Interview with Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann of the Royal Shakespeare Company

I met with Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann on Friday, September 13, at the end of my Shakespeare week. We sat down for a conversation at the offices of the RSC. I had seen Pippa Nixon in two plays: As You Like It and Hamlet. I had seen Alex Waldmann in three plays: As You Like It, Hamlet and All’s Well that Ends Well.

AYLI-3958.jpgHow do you keep up the energy doing more than one play a week?

Pippa Nixon: The most [performances] I’m doing is five, and the minimum is three. That’s as of a couple of months ago; before that, I was doing eight shows a week. Alex is doing eight shows right now. It’s a pretty grueling schedule here.

[To Alex Waldmann] You look tired.

Alex Waldmann: I am tired this morning. It is tiring, because I was doing eight shows a week and rehearsing in the day, so the days would be 10 in the morning to 11 at night. It is hard work, and they work you really hard here, but it beats doing a proper job.

We’re really lucky to do what we do. When you come out and there’s a thousand people watching and hopefully having a good time, that’s a really nice thing to be able to do. Especially with a show like As You Like It, you get a lot of energy back from the audience, so you end up feeling more awake at the end than you do at the beginning.

I don’t much like the beginning of As You Like It with all the exposition, but when you get into the forest, everything changes. The finish of the play with the music and dancing is magical.

ALL0483.jpgAlex Waldmann: I know a lot of people don’t particularly enjoy the first half-hour of the play, and we did want to […] make it particularly bleak and alienating. I think in order to earn the joy at the end you have to make clear that Rosalind and Orlando don’t go to Arden [Forest] looking for a good time, they go to save their own lives. They’re going to be killed if they stay at the court, and we need to make that clear in order to have that huge journey and have the audience go on the same journey as the characters.

What is it like being in a company like the RSC? How different is it to be in a company doing more than one play at a time? Is there cross-fertilisation among the actors and plays?

Pippa Nixon: When you take the job on, you know that you’re going to be in Stratford-upon-Avon for at least six months. It asks for a specific type of actor, because not every actor wants to leave London or be away from friends or family for that amount of time. A lot of people in the company have young families that they bring up here. That already starts to change the people that you’re in the company with.

We rehearse two plays at the same time. We rehearsed As You Like It and Hamlet, and we had twelve weeks to rehearse those two plays, which is a long time. Normally for a play standing on its own, you might have four or five weeks in London. But saying that, these are two massive plays, and it takes that amount of time when you’re doing two at the same time to completely internalize it.

Both of us are fortunate that we’ve got to the point of playing lead roles, but it’s the people that have smaller roles that we take our hats off [to] all the time. Alex was saying to me yesterday that in Hamlet, there’s an actor in our company that is just so in it the whole time, and stands in one scene, at the back of the set, with a gun, completely in character. You won’t be able to see him because there’s smoke, and the lights and the set are pretty dark and he’s just constantly on it. I think that within this company there are loads of people like that who are doing all three plays, could be understudying in all three plays. Some people in our company have been rehearsing since December 17, and didn’t stop until the middle of August.

Both of us are fortunate that we’ve got to the point of playing lead roles

You do two plays: you put Hamlet on, then you put As You Like It on, you understudy the understudy run for Hamlet and the understudy run for As You Like It, and the rehearsals for All’s Well and the understudy run for All’s Well finished in August. It’s grueling. It’s a massive commitment. Some people, their only period of not working is probably between 11 o’clock at night and 9:30 in the morning.AYLI 6382

Alex Waldmann: This is something I said earlier; it’s a lot of work, but it’s the one place now that you do get the chance to do that. I think any actor would rather take working really hard and being in three plays than the alternative, which is not being in anything and sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring. You do get a chance to speak Shakespeare, all day, every day, and you get much more familiar…

I think any actor would rather take working really hard and being in three plays than the alternative, which is not being in anything and sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring.

Last night, [there were] moments in All’s Well that Ends Well, the way certain moments of that play had come on and the confidence people are speaking the verse, compared to even a few weeks ago. What you said about the cross-fertilisation, a lot of those relationships were established early on, so Jonny and I playing Hamlet and Horatio, we did a lot of work getting to know each other back in December and January. When we come to All’s Well, we already have that familiarity, that relationship is already there.

