Newcastle says welcome back to the RSC

As the RSC prepares to head back to Newcastle, David Whetstone caught up with company member Antony Byrne who cut his teeth as an actor beside the Tyne

Antony Byrne as Duke Senior, As You Like It. Photo, Topher McGrillis

Antony Byrne as Duke Senior, As You Like It. Photo credit: Topher McGrillis

Three plays over a fortnight at the Theatre Royal? It’s a reminder of the days – some would say good old days – when the Royal Shakespeare Company decamped to Newcastle for a month and more.

The annual season began in 1977 in fulfilment of Trevor Nunn’s wish for his national company to live up to its name and have a home in the North.

All the plays staged in Stratford during the summer, 10 or even more, would get a Tyneside refresher before heading for London.

As well as Shakespeare plays, the seasons included works by his contemporaries (often neglected and sometimes we saw why) and new plays commissioned by the RSC.

Some North-East theatre-goers saved up and saw everything. Some youngsters were inspired to become actors or directors. The season drew in visitors from Yorkshire, Scotland, even overseas – although it was often said by appreciative actors that Newcastle audiences, being free of tourists with a bucket list, were knowledgeable and paid attention.

The season petered out largely because it was expensive to stage and budgets were cut. The RSC began to focus more on national and international tours and Newcastle’s special status dwindled.

Some in North East theatre had always grumbled about the RSC takeover, so maybe this burst of three plays – Measure for Measure, As You Like It and The Taming of the Shrew – is a happy medium. Fans of Shakespeare and the RSC will be in clover.

One who’s smiling is actor Antony Byrne, late of North Tyneside, who happens to play all the characters who are dukes.

Antony Byrne (Duke) and Sandy Grierson (Angelo), Measure for Measure. Photo, Helen Maybanks

Antony Byrne (Duke) and Sandy Grierson (Angelo), Measure for Measure. Photo, Helen Maybanks

There’s Vincentio, Duke of Vienna in Measure for Measure, who goes undercover disguised as a monk to keep tabs on how the citizens fare under the iron fist of Angelo, the man he’s left in charge.

Then there are the brothers in As You Like It: Duke Frederick, who has usurped the duchy (somewhere in France) and banished older sibling Duke Senior to rough it in the Forest of Arden.

We’ll come to them.

Antony first, though, by way of a scene setter. How did he come to the North East and to acting?

“My dad was in the army. He was from Middlesbrough and so was my mum. They’d lived on the same street.

“He finished up working in the army careers office in Newcastle and we lived in Monkseaton.

“There was a drama group in Backworth at the time. It was called Theatre North of the Tyne, TNT, and there was a whole bunch of people who went through that place. Robson Green was one of them.

“We took things to the Edinburgh Fringe. That was amazing for a boy of 15, to be in a place with all those shows going on.

“We did a play about Vincent Van Gogh and I played Vincent. I remember having a day off and going to the National Gallery of Scotland to see a picture by him. It was the first one I’d seen in the flesh.

“I did school plays too. Some of the people who did that also went to the theatre group and said why don’t you come along. It felt like it was an outlet.

“One of the teachers who directed the school plays is going to come and see As You Like It when we’re up there. I’ll be able to catch up with him afterwards which will be lovely.”

At 18, after seven years on Tyneside, Antony went to London to study at the Central School of Speech and Drama. He graduated in 1991 and joined the RSC for the first time in 1995.

That season he appeared in Julius Caesar (directed by Peter Hall) and The Phoenician Woman (Katie Mitchell) which both came to Newcastle.

In 2002 he was in a memorable production of The Roman Actor, Philip Massinger’s play first performed in 1626, which was thunderously received at Northern Stage.

He was last in Newcastle with the company in 2014, playing roguish soldier Pistol in Henry IV, Part 2 at the Theatre Royal – which is where he’ll also be this time, parading his trio of dukes.
Anyone looking at the plots of the three plays might swear they were written with the aid of a crystal ball.

In Measure for Measure, directed by RSC boss Greg Doran, a novice nun, Isabella, faces a terrible dilemma when the dictatorial Angelo agrees to lift a death sentence wrongly imposed on her brother but only in return for sex.

