The RSC marks 2000 years since the death of Ovid, announcing the new Rome season of Shakespeare’s four great political thrillers (Julius Caesar, Antony & Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus), with Angus Jackson as season director. The Saint caught up with actor Kristin Atherton, star of Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra, to find out more about the play, the directors, and her journey as an actor.
What attracted you to a career in acting?
Actually, it’s an incredibly important story for this theatre company. When I was about 11 years old, my dad joined an amdram company and I knew a little bit about Shakespeare but he was in Twelfth Night and he played Orsino and the first lines of the play, ‘if music be the food of love play on’, and I knew he was very nervous about it, as you slightly do when you’re an 11-year-old and you don’t actually know your parents that well. I went and saw the show; my dad’s a quiet man he’s maybe a little bit shy. The show opened and the first words I hear don’t sound like my father’s voice: they’re strong and they’re powerful. I remember even at eleven being so moved I started crying and it was the most incredible realisation that, actually, what theatre can do is transform you, as a person, into something you are not. You can be someone else and the play itself can actually take the audience to a completely imaginary world in such a powerful way and so I joined the amdram group with him and that was sort of what started my passion and then I was lucky enough that because I grew up in Sheffield with The Crucible on my doorstep I actually got my first professional opportunity there, almost through the youth theatre. Strangely, one of the chaps from the amdram group who was in that production with my father is now in this production of both Antony & Cleopatra and Julius Caesar with me, so small world, that was the production that inspired me and here we are professionally acting together years later.
Will your father be coming to watch you?
Absolutely, yeah, both my parents are incredibly supportive but I know given that where he has come from that this probably means a lot to him. But neither of us are good at planning, so he hasn’t given us a date yet.
How do you keep giving your all every night for seven months?
To be honest, this will be the longest run of anything I’ve done, so I suppose I’ll let you know. Both directors keep reminding us to not settle into the tramlines, as it were, there is always more to discover particularly with a writer like William Shakespeare, he actually gives you so much. The line that you hear is replete with meaning and you can play one meaning for a long long time, you know, it doesn’t mean that you change your motivations it doesn’t mean that you suddenly decide that someone’s cocky if they’ve always been very shy but there’s always a slightly different way to play something and actually if you’re always listening to your fellow actors that becomes very easy. So, both of our directors keep saying to us, just play. Don’t see this as the end of the process, see it as the beginning, and as long as you keep having fun hopefully it’ll stay fresh. But as I say, we are at the beginning, so it’s easy to say and probably harder to do.
Are Angus Jackson and Iqbal Khan different in the way they run rehearsals and how they pull the characters out?
Well, it’s been such an incredible journey because, in some ways, you couldn’t get two directors who work more differently. They both come from, absolutely from a place of respect for the text and both of them begin with a lot of table work. All of the company talk through the play and when we get to every scene it’s not just the people involved in the scene when we have questions about. So, hang on who is aligned with who? What are the loyalties? Why does Caesar decide to go to the senate when everybody is telling him don’t go, don’t go? And we all answer those questions together so we all have ownership and that’s something they both did really beautifully. From there they departed from each a little bit. Angus is an incredibly intellectual man, he’s so clever it’s almost intimidating, so there are a lot of conversations but also Julius Caesar is in some ways quite a straightforward play, you know, there seems to be an inevitability so we bedded down action and blocking quite early whereas Antony & Cleopatra feels like such a sort of wild play and a dangerous play. The scenes are almost filmic: they’re very short sometimes and you don’t always know where it’s going. You think you know where someone’s loyalties lie or you think you know who is going to die next and it just keeps pulling the rug from under your feet. Iqi, Iqbal Khan – he hates us calling him Iqbal he says it makes him feel like his aunt is having a go at him – his method is always just let’s throw it up into the air, let’s play do the, he’ll say to us do the naughty thing, do the unexpected thing and that will help us find out what kind of play Antony & Cleopatra is because it’s just, it’s a play written 10 years after, I think, I’ll have gotten that wrong now but a long time after Julius Caesar you almost feel like Shakespeare challenging himself writing a much more dangerous play. Something which feels almost no so perfect as Julius Caesar, so yeah, a very playful rehearsal room and a very solid secure rehearsal room but, you know, glorious.
How do you find adjusting to those two environments?