When you’re doing the plays all the time, you see similarities in the way things cross over. The thing that’s become really clear to me over the year is that grief and love are such extremes but they both end up making human beings do ridiculous things and they make us go a bit mad. They couldn’t be further away, and they somehow meet in the middle.

grief and love are such extremes but they both end up making human beings do ridiculous things and they make us go a bit mad

The loss of fathers in all three plays, the absent fathers; those things become clearer and clearer when you’re working on them together.

When you’re an actor, in drama school or starting out, is it a dream to be in the RSC? Does everyone want to do Shakespeare?

Pippa Nixon: Yes, I would say, definitely. I think everyone has a different relationship or way into Shakespeare. For me, it was a dream to be at the RSC. I wanted to make sure that I was able to do classical work. I really wanted to work at the Globe and the RSC, and I looked to make that happen. The actors and actresses that I aspired to have a career like have gone along these routes. Others sort of fall upon it then discover they love it. Others have a taste of it and think it’s not for them. I think every actor does have a different relationship with Shakespeare.

I really wanted to work at the Globe and the RSC, and I looked to make that happen.

AYLI-6403.jpgAlex Waldmann: It wasn’t a dream of mine, I didn’t always want to be an actor. I got to drama school and they told me that I wouldn’t really do any theatre, and I’d only do screen work.

As an actor, for the first few years, you’re not really in control; people will tell you what they want you to do. As soon as I started doing Shakespeare, then people would see me for another Shakespeare, and I ended up coming here, with Maria Aberg doing King John last year. It wasn’t something I’d always…

But now I’m here, I’ve loved it and I fell in love with the RSC, and I think I’ve properly fallen in love with Shakespeare the last two years. I’m not a Shakespeare expert at all; I only really come to appreciate it not only just from rehearsing the plays but actually from doing it in front of an audience. That’s when I really understand how brilliant it is.

There’s a scene in As You Like It, the scene between Adam and Orlando, when he gives him the money. When I read that, I didn’t get anything, but I think when the audience sees an old man with a little box of money it suddenly becomes clear what that scene is about. Other people would just read Shakespeare and understand it instantly but I don’t often get so much from reading it.

I think I’ve properly fallen in love with Shakespeare the last two years

Now I’m here, I love it, and I realise what an honour it is to be here, but it wasn’t something I’d always wanted to do. I’ve found myself now lucky enough to play lead roles in Shakespeare, but a few years ago, I’d never thought, that’s where I would be.

Is there a lot of competition to get into the RSC, or are you invited?

Pippa Nixon: We did King John [last year] with the same director that directed As You Like It [Maria Aberg], and I think that last year and this year, both of us have felt like it’s the first time that we’ve been able to really inhabit the language and make it our own. It’s come from quite a creative background for that to happen and somehow with me and Alex and Maria Aberg in the room together, there’s been this incredible creative chemistry. Being able to unlock the text in that way does make you fall much more in love with Shakespeare and realise how elastic it is.

Being able to be brave enough to open yourself up to that text to allow it to push you in lots of different directions has been really exciting. Because of the success of that last production, and Maria being asked back to do As You Like It, she invited us to play Rosalind and Orlando.

Being able to unlock the text in that way does make you fall much more in love with Shakespeare and realize how elastic it is.

So it’s not an open audition for the RSC?

Pippa Nixon: They are loyal here. Once you have an opening, if you really love it here and get on well here, they receive that with open arms, and the casting department always try to bring people back.

Our industry has gotten more and more competitive, which, in some ways, brings out a different breed of actor. The actors are working much harder because the world is more competitive.

Alex Waldmann: The way the industry is at the moment, every year, there are a thousand more kids coming out of drama school. There’s not a thousand more parts, there’s less parts, less theatres able to produce, there’s less original television being made because the costs are much higher, there’s less films being made. You’ve got more and more people for less jobs. When you’re here, somewhere like this, you can’t take it for granted, because there’s a thousand people that would swap places with you in a second. You have to give everything of yourself, because no one’s irreplaceable either. You get the chance to do what you do, but you know that someone else could do what I do. You have to make the most of it because it’s hard to come by.

