her inability to say the correct lines at the correct time proved a stumbling block for the production, and Thomas in particular. “She started making it up. I couldn’t bear it. I got her in the wings and said ‘don’t you f**k about in my scene.’” Clearly swearing at one of the most powerful women in popular entertainment didn’t do too much harm. “She gave me a funny look and laughed. It didn’t spoil a sweet friendship. I’ve got a lot of time for her actually.”