For me personally, that has been the biggest challenge, particularly when it comes to the actual female roles I play in the two performances. In one day, sometimes because of scheduling and needing to get the most amount done. You can jump between rehearsal rooms anything up to five times a day and so you’ll spend an hour as it were in Rome and then you’ll go to the upstairs rehearsal rooms and spend two hours in Egypt and then you’ll come back to Rome. My character in Julius Ceasar, Calphernia, although she’s an incredibly strong woman and very intelligent woman the status of women in Rome is tht they know their place, they have to choose their moments to speak and the words they choose have to be very careful there is a correctness about the way, I think, that the women in Rome know they have to behave whereas in Egypt, I mean I’m one of Cleopatra’s handmaidens, Iris. There’s a lot of overt sexuality there’s a feeling that actually in Egypt the women are on top and what’s interesting about the play is these roman men coming into, they come from a universe which is very male dominated into a room where suddenly there is a lot of female power and they find it frustrating or they find it beguiling and so yeah jumping from one room where I’m having to be very well behaved and know my place into a room where literally I’m entitled to spit into a man’s face if that’s what I feel like at the moment it’s a tricky headspace, but fun.
How do you find changing into those headspaces, do you have a process?
It’s actually been a good learning experience because much of the time actors feel like oh I’ll need a moment or I’ll need to build into this whereas actually, it’s has taught me sometimes actors can be very instinctive and sometimes you’ll walk into a rehearsal room and just have to get on with it. Rather than going ‘okay, okay can we talk about this’ or ‘can i take a breath’ no sometimes we, especially going from Rome into Egypt, sometimes you just leap and that actually gives you some of your best ideas and your best impulses because your not given headspace you’re not given time to think you just get on with it, the process, as it were, almost goes out the window.
How does the play develop throughout the rehearsal process?
Both directors are very keen for us to always feel like we can ask questions and there are moments where people will actually, surprisingly for actors will volunteer cuts, you know, or say I feel like actually this section maybe is repeating an idea we’ve already had and maybe we can loose it. I think more and more the directors themselves actually start streamlining the piece and we begin with something which feels so epic it’s almost unwieldy. Iqi talks about taking out the fat from the play so we always keep developing it even right now we opened both plays but, you know, press night is still a way to go so all the time it’s developing and things get added or taking away.
What interested you about the parts of Caprhenia and Iras?
For Carphenia, for me, it was such a challenge to find strength and agency within a character in a woman who is actually given very little to say. Someone told me the other day, which made me feel no pressure whatsoever, she’s got some of the most beautiful lines in the whole play, you know, how do you make that not just about the poetry, how do you make it about really strong ideas and how do you convey strength in a time when women didn’t have a great voice and had to show their strength in a different way. The men are running around literally killing each other and able to declaim for pages and pages and argue, how do you come on with maybe five bits of dialogue convey something very strongly so that’s the interest and challenge in Calphernia. Whereas Iras, she says very little. I’m a very perverse audience member and I’m interested in how do you support a scene and how do you tell a story without dialogue, by listening to what is being said and so, yeah, I think for Iras it was absolutely about her, both Charmey and Iras, her two handmaidens, what is their relationship to Cleopatra, and Anthony actually. How do we tell an entire story about the universe and the history of these people and to support their own journey as well as telling our own stories and, again, I can’t imagine a director who is more generous to the characters who are not speaking and he’ll always say’ so what’s is this moment about for you?’ even if you haven’t said anything for ten pages. He’ll always check that the entire arc is intact he’ll never just leave you stood onstage twiddling your thumbs and he knows if you are and he’ll be very challenging to that and that is great, as an actress it just reminds you to never be lazy, ever. Always find a reason to just be in a scene even if you’re not speaking, especially if you’re not speaking.
None speaking parts, I think, make a big difference to a scene rather than just the speaking, they build everything.
There’s lots of those characters in Anthony and Cleopatra. There’s another wonderful character, Aros, who whenever I’ve seen the play or whenever I’ve read it I’ve sort of not really understood and in this play both Iqi and the actor playing him have sort of become a son surrogate to Anthony, there’s a heartbreaking moment between him and Anthony towards the end, which without patting ourselves on the back too much, I’ve never been as moved by and he says almost nothing in the play and it says so much about Anthony the man, so yeah I think there’s plenty of that going on in the production.
