|William Houston in Bacchai|
20 Questions With...William Houston
Date: 6 May 2002
Actor William Houston, the RSC regular who makes his National Theatre debut this month in Euripides' Bacchai, fancies being David Beckham (with Sean Connery's voice) & recalls how easily he could have been a dead Ulster policeman.
William Houston has become a familiar face to fans of the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he has performed regularly for the past several seasons in Stratford and London.
Last year, Houston played a major part in the RSC's ambitious This England project, a staging of the full cycle of Shakespeare's history plays. After performing with the company in Henry IV Parts One and Two, Houston assumed the title role in Henry V, for which he received an Evening Standard nomination for Best Actor (narrowly pipped at the post by his RSC co-star Alex Jennings for two National Theatre parts).
Houston's other RSC productions include Troilus and Cressida, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Wives' Excuse, while elsewhere he has appeared in The Clearing (Bush) and A Month in the Country (Salisbury Playhouse).
This month, Houston crosses the Thames to make his National Theatre debut in another classical work, playing the dual roles of Pentheus and Agave in Colin Teevan's new version of Euripides', Bacchai. Directed by Peter Hall, the classic Greek tragedy will play at the NT Olivier until 8 June 2002 and will then visit Greece, where the company will perform on 28 and 29 June at the amphitheatre in Epidaurus as part of the Hellenic Festival.
Date & place of birth
Born 19 July 1968 in Sussex. I spent six years there before going to Northern Ireland for about 15 years, and then returned to England to go to drama school when I was 21, where I did the three-year training at Central School of Speech and Drama.
Lives now in...
Turnham Green, west London
First big break
Really, being my mother's son was my first break, because she's been amazing. But as far as my career is concerned, it was probably going to Stratford so soon after drama school when I was still in the frame of mind of being a student. Most especially, my 'life break' was meeting and understudying Alex Jennings in Hamlet there, because that changed the way I looked at stage acting permanently. I really felt I was born after I'd done that. I also played Laertes - it made the fight very difficult, knowing the moves for both sides of it. I never went on for Alex, though - thank God I didn't as it's a part I'd love to play someday. I don't quite know how I will do it, but I know how it can be done.
Career highlights to date
I did a film in Budapest with Michael Gambon, The Gambler, and I remember sitting with Gambon in glorious sunshine in a beautiful part of Budapest and eating peppered steaks and smoking huge amounts of cigarettes and just roaring with laughter. Of course, Hal in Henry V - playing that on the Stratford stage, it was really incredible walking out for the first time in that. Also, making a film about Homer's Odyssey, directed by Andrei Konchalovsky. It was lovely spending months being paid to get muscly and get tanned while bobbing up and down in the Aegean.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
Being a part of the RSC's History Cycle was wonderful. It was also a little insane. The craziest part of it was after opening part one in Stratford and performing that every night and twice on Thursdays and Saturdays, and then going to bed - or going to the Duck (the actors' pub in Stratford) and then bed - and then getting up and rehearsing part two, while still performing part one at night. Then when part two opened, you'd be maybe performing part two in the evening, or parts one and two on a Thursday and Saturday, and then rehearsing Henry V - so really never, ever getting a chance to come out of character, not for a minute really, because if you're not in it and doing it, you're thinking about it, dreaming it, and not sleeping at all! Other favourite productions include The Broken Heart - Michael Boyd directed it, and I was in it with Emma Fielding, Philip Voss and Iain Glen - and, of course, Alex's Hamlet was superb to be in.
Alex Jennings, although I've already mentioned that he was really my luck break so I shouldn't mention him again! Also David Troughton, he's just outrageous and the best company man, and Desmond Barrit - they were my father figures in the Henry plays; they taught me loads and got my courage up and ready for Henry V.
In the theatre, the two Michaels, Attenborough and Boyd, and Edward Hall; on film, Andrei Konchalovsky was fantastic to work for. I can't cast judgment yet on Peter Hall, because it all could go horribly wrong!
Shakespeare is for my money utterly, utterly untouchable. Aside from that, I love David Mamet - I would love to be in something by him. I haven't yet, except at drama school, but since then it's been all classics for me, though I thought it would be completely the other way around! A new fellow called David Grieg is brilliant. He can write a line like very few people I know. I did a radio play that he wrote, that will be on soon on Radio Three, called Outlying Islands.
What is that attracts you so much to classical stage works?
I wonder if it's the other way around - not that I'm attracted to classical work so much that there's something that's right in me that people directing classical plays and classical companies want to take on board. One thing I enjoy very much about working for the RSC and National is the lengthy rehearsal periods they allow - because the plays need it. Shakespeare writes with such detailed genius that you need time to work it out. You have to be like a detective, you just have to work out what's going on, and remove yourself from it, as opposed to bringing yourself to it as you do in contemporary theatre. In classical theatre, you work in reverse: you try to get yourself out of the way of the text. I don't know what will happen at Stratford now, but I was very lucky. I don't know if any actors will ever get the chance to understudy, as I did in one year, Clive Wood, Iain Glen, Alex Jennings. To understudy people like that and play your own parts at the same time - who needs to go to a school of excellence to learn the tools of the trade when you can do it like that in a live environment?
