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Brief Encounter with ... William Houston

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William Houston is currently playing Vershinin in Benedict Andrews' radical new production of Three Sisters, which recently extended at the Young Vic until 3 November.

His other stage credits include Astrov in the Print Room's recent staging of Uncle Vanya, Peter Hall's Bacchai at the NT and Henry IV and Henry V for the RSC.

Three Sisters is a complex production with many elements - how did it come together?
Firstly, we rehearsed on the set from day two, which is very rare. It meant that immediately there was a desire to perform; to run before we could walk. In Act Three the set literally gets pulled from beneath our feet, so we needed time to choreograph it properly. We also had Victoria Behr’s fantastic costumes from day one.

Benedict's a demon of a director; charming and wonderful and very gifted, but also slightly sadistic. He pulls the rug from under your feet time after time. You think you’ve nailed something until three days later he completely changes it. He’s a very clever man and a very fast thinker. I think he gets bored very quickly with what he sees so he’s constantly trying to update or reinvent every moment again and again and again.

You went straight to this from playing Astrov at the Print Room. Would you say there are similarities between the characters?
I thought they were very similar until I started to work on this production. Astrov is one of the most beautiful parts you’ll ever get to play; I loved rehearsing it, I loved performing it. There is a lovely short story called The Man Who Planted Trees by a writer called Jean Giono, about a man who plants trees purely for the benefits of future generation. And that’s exactly what Astrov does, and he’s a doctor, a healer. On the other hand Vershinin is a soldier, he destroys things. And he perhaps plants seeds of thought but he doesn’t actually get down on his hands and knees and create something for the future. But his philosophy weakens, especially in the third act; happiness does exist for him. That’s what he’s desperate for but he’s in an awful marriage to this Yoko Ono-esque woman. He’s far more tortured than Astrov; he tells lies. It ain’t as much fun to play, let me tell you.

There’s that very telling moment in the first act when the sisters are teasing him about being a lovesick
People that talk and talk are always covering something. I think Vershinin is in love with the idea of being in love. But I don’t think he’s good at the permanency of a long relationship; I think he likes to move on.

You’re surrounded by some very promising young talents
It’s an incredible cast. In the leads you’ve got Gala Gordon, who’s in her first job straight out of college, and you’ve got Vanessa Kirby, Mariah Gale, Danny Kirrane and Emily Barclay – fantastic talents. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the best actors in the world and these guys are right up there with them. I was in my mid 30s before I felt fully in control of a classical text. This lot come out of college and they can do it in their early 20s - how is that possible?

It's a very modern production that directly compares Chekhov's era with ours
There sure is something in Three Sisters; there’s a feeling that the world is coming to an end, that catastrophe is around the corner. There is a lot of fear being pushed our way at the moment. If you read The Prince by Machiavelli, you know that fear is the best way to control anyone. But perhaps there is a sense of change; we’re in a period of great change, and I think Chekhov is generating interest at the moment because of that. But maybe that’s because my character is in the middle of a midlife crisis. If he was 18 or 21 and just coming out of college I think he’d be excited to be alive.

Would you describe playing Hal/Henry V at the RSC as your breakthrough moment?
Yeah, absolutely. Playing one character over two years in three of Shakespeare’s greatest plays; I felt like I became a grown-up through the pressure of that experience. It was my first time getting on a great classical stage to play a great classical role in front of some very sharp pencils. I can remember calling my mum from the dressing room before the opening night of Henry V full of tears, full of fear. She told me to get on with it and stop crying. I grew up with the RSC, from playing minor roles to leads; it was an amazing time.

You’ve never taken on Hamlet
I understudied Alex Jennings in the role, then made a very low budget film version, so I kind of got to do it. Understudying Alex was a massive changer for me, to watch an actor of that calibre for a whole year. We had a great cast and great fun doing it, so I don’t regret not doing it. Macbeth is still one I would really love to play.

Three Sisters continues until 3 November


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