I think we always need to remind ourselves, we are so used to black box theatres, that Shakespeare wrote at a time when the audience were drunk, they were whoring, there was pickpocketing going on, so the more interest you can create onstage, the more bodies you can have doing interesting things and thinking interesting thoughts and contributing actually the more engaging it was you can keep all those drunk loud people entertained. Whether you know it or not actually giving your silent characters a lot to do and say and a reason to be there.
What do you think you brought to the two rules of Carphernia and Iras?
I hope, and my directors are entirely free to contradict me, If I’m asked to jump into something I just go for it, I hope that I’m brave even if that means that more often than not I fall over my own feet a lot, even last night I marginally fell off a bit of set. I hope that there’s a sort of generosity going on and that sounds again like I’m patting myself on the back hugely. I suppose the groundedness, because, I think it’s very important that neither of these women seem silly, I think I owe that to my gender and also to what’s on the page to give them a voice and an intelligence and to ground them and not to dismiss them. So I hope I bring that, I hope it’s not entirely ridiculous.
I think playing at the RSC you get to pat yourself on the back a bit. This is your debut season at the RSC, is it very different from other theatres?
It’s the first time, we have so many resources at our fingertips, it’s such a big organisation, it’s the first time I’ve really been aware of the wheels and cogs behind the scenes and actually the real awareness of being a cog in the machine. I think actors a lot of time feel that we are the end product and we are the important bit of the play and being in a big company like the RSC, I actually realise, god, the costume department is so vast and talented and you know the absolute city-wide backstage crew and team all working away so hard at every single moment that everything is seamless and wonderful, feeling like a company. I’m very lucky that I’ve worked at the national as well and there’s a very similar feeling there that this is a big organisation and if you need anything, any resource, if you need voice support or research support it’s so there for you, well as in regional theatres the money isn’t there so much so you have to be a lot more self-sufficient. There’s so much going on its s nice to know that there’s all these little communities, like the shows going on in the Swan theatre and shows that are being developed in other places that theres so many people to meet, to chat with and exchange ideas with it feels like being in a massive city, I think, rather than feeling like all of your focus is on this one show that you are working on.
If you could choose any role what would it be?
It’s very tricky because one of my dream roles, I’m going to be understudying real soon but it’s not been press released. I absolutely love Christopher Hampton’s play Dangerous Liaisons, and the character of Matori who is played, I think by Glenn Close, is such an extraordinary part for a woman. I love the idea of women who lived in a time when they didn’t have a lot of power and the ways in which strong women went about getting power and in Dangerous Liaisons, a lot of that is to be sexually desirable but also the intellectual games that a wome like her had to play. In some ways she’s not quite redeemable and I like that I like the idea of people who are not straightforward and who are not likeable on the surface but if you can find the reason they do appalling things I think that’s why we go and watch drama I don’t think we go to the theatre or the cinema to watch good people behaving in good ways I think we go to try and see maybe some of our own flaws and failings whether hats in a comedy going oh my god yeah I fall over my feet like that or I’ve said that stupid thing to someone I fancy or in a drama we see someone self-destructing because of their fatal flaw and I think that’s always the interesting thing in any part you play, how are they not perfect and how can that make other people recognise that being not perfect is fine.
Yeah, because none of us are I think it’s human nature the way we all have our darkness and light and everything in between.
I feel that that’s what Antony and Cleopatra is all about, you know, these people are legendary and yet we see them behave in awful ways, I mena wonderful ways as well and that’s why we almost I think think of antony and Cleopatra through the canon of the play as opposed to in a piece of historical research because the drama and their failings are compelling.
If you could speak to Shakespeare or ask him?
Oh god, this is going to make me sound so pretentious. I would thank him for doing exactly what I just said for having I think every single aspect of humanity in at least one of plays in some way, you know, so it’s the most wonderful legacy and I’m so grateful that he has shown us another human being who is so jealous that they would do anything who would you know kill their partner or is so in love with the idea of democracy and republic that they would kill their best friend that he has shown us all of humanity in some way and yeah I suppose that has given us such an incredibly rich tapestry to look at our own time and also to look at ancient times what an extraordinary achievement. I would also ask him how does iras die because you never explain it in the play because that’s caused me such a lot of grief.
Julius Caesar is on at the New Picture House, St Andrews on 26th April at 7pm, you can book tickets here
Antony & Cleopatra is on at the New Picture House, St Andrews on 26th April at 7pm, you can book tickets here
To see more of what’s going on in the RSC’s Rome Season, check out their website here