Joseph Mydell has worked extensively for the RSC, including productions of Twelfth Night, Prisoner’s Dilemma, Everyman and The Mysteries, as well as most recently Dominic Cooke’s production of As You Like It, which transferred from Stratford to the West End’s Novello Theatre.
His other theatre credits include Angels in America at the National Theatre, for which he won an Olivier Award, Alice’s Adventures Underground, also at the National, As You Like It at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, and The Treatment at the Royal Court.
On television, Mydell has appeared in The Bill, Miss Marple, Bergerac, My Africa and Shadow on the Sun.
In Breakfast with Mugabe by Fraser Grace, Mydell plays the Zimbabwean president who, in the story, is seeing a white psychiatrist who is treating him for depression. Set in Mugabe’s palace in Harare the piece – directed by Antony Sher - explores the conflict of African and European values and between despotism and liberalism in a series of bruising encounters.
Date & place of birth
I was born in 1955 in Savannah, Georgia.
Lives now in
Tottenham – the upcoming area after Hoxton!
New York University.
What made you decide to become an actor?
I was always very keen on poetry and entertaining other people; I did a lot of reciting at school, and I once did a reading of The Owl and the Pussy Cat just to make my classmates snigger because I knew pussy was a naughty word.
First big break
Clearly that was joining the RSC. It is a wonderful company to work for and I have done many productions with them over the years.
Career highlights to date?
Winning the Olivier award for Angels in America at the National was a definite highlight, because it means your colleagues recognise you and think you are doing a good job, which is really good to know.
Angels in America was one I really enjoyed. And I did a production of a play by Athol Fugard called Master Harold and the Boys, I really enjoyed playing that part, and I was nominated for a Manchester Evening News Award for it. And recently, playing Jacques in As You Like It.
Barnaby Kay, I had so much fun with him in As You Like It. He is a wonderful actor but also has a sense of fun as well as being serious about acting. And Lia Williams is wonderful, too. I had a very short amount of time on stage with her in As You Like It but that time was really special. I have worked with so many people in my career that I have enjoyed, though, so it is difficult to pick people out as I think most of them have been wonderful.
Dominic Cooke; he is a deceptive director because he doesn’t appear to be pushing you and yet he challenges you as an actor. He does it in a way that makes you think differently. Declan Donnellan was wonderful; and I enjoyed working with Howard Davies. And Kathryn Hunter who directed Everyman with her partner Marcello Magni was terrific, I really enjoyed working with her on that. And Antony Sher is already an actor par excellence and this is his first project as a director so I think I am so lucky to be in this position of working under his directorship in his first show.
Shakespeare is definitely a favourite. I love the poetry of his language. And I also live Chekhov.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I used not to want to do it because everyone seems to do it, but recently I decided I would like to play Othello. But only if I had a director who would take all my ideas of the play on board! There have been a number of productions recently with really strong Iagos and not so strong Othellos, which is a shame as they should be equally strong, otherwise it unwittingly promotes the idea that white is superior. I think as well as being noble, Othello has to be in love, the actor has to portray being in love otherwise there is no real reason for his jealousy. He also has to be suspicious of Iago, he is not completely stupid and naïve saying “oh yes, Iago, you’re wonderful and my wife is evil”, because it’s in the script that he has his suspicions, he says to Iago “if you lie I will kill you”, so he really needs to show that suspicion. I think Desdemona needs to be strong as well. She can’t be this wimpy, willowy blonde who doesn’t have a clue. For a start, she has married a man who is a social outcast, so she has had the guts to do that, she is not feeble.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I have taught at various drama schools and I think if I hadn’t become an actor I would be a teacher. I completed my degree in English and drama and then did drama history and then criticism, and realised when I was about 30, when am I going to own up to the fact that acting is what I want to do?
What was the last stage production that had a big impact on you?
The Crucible, that was amazing, it was the first time I had seen a professional production of it and I took my 19 year old daughter to see that and she loved it. It was such a fantastic production by Dominic Cooke, all the cast were excellent but Iain Glen was so wonderful as Proctor. The way the tension was built up just made me want to shout out to them “can’t you se whats; going on?!” It was superb.
What advice would you give the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
More funding, obviously, but more funding not just for the large companies like the National Theatre and the RSC but also for smaller venues, such as the Soho Theatre. London used to be full of smaller companies doing really great work and then some of the people from them went on to bigger and better things, but they still had that wonderful experience of working in a smaller and more experimental environment. The Arcola is great, but we need more places like it.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be & why?
I would like to be Mohammed Ali for a day, just so I could feel that power and charismas and feel what it is like to be him. I met him once coming out of a movie house in New York, and whatever “It” is, he has it in buckets. He is just so confident and charismatic and that shines through even before he has said or done anything.
Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in six volumes. It is brilliant. All the characters are so real. And by the time you get to the end, you also realise that he is working it out as he goes along, you can see all the workings of his mind and how the story came together.
Favourite holiday destinations
Greece. I go there quite often as a friend of mine has a holiday home there – the deal is I drive and she cooks.
Favourite after-show haunts
I Like Joe Allen’s and Century.
Why did you want to accept your role in Breakfast with Mugabe at the Novello. What are the challenges of rehearsing for a new play while performing in a completely different type of play?
I haven’t had to do that here as we finished As You Like It before starting rehearsals for Breakfast With Mugabe, but we did do that in Stratford and it’s just crazy. Jacques and Mugabe are completely different roles and I had to shut off Mugabe, who I had been playing all day in rehearsals, for the evening performance as Jacques. It is exciting, but I’m glad we are not having to do that here as well!
You’ve worked with the RSC a number of times during your career, why do you like to return to the company?
The main reason is because I love Shakespeare, so his work is always a draw for me. I also enjoy the fact you have a longish rehearsal time at the RSC, you can work on a play for sic to eight weeks rather than three weeks like you have with many shows, then you are performing the play for six months, which means you really understand it and your character has a chance to grow, and you can add things in and improve your performance as you go along. I think you can learn a lot that way. You become completely immersed in the play, rehearsing in the day and performing at night, and it becomes almost like a monastic community; I like the routine.
Do you have a favourite line from the play or any memorable moments from the run to date? How has the play changed between its Stratford run and Soho?
Fraser Grace is a wonderful playwright and it is difficult to pick something out; but one I do particularly like is when Mugabe says to the psychiatrist, “Please, choose yourself a tie.” He offers him some ties and asks him to choose one which he finds acceptable, and it seems like such an innocuous comment but there is such menace behind it. It is a command rather than an offer; he is telling him to take a tie, not asking him.
I’m working with Dominic Cooke again in Stratford for the Complete Works season at the RSC in Pericles and The Winters Tale, and I’m also going to be in a new play about Damilola Taylor. I don’t know what part I’m playing in that, but I hope it is going to be the part of his father, that wonderful man.
Joseph Mydell was talking to Caroline Ansdell
Following its premiere last year in Stratford-upon-Avon, Breakfast with Mugabe opened on 12 April 2006 (preview 11 April 2006) at London's Soho Theatre, where it runs until 22 April 2006.