Whether in a supporting part or as a leading man, the Olivier and Tony award-winning actor always leaves his mark. As he reprises his role as Cicero for the West End transfer of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Imperium plays, he tells Mark Shenton that despite his true love being music, he has genuinely learnt to love his profession
Konstantin Stanislavski once famously remarked that “there are no small parts, only small actors”. And Richard McCabe is just the sort of performer that would have won the great Russian theatre practitioner’s approval. Whatever the size of the role, he has left his mark, working steadily through the ranks of supporting actor to leading man, and back again. Now, in his late 50s, he is headlining the Royal Shakespeare Company’s transfer of Imperium from Stratford-upon-Avon to London’s West End. The double bill, adapted by Mike Poulton from Robert Harris’ trilogy of novels, won rave reviews from the critics when it opened in December, as did McCabe himself. The Guardian’s Michael Billington called his “a career-defining performance”.
It’s lucky the notices were so positive, as McCabe is that rare beast: an actor who actually admits to reading his reviews. “I have to, because other people do, and they’ll come up to you and say: ‘Don’t worry about what they said.’ So I have to know what they’ve said,” he laughs.
So he saw Billington’s comment, but admits to feeling a little bemused by the accolade. “I’m not sure what that means,” he says now. “It’s funny, what one tends to think of as the best work you’ve done is not what other people think is the best you’ve done. For instance, I’ve won awards for playing Harold Wilson in The Audience , which was relatively easy. Whereas, something like my turn as Ben Jonson in Edward Bond’s Bingo , which included what was essentially a 20-minute monologue, was incredibly difficult to pull off and was interesting and varied. I found that far more satisfying, because I knew the work that was involved in it.”
He not only rises to that kind of challenge, he positively relishes in it. And the character he plays in Imperium, Cicero – one of Ancient Rome’s greatest orators – is definitely a challenge. “This is one of the biggest parts ever written,” he says. “When I watched the understudy run I realised he’s got two-thirds of the play.”
The original rehearsal period for both parts that comprise Imperium – running for more than six and a half hours in all – was nine weeks, and he says: “Looking at the size of the script I knew that I had to learn five pages, seven days a week, for eight weeks. That’s how big it is. And if I had a day off, those five pages had to be added on to the next day. So I’d do a whole day’s rehearsal, then go home to do two hours of solid line-learning.”
It became an all-consuming project. “Your head is completely full. You can’t hold anything else in there. You also have no room for anything domestic at all; all I could do was live and breathe this play. But because the writing is so fluent, you are not aware of how huge it is… though I know I only get about six scenes off in the whole six and a half hours playing time.”
He credits the adaptation by Poulton with making the job slightly easier. “He’s a very rhythmic, fluid writer, and there’s always a forward momentum to his writing. There are very few longueurs,” McCabe says.
The pair has worked together before: the actor starred in Fortune’s Fool at the Old Vic, adapted from the Ivan Turgenev original by Poulton.
“I think he’s just the most wonderful writer,” McCabe says. “There’s no greater adapter of classical scripts than him, he gets the essence of what he adapts. He puts a lot of himself into it.”
Poulton asked him to do the two-part RSC stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, too. “I was in The Audience at the time and I knew there was a possibility it would go to Broadway and I felt an allegiance to that show, so I said no,” McCabe says.
When Imperium was being developed for the RSC, McCabe joined a workshop of the script as it was being developed. “It’s always good for the author to hear the words spoken out loud, otherwise they’re just sitting in front of a computer, in Mike’s case for two years, adapting these three mammoth books into a play,” he says.
Did he read the books himself to get better acquainted with the world they inhabit? “We’re doing Mike Poulton’s adaptation of these books, not the books themselves, so I didn’t dare read the whole thing. I know the world of the play, not the world of the book, and I want to remain faithful to that.”
Changes between the books and the plays have been made. “He’s had to sacrifice a lot of the books to make it work. I’m basically treating it as a brand-new text,” McCabe says.
And it was something he played an active role in guiding. “I was completely involved in the shaping of the script, moving things around and transposing scenes. I like to be very much hands-on like that.”
Actors, he believes, need to be afforded their own sense of agency and trust. “My first agent said that I would only meet a handful of directors in the whole of my career whose opinions I could trust completely; the rest of the time you have to rely on your own instincts. And that’s absolutely true.”
Though he’s too discreet to provide a complete list of the directors whose work he truly rates, he does name a couple. “The most recent one was Helena Kaut-Howson, who I first did Amadeus with back in Bolton in the 1983, and a two-hander adapted from Romeo and Juliet called A Tender Thing. She’s something of a genius. If you’re missing a thought between two thoughts, she’ll spot it – she’s absolutely forensic. And she loves actors and respects them. Not all directors do, you know.”
Q&A: Richard McCabe
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked as a clerical assistant at the Department of Health and Social Security for about three months before I went to drama school.
What was your first theatre job?
I had a schoolmaster who was a supernumerary at Glyndebourne Opera, and through him I got a job as a walk-on in Peter Hall’s production of Don Giovanni there in 1975 or 1976.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Enjoy it more.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
What is your best advice for auditions?
I’m the worst person to ask, as I’ve always been terrible at auditions. It may be the most facile thing to say, but be yourself; don’t be something you’re not.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have done?
I’d have gone into music.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I always put on my left shoes first, or if I’m putting on a coat, I always put my left arm in first – don’t ask.
That’s as waspish as McCabe will allow himself to be; mostly he remains the spirit of generosity and kindness. Those are also qualities he extends to another director: Bill Alexander. “He is wonderful. I did a lot of shows with him, including Hamlet at Birmingham. He approached it like a new play; it’s been so overloaded over the centuries.”
