“Let me play the lion too”

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Yesterday I had an interesting chat with my colleague Paul about which actors we would like to see play Richard II. The jury is still out on that one – but it led me to think about the power of personality, and the part played by a performer’s persona in shaping the presentation of a Shakespearian role.

Casting is such an important aspect of any Shakespearian production. Some directors say that good casting accounts for 80 to 90% of the success of any given performance. A director can spend hours and hours making decisions about set, costume and stage effects – but if the actors cast as Romeo and Juliet have little or no chemistry then the show starts off on a bad foot. It’s possible of course for directors to manipulate an audience’s judgment – in casting Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo, Baz Luhrman was essentially resurrecting the romantic hero the actor had played to popular acclaim in the film Titanic. The fact that many film-goers were already ‘in love’ with the actor before the film started rolling, ensured that there would be tears before bedtime when Romeo lifted the vial of poison to his lips. Similarly, audiences familiar with ‘The Godfather’ movies would have found little difficulty in understanding Al Pacino’s fascination with the character of Richard III (“I can smile, and murder while I smile”) in his film ‘Looking for Richard’. And right now in Liverpool, fans of Kim Cattrall’s character Samantha in “Sex and the City” must feel that she was destined to play Shakespeare’s enchantress, Cleopatra.

There are however occasions when what seemed like ‘perfect casting’ on paper, hasn’t live up to the hype and expectation on reaching the stage. This must be devastating for all involved, but just goes to show that the sensitive presentation of Shakespeare’s characters is a fine and fragile art – defying theorization. Ben Jonson wrote of Shakespeare that “a good poet’s made as well as born” – the same is probably true for the best of Shakespearian performers.

So, who would you like to see next on a stage or screen near you as – Hamlet – Rosalind – Romeo – Lady Macbeth etc? Who do you have marked down as ‘waiting in the wings’ ready to step into some of Shakespeare’s major roles?

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Author:Nick Walton

Nick Walton is a Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

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  • Anonymous

    That sounds exciting Tara – best of luck for the show. One of my favourite Richard III’s in recent years was played by Katherine Hunter – and I really admired Fiona Shaw’s portrayal of Richard II. I understand that Helen Mirren has been cast as Prospero(a) in Julie Taymor’s new movie. There’s a long tradition of women making Shakespeare’s kings and princes their own – good stuff.

  • Nick Walton

    I like this one Nic – I can see your thinking.

  • Nick Walton

    I like this one Nic – I can see your thinking.

  • http://twitter.com/_ophelia Nic F

    My friends and I do this a lot. We cast Comedy of Errors. I decided Rob Brydon and Ben Miller would make great Antipholuses! I don’t think they’ve ever done Shakespeare before though haha.

  • http://twitter.com/_ophelia Nic F

    My friends and I do this a lot. We cast Comedy of Errors. I decided Rob Brydon and Ben Miller would make great Antipholuses! I don’t think they’ve ever done Shakespeare before though haha.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tara.bradway Tara Bradway

    I couldn’t agree more about the utter importance of casting. It can absolutely make or break a production. Something I wish I would see more of from companies is adventurous casting, however. What I mean by that is less constraint especially with gender. Certainly in some cases you really do need a man or woman for a certain role, but I wish casting directors would be a little more blind with it than they currently are. My company has nearly completed casting for a dual production of *Titus* and *Tempest* — and we cast an absolutely amazing woman to play Titus. She was simply the best person for the job and it didn’t matter to me that she was female. She’s an actor, and I expect her to do her job and pretend she’s someone that she’s not. That is, after all, what we do. And I think it’s exciting for the audience to have that challenge as well as the actors. I guess we’ll see in February!

  • Nick Walton

    Brilliant – casting agents take note! I’ve heard references to Shakespeare and his characters in their songs, so this would be the obvious next step for them!

  • Nick Walton

    Brilliant – casting agents take note! I’ve heard references to Shakespeare and his characters in their songs, so this would be the obvious next step for them!

  • http://bardfilm.blogspot.com/ kj

    I need the guys from Flight of the Conchords to play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the next major production of Hamlet.

    kj, indebted to a student for the suggestion

  • Nick Walton

    This looks like a pretty strong line-up Duncan – I like your thinking. I believe Greg Hicks’s name has been mentioned in relation to Timon before – and I think he would be a super choice for the role – bringing some bite and crisp delivery to the misanthropic tirades. Usually Timon serves as a pit-stop for actors on their journey towards Lear, but if Greg is to play it in the future it will be interesting to see what he brings to the role having already played Lear. Branagh’s Lear must be on the cards, but I wonder at what age he’ll choose to play it, and whether he will attempt the role on multiple occasions as he’s already done with Hamlet.

  • Nick Walton

    This looks like a pretty strong line-up Duncan – I like your thinking. I believe Greg Hicks’s name has been mentioned in relation to Timon before – and I think he would be a super choice for the role – bringing some bite and crisp delivery to the misanthropic tirades. Usually Timon serves as a pit-stop for actors on their journey towards Lear, but if Greg is to play it in the future it will be interesting to see what he brings to the role having already played Lear. Branagh’s Lear must be on the cards, but I wonder at what age he’ll choose to play it, and whether he will attempt the role on multiple occasions as he’s already done with Hamlet.

  • Duncan

    Jonathan Slinger as Macbeth
    Greg Hicks as Timon
    Michelle Terry as Celia
    Anna Maxwell Martin as Lady Macbeth
    Kenneth Branagh as Lear

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