There’s an old magazine cartoon that shows an actor onstage in Hamlet’s traditional black velvet. In the shell at the front of a stage is a helpful prompter, whispering to him, “…or not to be!” Something similar once happened to actor/director/writer Roger Rees, but you’ll have to go to his one-man slant on the Bard, “What You Will,” on Tuesday, November 3, at McCarter, to hear the story.
In addition to Shakespeare, Rees has tackled the works of some of the world’s greatest writers — Charles Dickens, Anton Chekov, George Bernard Shaw, and Harold Pinter. He has worked with everyone in show business from Laurence Olivier to Judi Dench to Steve Martin to Sylvester Stallone to the Rock, and for directors as varied as Mel Brooks and Bob Fosse. But for the Welsh-born actor, Shakespeare has always been where it’s at.
Rees’ name has appeared at the McCarter before; last year, he directed another single actor show, B.D. Wong in “Herringbone.” While he was in town, in September, 2008, he played one of the two leads in a dramatic reading of “Class,” by Princeton resident Charles Evered, then artist-in-residence at the Arts Council in Princeton. Best known to theater audiences for his Tony Award-winning performance in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s landmark eight-hour production of Dickens’s “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,” Rees also has plenty of fans from his TV appearances as Robin Colchord on “Cheers,” Lord John Melbury on “The West Wing,” and Dr. Colin Marlow on “Grey’s Anatomy.” He was just seen in the last three episodes of the current season on ScyFy’s spooky series “Warehouse 13.” And his biggest claim to fame may be that he is the only celebrated British actor of his generation not to appear in a Harry Potter film.
But it’s his own classical credits that drive his 90-minute journey through everything Shakespeare. In his 22 years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Rees appeared in just about every major Shakespeare work: “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Twelfth Night,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Macbeth,” among others. He wasn’t always center stage, either, starting his career with the obligatory “spear-carrier” roles, and moving on to those parts that even the most dedicated theatergoers have to look up in their Who’s Who in Avon (Quick: who’s Volumnius in “Julius Caesar?”). And finally, working his way up to the title role in “Hamlet,” the longest running Danish prince in the company’s history.
In his one-man show “What You Will” (the name comes from the subtitle of “Twelfth Night”), Rees performs snippets of Shakespeare, peppered with anecdotes about his own and others’ experiences and opinions of the Bard. “I’ve been doing it for about three years now,” says Rees in a telephone interview from New York City, where he is working on an independent film called “Almost Perfect” (“I’m playing the Caucasian father of a Chinese family,” Rees says).
‘I tested it at the Folger Theater [run by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC]. I was going to do an evening which I used to call ‘Roger Rees Acts Up,’ just a lot of poetry and pieces that I’ve done before. Beth Emelson, the clever assistant artistic director, said that since it was the Folger, maybe it should just be Shakespeare. And I started to put it together and it actually works quite well. It does keep on changing. I get interested in different aspects of things and start researching. I think it should be a moveable feast.”
A feast it is, according to the critics. The Washington Post says that “Rees’ skills as a raconteur and his gift for mimicry make the evening a breeze,” and when he performed the show at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, the Examiner called it “the funniest, smartest, most delightful show you’ll see this summer.”
Rees’ family moved to London when he was nine, and he actually was attending art school when the theater bug hit. He didn’t find it to be a huge leap. “No, it’s the same artistic thing,” he says. “Lots of wonderful actors were artists. It’s just that you daren’t tell people you want to be an actor. Or you don’t know yourself. You just have to release your artistic bounds, and luckily for some people it ends up in the theater.”
He didn’t pass his first audition for the RSC, but came back after a sojourn as a working actor in Scotland. This time, in 1968, the RSC said yes. The then 24-year-old actor had a found a home that lasted over two decades. “That was really my education; I never went to drama school,” he says. “You got a little brainwashed — indoctrinated, if you like. There’s something in me that feels I’d like to be there now. I’d like to be just studying plays, continually performing them. It’s a great life.”
In his book about the RSC production of Nicholas Nickleby, Leon Rubin, the assistant director of the show, writes, “Roger was the perfect company lead…the best-liked acting member of the RSC.” “Well, I’m the best-liked cast member of ‘What You Will,’ anyway,” Rees says diplomatically. He also downplays the idea that he was the obvious choice for Nicholas. “There were lots of young men in the company who looked liked the original drawings of Nicholas. I was just a juvenile character actor. I had a lot of stamina, [director] Trevor Nunn thought. You needed someone in the middle who could be onstage for eight hours, carry things, and lift people.”