His most regular theatrical home has been with the RSC, which followed seasons at the Manchester Royal Exchange. Once, he also did a four-play season at the National Theatre in the mid-1990s comprising Absolute Hell, The Way of the World, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Marat/Sade. The last, he says, was “a play if I don’t see again, it won’t be soon enough”.
McCabe first joined the RSC in 1986 to appear in Howard Brenton’s The Churchill Play and George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance, both at the Barbican, then went to Stratford for the first time to appear in a season that included James Shirley’s Hyde Park, as Chiron in Titus Andronicus (with Brian Cox in the title role) which drew critical praise, and “a long-forgotten Ben Jonson play, The New Inn, that had not been seen before or since”.
He has, of course, appeared in theatres around the country and in the West End too. This included The Audience with Helen Mirren as the Queen, for which he won an Olivier award and then a Tony when it transferred to Broadway.
He regards the stage as his first home, though he has an impressive CV on screen with films running from Notting Hill and The Constant Gardener to Master and Commander and TV roles on shows including Peaky Blinders, Wallander, Poldark and the recent BBC series written by David Hare, Collateral.
He is a face that will be familiar to much of the British public, even if they can’t immediately call his name to mind. Once more, it shows the power of an actor making the most of his supporting roles.
“Theatre is what I’ve always done really, especially with the RSC, but I do bits and pieces on TV. Curiously, I do a lot of comedy on stage, but I’m never asked to do it on TV, though I consider it one of my strengths. I never get to exercise that part of me. I did a film recently called Mindhorn, with Julian Barratt, which was the first time I did comedy in a film. When it came out, nearly half the part was cut out, so maybe they know something I don’t.”
While he exhibits such self-deprecation throughout our conversation, he does know his strengths and looks to use his comedic gifts on stage. “I always try to find the humour in a character. Iago, for instance, is a villain – but he’s also a very funny character. Shakespeare’s great trick is that he gets the audience on his side, and then you are almost complicit in what happens.
“For an actor to turn to an audience and say: ‘And what’s he then that says I play the villain?’ is such an extraordinary line. The actor comes out of the part and talks to the audience directly. It’s a wonderfully funny line, but the comedy of it also heightens the drama.”
Before Imperium, his RSC triumphs have included playing Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1989 – “It’s a lifetime ago, really, but people came again and again. It’s the only time I was ever mobbed at the stage door” – and a production of The Winter’s Tale in 1992, for which he was nominated for his first Olivier award.
“Adrian Noble [who directed the production] had no idea what to do with it, bless him, so it was total invention by me. The great secret of directing is casting the right people in the right parts; they will do the majority of the work. I didn’t know what Adrian did in rehearsals, but when it came to the tech, he staged it beautifully and that was his great strength.”
Talking to McCabe leaves you in no doubt that he is an actor who knows exactly how to harness his own talent and energies. He is also someone who likes to challenge himself and keep fresh.
“I’ve had a pretty varied career – that’s the joy of an actor’s life, to be able to go between theatre, film and television,” he says. “They require completely different styles of acting, but they inform each other. By a process of osmosis, one helps the other. Doing too much theatre you can get quite stale, so you go off and do television, which is more internal – you don’t have to show anything, the camera knows what is inside your head. Then when you go back on the stage, you realise that you don’t need to demonstrate a thought quite so much and you can trust the words more.”
Richard McCabe’s top tip for an aspiring actor
I only have one but, to me, the most important is this: don’t be afraid to fail or to go to the furthest extreme. Time and again the circle is almost squared between being incredibly bad and incredibly brilliant, so don’t be afraid to experiment or be foolish.
Whereas McCabe is an actor who grew up in a theatre tradition and now crosses over freely to film and television, some screen actors find it hard to come back to the theatre. He says: “A lot of them will go to places like the Donmar Warehouse, since that’s the nearest to television or film acting you can get because the audience is just on you.”
By contrast, McCabe welcomes larger stages, and having to reach the back of the upper circle. “I was always taught at drama school that you are acting to that person up there. They’ve paid to see you, too, so you can’t play it just to the stalls. You have to project and play to the furthest person.”
As a theatre animal to his core, it is interesting how the Glasgow-born actor found something of a salvation, and an alternative home, in the theatre. “I ran away from home when I was 16 and was put into the care of social services,” he says. “When my social worker asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and I said I wanted to be an actor, he suggested I audition for drama school. But the only one he’d ever heard of was RADA, so I applied there… and got in. I was just 17. Mark Rylance was in my term and was the first person I spoke to on my first day.”
It’s God’s little joke that he gave me talent in acting and a passion for music
But his true love is, he admits today, music. “It’s God’s little joke that he gave me talent in acting and a passion for music. I’d much rather have been a composer than an actor.”
After graduating from RADA, McCabe answered an ad in Melody Maker and played keyboards in a couple of rock bands, one of which, the Spectres, was run by the Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock. He soon returned to the theatre, and while he wrote music for some shows, decided to concentrate on acting (although in 2013, he said it was his ambition to write a musical).
Today, McCabe has learnt to truly love his profession, but it has taken a while. He adds: “I wish I’d been able to enjoy it more when I was starting out, and not get so caught up in the angst of it. It’s not called a play for nothing. I used to torture myself over parts and performances, and for many years I’d be so dissatisfied by what I’d done. But there comes a point when you have to let it go, and you find you’re just as good an actor; you don’t need to hang on to all that angst.”
Imperium: The Cicero Plays runs at London’s Gielgud Theatre  from June 14 to September 8