When you’re here, somewhere like this, you can’t take it for granted, because there’s a thousand people that would swap places with you in a second.

Pippa Nixon: You also have to be yourself. I’ve spent so long thinking that this person, in my generation of actors, is doing so well, I wish I was on that path, then you realise you have to carve your own path.

I’ve been thinking a lot about longevity and being patient and consistently doing hard work. You have to keep your head down and keep going. As I said, it is a competitive time, and people coming out of drama school, the whole fame and fortune [thing] is becoming really immediate. People getting thrown at film and TV parts and getting really successful, then theatres going, “oh, we want so-and-so for this part.” You start thinking, I need to get a profile. There is always the weight of that as well.

I’ve been doing this for 12 years, and it’s taken me 12 years to get to this point. Actually, it’s made me a much better actor. One of my first jobs threw me in the deep end in television which was good in some ways because I had a lot of time to get better at it, but it’s also really dangerous because I think it makes you an actor that hasn’t got a huge amount of substance. I think being here – we’ve been lucky to be here for two or three years – it starts giving you real substance.

Hamlet-3091.jpgHow do you change from Rosalind one night to Ophelia another?

Pippa Nixon: [Laughs. Sighs.] I share a dressing room with Charlotte Cornwell who plays Gertrude [in Hamlet] and Jo Horton who plays Celia [in As You Like It]. One day I’m in there with Charlotte Cornwell, and, “Okay, I’m Ophelia today,” and the next day I’m in there with Jo Horton and “I’m Rosalind today.” The shows start at different times, I have completely different costumes, there’s a completely different feel at the beginning of the shows, so there’s not any confusion.

And you’re on stage a lot less with Ophelia, and it’s more intense…

Pippa Nixon: Yea. Rosalind is a character that is so full of life, and discovers life as the play goes on, and ends the play very much fulfilled. She is matched with her equal, and they go off and get married. With Ophelia, the character…

It’s a descending arc…

Pippa Nixon: Totally. And ends up very much dead. They go in completely opposite directions. I think Rosalind is everything that Ophelia can’t be.

I think Rosalind is everything that Ophelia can’t be.

When you come on stage as Ophelia, are you Rosalind for that first moment? You had that same giddy, uncomfortable-in-love expression. When you come on in Hamlet, you drop the books [Ophelia looks like a student, carrying an armful of books] and you’re very teenage-girlish.

Pippa Nixon: Yes. There’s a sort of hope that this relationship may blossom; there’s a thrill in it. I think what makes it awkward or gawky is because her brother very quickly tries to shut that down, and she tries to fight against it but then loses that battle, and then her father comes in and cements that for good. And that leads onto a pathway that obviously ends up in a grave.

And Rosalind, at the beginning of the play, there’s a melancholy about her, because her father has left and there’s an uncomfortableness of being in court. She isn’t fulfilled and meets Orlando and it’s like something has hit her in the face that she has never experienced before. Those feelings are sort of thrilling, but also uncomfortable, but she’s not in control.

What is it like lying dead on the stage for those twenty minutes? [Ophelia’s grave is at the front of the stage, and her body lies in plain view from the burial scene until the end of Hamlet.]

Pippa Nixon: I’m totally used to it now. At first, when David [Farr] told me, I did think, “You’re kidding me.” I thought I would be able to have the last act in my dressing room. Now I just get myself into a place of feeling very relaxed, and, to be honest, I try to get myself into that sort of sleep place, so my breathing is very shallow so I’m not focusing on, “Oh, I’ve got an itch here.” Sometimes that feels really nice and relaxing, and other times it’s quite terrifying because I don’t know what play I’m in and whether I’ll be getting up and dancing with Alex in this show [As You Like It] or whether I’m meant to be involved in the sword fight… You zone out from the stage but you still have to remain present. You have to hear what’s going on.

Hamlet-2019.jpgIn Hamlet, did I just miss it, or did you not read the part of the letter about the pirates?

Alex Waldmann: No, the letter got cut a lot. When I looked at the original text, there’s loads of Horatio’s lines that I’ve never, ever heard. Horatio’s always the first one that’ll have the cuts in order to move the story forward.

