- Arts & Literature
- Science & Technology
By Timothy Bano
Zoe Apostolides interviews leading RSC actor Jonathan Slinger, currently starring in the World Shakespeare Festival, at his talk given at Merton on Sunday 6th May.
Fresh from RADA, he spent his early years involved in a variety of theatre, film and television productions, the explosion onto Stratford’s boards came to the RSC actor “comparatively late”, who claims that it had never existed for him as the be-all and end-all of his career. Under the direction of Deborah Warner at the National Theatre, he learnt to rehearse “properly” in what he calls a “combination of a children’s nursery and an army barracks”. His first production with the company was in 2005, playing Puck in Gregory Doran’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “I like to go into each audition with a new idea; the best are when you can show the director a new angle…I told Greg that I didn’t get the point of Puck, I wasn’t sure how I’d ever play him, and I didn’t understand his motivation. Thankfully he didn’t throw me out. He said, he didn’t really understand Puck either, and we had this amazing microcosm of a rehearsal, half an hour just batting ideas about.” His one condition on accepting the role? “I told him, I’m not doing any running. So many actors who play Puck spend ages dashing manically across the stage… I don’t care how fast you are, you’re not a fairy.” Quite: meet Jonathan Slinger.
Two years after this first foray and Slinger was approached for Michael Boyd’s Histories Cycle, eight plays in chronological order beginning with Richard II and ending with RIII: Slinger played both. I ask him about the difficulty of representing two, both very large and seemingly opposite characters in such close succession: “the adrenaline keeps it fresh, and in a way playing smaller characters is much more exhausting. You come on for a short time, and in that time you have to nail it…whereas with the Richards and indeed with Macbeth, I had much more time to grow into the role, to make it mine and develop it through the course of the play.” In terms of the difference between the two roles, Slinger describes the immediate discrepancy in their physicality: “Richard III’s more slumped, probably more me [he bends one leg and slants to one side to demonstrate this], whereas Richard II has this willowy grace which actually I found much more difficult to capture…They are different, yes, but I was determined to discover the similarities, to identify with them, otherwise they run the risk of being pigeon-holed as just ‘sympathetic’ or ‘a villain.’”.
It’s in this way that Slinger seems to find the most exhilarating aspect of his job: the challenge of a fully three-dimensional character, and the necessity of relating to what we, conveniently and for argument’s sake, term the most ‘villainous’ of Shakespeare’s creations. It might seem that the task of ‘connecting’ with Richard III is about as problematic as, say, trying to defend someone who’s microwaved a cat, and yet Slinger insists on the importance of reading and observing the ‘whole’ character, not just the theatrical genre ascribed to their life. Speaking of his experience as Macbeth last year, he describes his fascination with the sheer realism of the character: “he’s simultaneously a great fighter and ‘the milk of human kindness’; he’s the most antithetical character that Shakespeare ever wrote. He’s also most gloriously Shakespearean because of this.” This may provide the clue to an earlier comment during the run of the production that Macbeth was “the hardest part I’ve ever played…to believably be both at the same time is not easy, really not easy.” And yet he rose to the challenge; as Shakespeare so aptly demonstrates, it is the potential for both ‘foul’ and ‘fair’ to exist concurrently in the psyche of one person that makes a figure like Macbeth so dangerously enthralling. And as an actor, he recognises the need to embrace both the immediately attractive roles he’s always wanted, and those that require some work: “Versatility and range turn me on as an actor. Ben Kingsley, for instance: you have to admire anyone that can play Ghandi in 1982 and Sexy Beast’s Don Logan in 2000.” It’s presumably down to this desire for diversity that Slinger seems to be revelling in his current project – playing Twelfth Night’s Malvolio in the matinee performance and The Tempest’s Prospero in the evening for the RSC’s shipwreck trilogy, “What Country Friends Is This?” Whilst admitting the two are somewhat incongruous he insists on the relationships which exist between them; indeed, just as Malvolio storms offstage vowing “revenge on the whole pack of you”, so Prospero greets the audience with promises of retribution at the start of Shakespeare’s ‘farewell’ to the theatre. Everywhere you look, there’s a linking pattern, even in the most unexpected of places.
What really strikes me whilst chatting with him is Slinger’s reluctance to make the discussion about him – the parts he’s played, yes, and how they were interpreted, fine, but he seems far more passionate about the works themselves. The texts, the audiences, the process of understanding “how a character fits into a play” is of ultimate importance to him. As we’re talking about RADA and the early auditions, he’s reminiscing whilst sprawled across the comfy leather armchairs of Merton’s MCR, but once we move onto the nitty gritty – the plays themselves, the individual performances – he’s on the edge of his seat. “Coming to a relationship with Shakespeare should never be, but too often is, a dry process…we need the intellectual vigour as well as the emotional connection…say the words aloud to yourself, unpick the meaning and the psychology, try and see what’s driving a character.” Yes, we can sigh, and complain about the bombardment (geddit), this year particularly, of the stage with yet more revivals, refreshments, refinements. But why should we? Slinger shows us the vitality and variety to be found today in theatres across the world, for every of one us and at any time: “everything you are ever going to feel, ever, Shakespeare has described better than any other writer – or indeed any other artist.” And he’s determined that we all appreciate this: “it’s the depth, the texture, the layer of Shakespeare that’s so mesmerising, and my task is to make it new again, to make it new each time.”