|Samuel West in Hamlet|
20 Questions With...Samuel West
Date: 10 December 2001
Actor Samuel West, who brings his acclaimed RSC Hamlet to London's Barbican this week, regrets not going to drama school but says he wouldn't mind taking a break from acting for awhile now.
Samuel West has been winning rave reviews at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford over the past year. First there was his Richard II, which many critics rated better than the simultaneous Almeida production starring Ralph Fiennes, and now there is his Hamlet, which this week opens the RSC's final winter season at the Barbican Centre in London.
The son of actors Timothy West (recently seen at the National in Luther) and Prunella Scales (now starring in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg in the West End), West was schooled in the ways of the theatre from an early age.
It seems appropriate then that his West End debut was in a production of A Life in the Theatre (Haymarket) opposite the late Denholm Elliott. His subsequent stage credits have included Arcadia (National), Hidden Laughter, The Sea (Chichester Festival), Mr Cinders (King's Head), The Importance of Being Earnest (Royal Exchange) and Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 (English Touring Theatre).
His film credits have included Howard's End, Notting Hill, Complicity, Carrington, Stuff Upper Lips and the upcoming Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch; while, on television, he has appeared in Hornblower, Voices in the Garden, Inspector Alleyn, Persuasion and Heavy Weather.
Date & place of birth
Born in London 19 June 1966.
Lives now in...
Islington, North London.
I never went to Drama School - my biggest regret. Making a complete tit of yourself in front of people who don't care is probably the best learning experience an actor can have.
First big break
At the time, it should have been A Life in the Theatre with Denholm Elliot at the Haymarket, but audiences were generally underwhelmed. After that, the film Howard's End. I'm a very bad snooker player - I keep planning big breaks and missing the first shot.
Career highlights to date
Being part of two very happy companies at the RSC, having anything at all to do with Persuasion, and saying "Thirty seconds to computer achieving full power status, Mistress" to Kate O'Mara in the last-ever episode of Doctor Who.
Favourite production you've ever worked on
Richard II last year, because it changed some people's minds about the play, continued to grow up to and beyond its last night, and wasn't nearly as long as Hamlet.
David Troughton in the above, because he taught me you should never be afraid to try a new thing, and never apologise when it goes wrong.
Steven Pimlott, for being the only one ever to employ me twice (in Richard II and now Hamlet). Also for being confident enough to listen to others and sometimes act on their suggestions, and for having the patience and determination to do whatever it takes to turn his actors into a company.
I have to say Tom Stoppard because as long as I live I'll never be in any new play as brilliant or inspiring as Arcadia. At the moment, I'm very jealous of those RSC actors who get to be in The Prisoner's Dilemma by David Edgar, which blew me sideways.
What role would you most like to play still?
Hamlet again: "No matter; try again. Fail again; fail better" (Beckett)
What's the best thing currently on stage?
The Prisoner's Dilemma, as before. The only play I've seen recently that assumes its audience is intelligent, demands that they keep up and refuses trite moralising. The writing is particularly telling in the current international situation, but perhaps great writing always is.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I think funding the arts is a necessary part of a society that would like to call itself civilised. Funding should be seen as investment, not giveaway. A government that is serious about theatre as a forum for debate and not just a place where the jam-making classes can go and have their prejudices gently teased, should try some or all of the following:
Wipe out all regional theatres' debt accumulated through years of under-investment and no fault of their own.
Invest enough in established companies for them to be able to plan work several seasons ahead and not waste time and money reapplying to ACE every year.
Since actors trained on stage often go on to success on film and pay back more in tax than it ever cost to fund their training, give mandatory tuition and maintenance grants to all those who get places at accredited Drama Schools so they can concentrate on their course and not exhaust themselves with bar work.
Set LEA grants at a level where an evening at a subsidised theatre costs no more than an evening at the cinema.
Invest enough to enable a proportion of all tickets to sold-out shows to be given away free to under 25s.