The production was so well-received, and Rees’s performance so hailed, that some predicted international stardom. That didn’t happen. Whether it was his age — he was 36 playing 19, or that his angular face and mellifluous voice are better suited for character work, or perhaps his desire to continue to strive within the RSC, Rees is now, at 65, a sought after character actor on screen and television. He frequently plays villains, and is often cast in off-beat science fiction. The film and TV work is fine, but in conversation with Rees, you get the distinct impression that all artistic roads lead back to Shakespeare, whether it’s in his guise as actor or director. He spent 2005 through 2007 as artistic director of the Williamstown (Massachusetts) Theatre Festival (“A great time. Three fantastic years”), and he’s anxious to articulate his feelings about modern attitudes towards Shakespeare, as well as his impression of what he’s seen on American campuses.
“I’ve been onstage with many of the great Shakespearean actors of the last 30 years, and I do think some of the best Shakespeare I’ve ever seen is done by young students in colleges and universities around America. Something about them nowadays, they have less of a sense of apprenticeship and more of a sense of ownership, of new tasks and interesting areas of scrutiny. And it’s really great to see people just readily identify with these characters in a way that I think was probably not easy to do in a more conceited age, when I was growing up, when everyone sort of had to wait in line; you never had a dream that you could play Hamlet.
“There’s a school of education in Shakespeare that suggests that you should wait in line, and spend 20 years over one speech before you say it because it’s a really beautiful piece of poetry. It’s not a beautiful piece of poetry till the human being speaks it. That’s what I’m interested in, and I think that’s what these kids are able to do. I think we might have been a bit more cowed when I was younger, a bit frightened perhaps. These kids are actually getting on and doing it for themselves and their schools. And they speak in a young, modern way that I rather think Shakespeare spoke in.”
It is worth noting that Rees isn’t proprietary about Shakespeare; rather, he is anxious to spread the wealth. He is delighted when he sees the material done well regardless of the source. Jude Law is currently playing Hamlet on Broadway, and part of the audience for his show is the young fans, some of them seeing Shakespeare for the first time. Rees says, “I’ve seen it, and I think he’s tremendous. Having played the part, you realize actually what it takes. Thing is, if you do Romeo and Juliet, Juliet could be fat and Romeo could be spotty, not prepossessing, but you wouldn’t actually sell any tickets. So I think Jude Law’s Hamlet was pretty marvelous, and of course it belongs to every generation, as does Shakespeare, and that’s something that I’m very interested in.
“I’d seen Hamlet many, many times before I played it. They say that your Hamlet always contains something that no one else ever did. It’s very often the case in Shakespeare: people think ‘Oh, Shakespeare’s characters, what they say is true.’ That’s not the fact — they could be lying. And in Dickens, too, when somebody says something you don’t have to believe it. The great writers, they demand a real human being in the middle of it.
“‘What You Will’ is dedicated to the idea that you can take the religious aspects of Shakespeare away and reveal the human being in the center,” Rees continues. “When the human being is revealed, then it does become truly poetic. Because the thing about Shakespeare is that he’s better than we are. That’s why it’s irresistible. It’s like you can’t just say, ‘Oh, he sucks.’ Although I quote many people in my show who do say that. He writes better than I do, so I like to be near him.”
Even great Shakespearean actors can have one role that has eluded them, and Rees is no exception. “I’m such a weird person. People say, ‘You’ve had a wonderful career,’ and I thank them for that but I just do whatever comes next. I really am somebody who had no favorites. The one thing I wish I was physically, and in this day politically correctly attuned to do, is play Othello, because Othello actually moves me more than any other part. I was going to direct it once with an actor who didn’t quite see it the way I saw it, so I didn’t do it, but I would love to direct it one day, because I have a lock on it that is pretty interesting. I think it’s very often turned out to be a play called Iago. Othello is a deeply, deeply moving role. So fabulously sad, and I’m very attracted to those sorts of things. The only thing I would claim to have any favoritism about — I’ve worked with such wonderful people and been in such marvelous things, I’m really grateful, and I love to tell the next generation about it in a way that this show does — is getting people excited to listen to Shakespeare again. I just want to spread the word.”
Roger Rees, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Tuesday, November 3, 8 p.m. “What You Will,” a one-man show, includes Shakespeare soliloquies, anecdotes, and snippets of his life in the theater. Rees is known to TV audiences as Robin Colcord on “Cheers,” Lord Marbury on “The West Wing,” and Dr. Colin Marlow on “Grey’s Anatomy.” $39 to $50. 609-258-2787 or mccarter.org.