What roles would you most like to play still?
Mamet - I'm dying to get my hands on Duck Variations and put that on somewhere. It's ridiculous and it's comedy, and especially after doing Bacchai, I will need a big relief. I'd love to play Macbeth and I'd like to do my own Hamlet and not Alex's. I'd also like to play John Proctor in The Crucible and Pyper in Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. Another reason why I'm a classical actor is because it's very hard to find parts written for Ulster Protestants, even in Northern Ireland let alone England. It's rare to meet actors who are Ulster Protestants either - the only one I know over here is Lloyd Hutchinson who's in Stones in His Pockets at the moment.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
I don't go to the theatre much, usually because I'm in rehearsal or working. But David Edgar's The Prisoner's Dilemma at the RSC was fantastic, beautifully acted, brilliantly directed and fantastically written. Also I loved Peter Gill's The York Realist - it was fantastic, and I would have given my eye-teeth to have been in it.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I would like to see more theatre being brought into schools to try to encourage younger generations not just to study it at 'A' level but to feel they'd actually like to act. The price of theatre tickets is a crime; I don't think that going to the theatre should be a luxury, it should be a necessity. In Euripides' time, they used to rope people into the theatre - it was compulsory, and the marshals would go out and catch everyone they could till there was no one left, and they would tie them up and pull them into the theatre to make them watch plays. If you were found not to have attended, you were publicly flogged. That's a bit extreme; but maybe Tony Blair should be flogged for not attending the theatre! The state of theatre in Northern Ireland is appalling; it's not even worth talking about. There is none. But money has come from Europe to build a few new theatres; a good new theatre has been built near Armagh. I'm thumbs-up for that. I would like to see companies like the National and RSC touring to Northern Ireland, because they don't - the RSC used to, but not anymore.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
Can I have more than one? I'd love to swap places with Christ just to see if it was for real. I'd love to have been Sean Connery when he was making Goldfinger, and I'd love to be David Beckham, but without the voice. If you could combine David Beckham with Sean Connery's voice, that would be spot-on!
Favourite holiday destination
The Greek islands, not because I'm doing this play particularly, but because I've always loved that part of the world. I've worked and holidayed there, and it makes me feel more alive than anywhere else.
The one I'm reading at the moment I'm really enjoying: I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal - it's hysterical, well-written, lively and easy and touching and exciting. Also Happy Death by Camus I've read three times. I'm still trying to work it out and whether my death will be happy or not. And of course, The Complete Works of Shakespeare.
There's one worth looking at - www.rawa.org. It's the women of Afghanistan legal website, and it's shocking, shocking, shocking.
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I would have been a policeman. I felt passionately about the political situation of Northern Ireland at the time and wanted to get involved in quite a military way. I'm so glad I didn't. I was a Protestant living in a Republican Catholic village, so I wouldn't have lasted long at all. This was the late 1980s and things were bad; the political climate was very volatile. I very nearly did it until my mother said no, drama school is better than that!
Why did you want to accept your parts in this particular production of Bacchai?
I've always wanted to work at the National. I think anybody who has done four seasons pretty much back to back at the RSC as I've done is desperate to work here. And I wanted to work for Ed's dad. But the main attraction was to play a sadistic, homophobic, racist King who becomes a transvestite who is then decapitated by his own mother and then to play the mother as well. It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do with the hardest twists I've ever had to put myself through. It's in mask, thank God: you have to see what happens to people's faces when they try to go through these ludicrous emotions without them!
What's your favourite Greek myth?
As a kid, it was Icarus and the Gorgon and the Minotaur stories. But when I got a little old, The Odyssey. I could never get through The Iliad but The Odyssey I liked and still do, very much.
What are the challenges of making something over 6,000 years old seem fresh?
That's a question for Colin Teevan, the writer, because he's done that in the translation. I've had a look at about six other versions, and I do feel this is by far the best, because he's managed to make it so contemporary that the lines have not been difficult to learn in any way.
How do you feel about performing the piece for Greeks in Greece (as part of the Hellenic Festival)?
I'm horrified! I'm very happy to be going to Greece again, and to be on that stage will be a once in a lifetime experience. But to be doing it in front of a potential audience of 14,000 Greeks is horrifying!
What's your favourite line from Bacchai?
"What type of dress did you say I must wear?"
What are your plans for the future?
I've got none yet, but I've worked on all the stages of the RSC at Stratford and London, so to stay here and work on all the stages in this building would be lovely and a bonus.
- William Houston was speaking to Mark Shenton
Bacchai opens at the NT Olivier on 17 May 2002, following previews from 8 May.