Your part [Horatio] seemed very reduced.

Alex Waldmann: Thank you very much. [Laughs.] It is. In terms of lines, it’s taken a big hit. I know my job in that play is just to be a bit of a foil for Jonny and to be a sounding board and be there in the background and listen. I don’t really have a lot to say.

It’s fascinating the way Horatio and Ophelia become iconic characters because they’re Hamlet’s best friend and lover, but in some ways, the way they’re presented often is fairly underwritten. So that’s my night off.

All’s Well is a play that I don’t get. I don’t get that the guy gets married to someone he doesn’t love, and in the end just gets falls in love.

Alex Waldmann: Of course, that’s the play, and that’s what is written, but I don’t necessarily think that’s what happens. He’s forced to marry someone he doesn’t want to marry. He really wants to go and fight, because as a guy of that class you’ve got no other option, like Prince Harry would today. When he’s away, a thousand miles from home fighting in a real war, and he finds that someone he’s known all his life has died, that he’s treated really badly… I think he thinks of her a bit like a sister. When you lose someone that you’ve known all your life that’s going to make you grieve.

When he comes back, he’s convinced she’s dead. He says in the text: “Since I have lost, I have loved,” and the king goes on and on about how you don’t know what you’ve got till you lose it.

He doesn’t just fall in love in the final lines of the play, he just realizes that she comes home pregnant and that’s the one chance that he may have to be able to make amends for all the bad things he’s done. It’s not about suddenly falling in love, it’s thinking, as an adult now, I’ve messed up, I’ve been like a selfish kid, this person I’ve known all my life, she’s carrying my baby. He did have this amazing night together and didn’t know it was her, this is my one chance at the future.

The moment when your character realised it was when you put your hand on her belly.

Alex Waldmann: Yes, but it’s not about falling in love in the last moment of the play. He feels so terrible about what he’s done, I think, that he wants forgiveness and wants a chance to have a new start, and they can have that through this new life they’ve created amongst all this death.

What will it be like to change from the thrust stage in Stratford to a normal stage, when you go on tour with the plays in Newcastle? How do you act on a thrust stage, and how does this change the way you interact with the audience?

Alex Waldmann: I can’t imagine now doing front-on proscenium theatre after having done this. I love the fact that we’re out in the audience, I love the fact that your whole body has to be acting all the time. That’s what it is with human beings: we don’t just act with our faces, we act with our whole bodies. Particularly with As You Like It, we always try to be quite fluid. People might get your back for one minute. I always think with All’s Well that people on stage left probably don’t get a lot of my best bits; I’ve got my back to them. So when I’m holding up my hands at the end, these guys won’t see that I’m pleading with her to hold my hand. But hopefully there will be something within my back that they can see, whereas people out that way will get a different part of the performance. That’s fascinating.

I love the fact that we’re out in the audience, I love the fact that your whole body has to be acting all the time.

Some people do come and sit in different parts of the audience… and have a completely different experience. There will be a lot of stuff you miss the first time that you’ll catch the second time if you sit somewhere else, and that’s fascinating. But I love the fact that we’re out in front of the audience because the audience are another character in the play. In all the plays, the energy the audience bring in will absolutely affect the performance that evening, particularly for As You Like It. There are some nights we might be feeling tired, but the audience just come in with energy like “we’re really going to enjoy this,” and we get carried along on their wave. It will shape what we do with each other. The fact that we’re out amongst them, with people all around – sometimes you can’t believe there’s a thousand people in there because it feels much more intimate – that’s really thrilling.

All’s Well that Ends Well will be the least hard to adapt to a proscenium arch, but I think the other two are going to be tricky; they’ll probably feel like different plays. I can’t imagine what it’s like; I haven’t done a play [like that] for a long time…

The RSC is taking three of this season’s plays on tour to the Theatre Royal in Newcastle, from 18 October to 9 November. See Hamlet, As You Like It and All’s Well that Ends Well.

Photo credits: Keith Pattison and Ellie Kurtz, the Royal Shakespeare Company

Watch interviews with Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann discussing the current production of Hamlet:

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