Peter Tromp caught up with comedian and actor ALAN COMMITTIE on the eve of his big bow at Maynardville in the guise of Richard III, a character he has been dreaming of playing for decades.
You’ve wanted to play the character of Richard III for a long while, now. Now that it has come to pass, how do you feel: ambition fulfilled; or dream come true?
It’s both an ambition fulfilled and a dream come true, I guess. 21 years ago I got to play a one-man version of it, having graduated from UCT drama school and knowing that no one was ever going to cast a young 22 or 23 year old in the title role of a Shakespeare. I decided to write a play about an actor putting on ‘Richard III’ who on the night you watch it, is compelled to play all the characters, because his touring company has abandoned him, and that was such a great and fun experience that I kind of repeated it a number of times over the years. I kept bringing the show back and updating it, so the seed of that character – the seed of the brilliance of Shakespeare’s text – was sown quite clearly and for years I’ve wanted to play in a full scale version. When the opportunity came along to do this Maynardville, yah, absolutely; very much an ambition fulfilled and so far a dream come true in that it’s been just a really lovely experience. We’ve got a company of 13 other actors who have joined me and Geoff Hyland, an experienced and very fine director and it seems so far that we’re finding an interesting way of telling the story. Now of course, the next big addition to our puddle is the addition of the audience and how they respond to it, so that’s intriguing, and I look forward to the meeting of all the beat elements and to see from Thursday night how they come together.
When did your love for the character and the play first manifest itself, and what was the big trigger?
Richard III is one of those beguiling characters in that he is of course out and out a villain, but he tells you exactly what he’s going to do and by that nature becomes quite enticing and compelling to watch. There’s a charm and a charisma that seems to draw you in as an audience. You can’t quite believe the outright chutzpah of this character in doing what he says he’s going to do, and maybe 10/15 years ago this character would have been completely outlandish and out of our realm of understanding, but of course today it’s almost commonplace, starting of course with the American president, but many leaders across the world, including the Brazilian president and of course members of our own political landscape. There are these leaders who look at the political scenery around them and see there’s a spot for them, and that gap often comes about when a society is in a state of lethargy, or unease or uncertainty of how to move forward, and someone decides, “Well, if I move quick enough, say things boldly enough and manipulate the media, then perhaps there is a way up very quickly,” and that’s kind of what Trump and many of these other leaders have done. Many hundreds of years ago Shakespeare wrote a play that details this exact rise to power, and the resultant fall from power.
Tell us a bit about your take on the character and what it is you wanted to focus on right from the outset.
A main focus for me particularly and I think for Geoff as well is his relationship with women in the play. There are only four women characters in a very male dominated play and that’s probably reflective of the kind of male dominated and power hungry world that Shakespeare was creating. This is the end of the War of the Roses. We just had the Battle of Tewkesbury and finally the Yorks are in charge, and yet this relationship between Richard, powerful king, and the women around him – his mother, who detests him; Elizabeth, the kind of non-royal person who finds herself at the top of the table in the palace; Margaret, the old Lancastrian who still roams the corridors of the palace; and beautiful, young Lady Anne, who’s also a Lancastrian and who Richard woos over the bodies of her dead father in law and husband – plays an important part in both his trajectory and downfall, ultimately. We’ve really tried to focus on that and we’ve cast four fantastic actresses, but headed up by two of Cape Town’s finest, if not South Africa’s finest, in Anthea Thompson and Lee-Anne van Rooy. It’s been an absolute pleasure playing alongside all of these actresses, and these relationships have become quite instrumental in my understanding of Richard. This is a man who feels very powerful, and underpinned really by his own sense of power, but in fact, looking from the outside, has many vulnerabilities and insecurities and neuroses that are ultimately brought out by the women.
Did you study any past Richards? Or did you want to come in totally fresh and paint your own, totally unique picture?
Because I’ve been so obsessed with Richard, I’ve seen many productions over the years. I’ve read so many books and articles and been down the internet wormholes and seen all kinds of amazing images etc. The difficulty in this is you see so much stuff and in your mind and in your heart of course you want to create an original character and something that’s never been done before, but realistically that’s almost impossible. For me ideally, when I’ve dreamt about this character, it’s about the balance between his charisma and the sense of humour that he has, versus the danger and if you will, the sexy element; the dark sexual underpinnings of his behaviour. If you can find shades and bits of all of those elements, then I think you start to create quite an interesting character, so that’s my aim of course and whether I achieve that, well that will soon be told.
* ‘Richard III’ will be showing at the Maynardville Open Air Theatre Festival from February 13 to March 9, with previews until Saturday, February 9.
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