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20 Questions With...Jasper Britton

Actor Jasper Britton - who opens this week in the RSC's historic pairing of The Taming of the Shrew & The Tamer Tamed - muses on truancy, model pond yachts, the challenge of his father's Henry Higgins & working with a bear in a dress.

By • West End


The son of veteran thespian Tony Britton (to read his 20 Questions interview from Feb 2002, click here), Jasper Britton followed his father onto the stage where - despite having never trained - he's succeeded in building an increasingly impressive list of credits, with seasons at Shakespeare's Globe, the Royal Shakespeare and the National as well as in the West End under his belt.

At the National, Jasper was part of Trevor Nunn's famous 1999/2000 NT Ensemble, which mounted productions of Troilus and Cressida, Summerfolk and the Olivier Award-winning new musical Honk!, amongst others.

Britton's credits at Shakespeare's Globe include The Two Noble Kinsmen in 2000, which he followed up in the 2001 summer season by taking the title role, opposite Eve Best, in Macbeth and playing Caliban to Vanessa Redgrave's Prospero in The Tempest.

Amongst Britton's stage productions elsewhere are The Visit with Theatre de Complicite, Richard III at the Open Air Theatre and, in the West End, Simon Gray's Japes - for which he was nominated for a 2002 Whatsonstage.com Award for Best Actor - and last year's revival of Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce. On TV, he’s appeared in Highlander, Murder in Mind and My Dad's the Prime Minister.

This spring Britton returns to the work of the bard and, more specifically, the Royal Shakespeare Company, where his first season included productions of Anthony and Cleopatra, Tamburlaine and Unfortunate Business. Ten years on, the actor is reunited in Stratford with Gregory Doran who directs him and Alexandra Gilbreath as the alternately wooing and warring lovers Petruchio and Kate in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew and John Fletcher's lesser-known 'sequel' The Tamer Tamed. It's believed to be the first major pairing of these two plays in some 370 years.


Date & place of birth
Born in London in 1962.

Lives now in...
Peckham, South London.

Training
I didn't train.

First big break
Playing Richard III, directed by Brian Cox at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre in 1995.

Career highlights
Well, it's all so relative, isn't it? I suppose the first time I was at the RSC about ten years ago was a good moment in time, and working for Complicite with Simon McBurney - Annabel Arden was also a director for the company in those days. A few years ago I worked as part of the National Theatre ensemble under the direction of Trevor Nunn. We did Honk! - a rather brilliant musical - Summerfolk and Troilus and Cressida. That was fun. Japes, which was a Simon Gray play at the Theatre Royal Haymarket a couple of years ago, was also a good one.

Favourite productions you've ever worked on
I don't know how to choose. There's a story, you probably know it. An old Russian actor was once asked "What's your favourite part?" and he had played lots of parts. "I can't tell you," he whispered. "Why?" the interviewer asked. "Because the others would get jealous," he answered. One of best for me, though, was playing Caliban at the Globe, working with a rather brilliant director from Serbia called Lenka Udovicki. Caliban was just the right part to play in a theatre like that, I had a wonderful experience. I think the Globe audience are great. You always know what they think.

Favourite co-stars
All ghastly (!) except for Toby Stephens - he's a special chap. I'm sure he will be poached by Hollywood soon. I only hope he'll come back and work here, too. Alan Cox, who I worked with at the RSC and on lots of other things. We are always mooting projects. He's a very good man of the theatre - he and Toby both are.

Peter Bayliss died very recently. He was a genius and the funniest man in the world - he was extremely mischievous on and off stage. I'll miss him a lot. He once said to me: "Leave the character parts alone, go for the leads and give the rest of us a chance for a change". And these days I am playing more leads. I hope that pleases him, wherever he is. If God has a stage company, Peter will be a great asset to it.

Will Keen is also a favourite of mine. He was great in the Stoppard trilogy The Coast of Utopia and fabulous when I worked with him in The Tempest at the Globe. We also did The Two Noble Kinsmen - he was my kinsman. I think he's wonderful and should be employed at all times.

Favourite directors
Bill Bryden and Brian Cox are great directors, they know what's going on. I think McBurney is a wonderful director and an underrated actor. Trevor Nunn is the man - you know where you are with someone like that. I'm finding Gregory Doran is equally brilliant at the moment. He has so many wonderful qualities, not least because he was an actor himself. He's very gentle, understanding and careful, he hasn't knocked me about in rehearsal much! And, of course, Lenka (Udovicki), who I mentioned - she brought something out of Caliban that no one else has seen, she is a very perceptive person.

Favourite playwrights
Arthur Miller. Those plays in late 1940s and early 1950s are extraordinary, landmark pieces of literature. I've seen a bad production of View from a Bridge and it was still brilliant. I played Willy Loman when I was 17 at school and look forward to being old so I can do it again. I also love anything by Simon Gray, who is a fabulous playwright. All of his books about mounting productions are very good, too. There are a handful of people who I'd drop everything to work with: Simon is one, and Trevor Nunn is another. As for other playwrights I like, there's some old bloke called Shakespeare - he's alright.