“Greg always talks about Shakespeare plays as like magnets with iron filings,” says Antony. “Any contemporary resonances are drawn to them.

“Our Measure for Measure is set in pre-First World War Vienna, a place that was very strongly patriarchal.

“We’re in a period now where the #MeToo movement has happened, so the queasiness of that play, the way men manipulate and use women for their own agendas, feels very current.

“You do get audiences audibly gasping at some lines. There’s a big scene with Isabella and Angelo when she calls him out and he says something like, ‘But who’ll believe you, Isabella?’

“The Weinstein thing is absolutely part of people’s response to that.”

Antony describes his own character as “like Undercover Boss in the TV series. You put on your disguise and listen to the world talking truthfully about you.

“It’s a difficult watch in lots of ways but it is also very funny. I find it interesting that it was first listed as a comedy.”

Sophie Stanton as Jacques, As You Like It. Photo, Topher McGrillis

Sophie Stanton as Jacques, As You Like It. Photo: Topher McGrillis

Women get a similarly raw deal in As You Like It where Duke Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, is also banished to the forest by her uncle. She dresses as a boy to join a host of whimsical characters, including Jacques, a mournful and poetic lord here played by a lady, Sophie Stanton.

Antony plays both the good and the bad brother.

“It has been done like that before but it seemed an interesting thing to explore. I had a conversation with the director (Kimberley Sykes) which went, ‘OK, if I’m playing them both, what does that say?

“What we came to is that they’re twins, born just eight minutes apart but whose journeys are so, so different for that. The reason for Duke Frederick taking over the state then became very real for me.”

We talk a little more about RSC gender blindness. In last year’s Romeo and Juliet a woman played Mercutio and here we have a female Jacques.

“We should be able to explore these plays in all sorts of ways and they’re robust enough for you to be able to do that,” says Antony.

“This is another way of seeing what they will reveal. I love what Sophie does as Jacques. It can also ask questions of the audience in terms of how they respond to characters.”

If you really want to see this put this to the test, advises Antony, go and see the one (duke-free) play he’s not in.

Claire Price (Petruchia), The Taming of the Shrew. Photo, Ikin Yum

Claire Price (Petruchia), The Taming of the Shrew. Photo, Ikin Yum

Justin Audibert’s production of The Taming of the Shrew is set in a matriarchal world where ‘shrewish’ Katherine is played by Joseph Arkley and her/his suitor, Petruchia here rather than Petruchio, by Claire Price.

“You forget all about that very quickly and get lost in the story,” suggests Antony.

“Originally the plays were performed by companies of men and the women were played by boys, so I think everything is up for grabs. They’re not sacred texts.”

Antony has done a lot of TV and film work over the years (Spender and Catherine Cookson’s The Cinder Path are on the CV) but has returned again and again to Shakespeare.

In 2017 he was delighted to play his namesake in an RSC production of Antony and Cleopatra (opposite Josette Simon) of which one critic gasped: “I have seldom witnessed a more horribly realistic death on stage.”

It has been a love affair with the stage but being in the RSC now entails screen work as certain performances are filmed for cinema screenings.

Antony’s old teacher emailed to say that he’d already seen him in Measure for Measure at the cinema.

Antony Byrne (Duke) and James Cooney (Claudio), Measure for Measure. Photo, Helen Maybanks

Antony Byrne (Duke) and James Cooney (Claudio), Measure for Measure. Photo, Helen Maybanks

“I think it’s broadened the audience and I think it’s brilliant in terms of accessibility. If you can’t get to a theatre but can get to a cinema, it’s wonderful.

“And as an actor you’ve got this body of work. I’ve been working professionally for 30 years now and all those theatre shows I did in my twenties and thirties there’s no record of.

“It lives in people’s memories but there’s something rather lovely about now being able to have it all as a document to show to your children.”

Antony, whose two sons are away studying, is contracted to the current RSC tour until April, after which, he says: “I’m coming home.” These days that is down in Kent.

First, though, there’s the eagerly awaited trip to his old stamping ground.

The mini RSC season is at the Theatre Royal from March 11 to 21. Check www.theatreroyal.co.uk whats-on for performance dates and times – or tel. 08448 11 21 21.

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