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Past/Present/Future for ... Forbes Masson

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Forbes Masson is a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company's long ensemble, with which he is currently playing Merlin in Mike Poulton and Gregory Doran's epic staging of Malory's Morte d'Arthur.

Masson rose to fame through his comedy partnership with Alan Cumming, which included the creation of musical double act Victor and Barry and hit 1995 sitcom The High Life.

He has acted with the RSC since 2003 - the current ensemble is his fourth. Previous roles for the company include Hamlet, Twelfth Night, the award-winning Histories cycle, and As You Like It. Elsewhere, he recently played the Fool opposite Pete Postlethwaite's King Lear, directed by Rupert Goold.

PAST: Alan Cumming and I were at drama school together, and at that time we were doing lots of different things and it was the comedy that primarily took off. Then Michael Boyd saw us and put us on at the Tron Theatre. So we both ended up working with Michael at the Tron, which soon led to other work in Scottish Theatre.

Victor and Barry was something that helped pay the mortgages, but we always did more artistic stuff as well. Both of us always wanted to have quite a varied career and several years later, when Michael came to the RSC and said he was starting up an ensemble, I was really keen to become part of it. I had worked with an ensemble in Dundee that Hamish Glen ran, and I could see the advantages of actors working together for a long time and having a long rehearsal process.

I never thought I’d work with the RSC and I’d never really done a lot of Shakespeare before, so I was keen to do that and put my career in that different direction. I’ve been here more or less since 2003 - I’ve played the old Royal Shakespeare Theatre, I opened the Courtyard and with these new productions we’re going to opening the new RST so I’ve been very lucky to have been here during this very exciting time.

In the course of being here I’ve had two children so that’s had its pressures. This year they’re with me, last year they weren’t, which was quite tough as I was away from home a lot. But I've very fortunate in that the companies have been really fantastic. Everyone’s been really open and giving and there haven't really been any problems personality-wise. It’s been a really fruitful time.

PRESENT: I’m really enjoying this season. Jacques has been tremendous fun to play - Michael and I have taken quite a lot of licence with it and we’ve treated him as a bit of a faded old rock star in the middle of the forest. I’m also getting to do a lot of singing - Adrian Lee has written some amazing music for Morte D’Arthur. In fact it's pretty amazing all-round - it’s such a massive book and for Mike Poulton and Gregory Doran to have adapted it is an incredible thing.

The three acts are quite radically different in their tone. The first act is quite pagan, it tells the story of Arthur’s youth and becoming the king; the second act’s very much about quest of the grail and becomes quite 'Boosh'-like and surreal, and the third act is all about the downfall of Arthur and Lancelot’s relationship with Guenever replete with tournaments and battles. Terry King’s been working overtime on the fights.

I play Merlin – I just keep growing my hair so it's getting a bit ridiculous. I read up on him and there’s one version of the myth that says he’s this Celtic madman who ran away to the forest after being scared of war so there’s a bit of a chaotic element to him; he’s a bit Rasputin-esque and he’s a bit of a politician. And it’s also funny because Sam Troughton’s playing Arthur so there’s a bit of deja-vu because I played Friar Laurence to his Romeo.

Greg’s put a really strong theatrical stamp on it - he’s really good at creating these epic things. He had worked with Mike on Canterbury Tales so it’s got that feel to it. It’s quite episodic - you can’t cram the whole story in - so he’s taken certain story strands and focused on them. It’s got a lot of light and shade to it.

FUTURE: I’m reprising the role of Romeo to Kathryn Hunter’s Juliet in Ben Power’s adaptation which we did in Newcastle last year, called Tender Thing. He’s taken all the language of Romeo and Juliet and really reinvented it and chopped and changed it. It’s basically about enduring love and about what happens to a relationship that's coming to the end of its time. It went really well Newcastle so we’re really excited we’re going to bring it back. We don’t know exactly when but it should be playing the Swan sometime next year.

I’m also working on one of the new works which is called Little Eagles which is a Rona Munro play but we don’t start that one until later on. And we’re revising As You Like It for the autumn so we’ll go back to do that again. So it’s a fair old busy time. And of course we’ve got New York next year so that’s really exciting, taking all the plays there and to the Roundhouse as well.

Looking further ahead I want to do more writing - that’s had to go on hold since I became part of the ensemble. I’ve got a project which the Belgrade in Coventry are interested in and I’m looking to do something for here as well. So maybe after this I'll have a bit of a rest from acting for a wee while just to put my feet up. It’s been a full on time but it’s been fantastic.

Morte d'Arthur continues in rep at the Courtyard Theatre until 28 August 2010.


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