What roles would you most like to play still?
Willy Loman. Other than that, I really don't know. I'm not one of these actors who has a list of parts I want to play. That said, I would like to do Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady because my Dad (Tony Britton) did it and was brilliant - Alan Jay Lerner (who co-wrote and directed the musical) said he was better than Rex Harrison. Dad was the first Higgins to tour in this country. He was begged to do it by Cameron Mackintosh and held off for six months before finally agreeing. I used to run away from my boarding school in north London and get the bus to the Strand and watch Dad doing his Higgins from the wings of the Adelphi Theatre on matinee days, then I'd spend the rest of the afternoon hanging around backstage.

What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Keep well away - don't touch it! Seriously though, I'm in no position to give advice. I suppose the main factor is money, but I'm not sure it's the government's place to secure the future of the theatre. I think if there's anything to be done, it's got to come from inside the profession. Stephen Daldry made sense when he pointed out that the meagre grants the government do give are paid back with VAT on ticket prices, so they give with one hand and take with another, which is not very helpful.

What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
I haven't been for ages. It gets to be like a busman's holiday sometimes. Tom Stoppard's trilogy was the last thing I saw. I did the nine-hour marathon, which I loved, it was such a great experience. Clive James was sitting behind me, and Fenella Fielding and Doris Lessing on either side, so they were all chatting over me in the breaks. It was great, they were all blown away. I thought Eve Best was the beating heart and soul of the entire thing, she was wonderful. It put Trevor Nunn even higher in my estimations if something like that was possible - astronomical - and Stoppard, too.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
This is a bit left field, but Franz Marie Denye. He was an émigré in World War I from somewhere in the low countries - Belgium I think - who escaped and ended up in Birkenhead where he started up a firm called Star Yachts, which ran for 70 odd years. It designed and built pond yachts, sort of working models, 22 different kinds. I am fortunate to have four quite old Star Yachts, and I'd like to have been Denye in the early days, deciding what to build, how to do it and what to name them.

Favourite book
Adam Hall wrote a series of 19 spy novels called 'Quiller Novels', which are cult books. I got switched on to them by an old flatmate and managed to find all 19. The last one was published - after Hall died - with help of his son. I enjoyed the book so much I wrote and thanked Hall's son. He came to see me in Japes and now we're friends. I would recommend Hall's books to anyone, just for the economy and brilliance of writing style. I believe Hollywood is toying with the idea of making one or more of them into films with John Travolta starring, which I am a bit dubious about.

Favourite holiday destination
I hardly ever go on holidays, but I went to Venice for my birthday last year. Italy is pretty damn good, it seems to me - not least for the people and food.

Favourite after-show haunts
My sofa! I think Soho House is a bit grim, but I find Joe Allen's amusing and the Ivy is great. When we were doing Japes, we tried all of these places out, like the Caprice and the Ivy, and we were magnificently treated in all of them. But in all honesty, I'm normally so tired I go home to my bed.

Favourite websites
ebay is brilliant - I come across my Star Yachts there. I have looked at your site, which I think is good and has a wealth of information. Amazon is useful, too. And the BBC website is superb. It just gets getting bigger and bigger all the time, I hardly need anything else. Except ebay, which I sometimes spend hours in front of - I love it.

If you hadn't been an actor what would you have done professionally
It took me six years to become an actor. I did all sorts before then. I delivered food to yuppies as a dispatcher, I was a stage manager for three years and a technical ASM, amongst other things. When I was a kid I was always fascinated by guys who operate river buses and, in Venice, they have the same kind of men on riverboats there. They are very quick and skilful, like dancers, graceful and elegant, rather romantic characters. I thought, that's the life for me, but clearly that didn't happen. Ultimately, if I hadn't been an actor, I think I would have been a gardener. I'd also love to have been a professional gambler.

Why did you want to accept your parts in The Tamer Tamed & The Taming of the Shrew?
My first instinct was not to. I was unsure about The Tamer Tamed particularly. My agent phoned and said, "The RSC want to meet you for a plum of a part but won't tell me what it is." So I said, "Tell them to stick their plum back in the fruit bowl". It turned out the part was Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, and I thought I'd never seen anyone do it successfully and that it wasn't really for me. As I get older, I now tend to rely on my gut feeling. But my agent encouraged me, and when he said Greg Doran was directing, that clinched it.

What is special about performing for the RSC at Stratford?
Well, it's Shakespeare's birthplace, with the river tootling by and the swans. It's all so attractive and seductive.

What's your favourite Shakespeare play?
Not Romeo and Juliet, not Love's Labour's Lost. I think it's both Richard III and King Lear. The former for its audacity and chutzpah, the latter for its metaphysical awareness of the universe.

What's the funniest thing that happened in rehearsals for your RSC double?
I remembered a speech! Alexandra Gilbreath has to hit me in the play and keeps whacking me really hard. She nearly knocked me out, she's like Muhammed Ali. One night, something funny happened. There's a nightmare sequence in The Tamer Tamed when a bear in a dress makes love to me. We did it and I was crying with laughter until the bear slipped and poked me in the eye with his snout, then I was really crying. Just another ordinary day at rehearsal!

What are your plans for the future?
Keep on learning.

- Jasper Britton was speaking to Hannah Khalil


The Taming of the Shrew and The Tamer Tamed open in Stratford-upon-Avon on 9 April 2003 following previews and continue in repertory at the Royal Shakespeare and Swan Theatres, respectively, up to 8 November 2003.


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