Set up an e-mail network where unsold seats are offered free to schools, and pay the coach drivers and teachers to get them to the theatre.
The generation that grew up on affordable repertory is dying, and there may not be another to take its place.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
I'd like to swap places with any Wimbledon FC player ever. A recurring dream is pulling on the yellow-and-blue just for one Saturday afternoon. And Vinny Jones's Hamlet at the matinee would have to be seen...
Favourite holiday destination
I have to say the Galapagos Islands, because I've just returned from the best holiday of my life there. Closer to home, West Cornwall, the stocking-toe of England.
It's often the one I'm reading at the time (currently, Atonement by Ian McEwan). But the one under the pillow is Shakespeare's Complete Works. It's the only book I know will never bore me.
Am I allowed two? The International Dialects of English Archive - invaluable for audiobook homework. And The Surrey Stick Figure Theatre of Death - absolutely no use for homework at all.
A man goes into a bar and orders a beer. As he drinks it, he hears a tiny voice saying "Mmm, nice tie". He looks around but can't see anything and goes back to his beer. Another tiny voice says "Yes, nice shirt too". He stops again, but again he can't find the source. The barman's walking past and the man stops him and says "Excuse me, ever since I've been in your bar I've heard little voices saying nice things about my clothes. Can you tell me what's going on?" "Yes of course, sir," replies the barman. "It's the peanuts. They're complimentary."
What impact has having actors as parents had on your career?
It's meant inheriting quite a strong streak of self-criticism and a certain insider knowledge. The encouragement about balances out the breast-beating. As for whether it's helped me get work, who can say? I've been offered auditions because of who my parents are, but never, to my knowledge, jobs.
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I would probably have become a director. I still hope to. Quite a lot of me still wants to be a train driver. Or a DJ.
Why did you want to accept this part in this production?
Are you kidding? When someone offers you Hamlet at the RSC, you say yes. Because I was already in the company and working with the director, it was as unscary as such a scary leap could be, so a better offer was impossible.
Whose is the best Hamlet you've ever seen? How do you make such a famous role your own?
Mark Rylance, Mk I (RSC 1989, Ron Daniels) is still my favourite. I hope mine's half as brilliant and funny. I think trying to make a part your own is a sure way to screw it up. You must of course, make your own sense of it, but your job is to play the part the production requires you to play - which will be influenced by your own character and those of your cast, director and "the age and body of the time". But it must lead you - if you arrive at rehearsal determined to fit the part to your idea of it, you will never be surprised by where it takes you. However, it does help to forget your preconceptions of the play, and how famous it is, and how in love with the leading character we all were for hundreds of years. Looked at unsentimentally, Hamlet's a childish, self-obsessed melancholic with a fetish for maggots.
What's your favourite line from Hamlet?
"Who's there?" (I.i.1) Has any play ever begun better?
What, if anything, makes performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company special for you?
It is special - without a doubt the happiest (and hardest) time of my professional life so far. Now Simon (Russell Beale)'s finished at the National, I'm the only person in the world playing Hamlet (in English) for a whole year. It's a rare privilege, and it teaches you a lot. At a time when fashion says it's cool not to care about what you say, 18 months talking 400 year-old verse certainly retrains your mouth. A company dedicated to work like this feels curiously revolutionary. And there is no greater happiness than being inside something greater than the sum of its parts. Team before self, every time.
What are your plans for the future?
I'd like to start a company and direct its shows. I don't mind not doing any more acting for a while, though I am playing a serial killer on Waking the Dead for the BBC. Hamlet kills three people himself and another four by proxy, so it shouldn't be too much of a stretch.
Hamlet, directed by Steven Pimlott, opens at the Barbican Theatre on 11 December 2001 (following previews from 6 December) and continues until 2 April 2002. The production first opened in May 2001 in Stratford and then visited Newcastle before transferring to London.