Patrick Stewart, one of Britain’s great classical actors, vividly remembers panicking at the prospect of appearing in a Shakespeare production five years ago. Why? Because it was all completely improvised.
“I’ve never done improv and when I was at drama school, I was terrible, really bad,” the veteran of stage and screen says of the 2013 show Two Princes and a Spin Doctor. “I got into a panic.”
Stewart has appeared in over 60 productions at the Royal Shakespeare Company and memorably played Prospero in The Tempest, Macbeth and Mark Antony in Antony and Cleopatra. But working with the Improvised Shakespeare Company proved a different challenge entirely.
He became aware of the group after introducing them on stage at a charity gala. “I was amazed by them. We talked afterwards and the event and they told me about the group. The evening wore on, and wine was consumed. I woke up to find an email saying I’d agreed to appear with them in a full show four days later.”
Over the course of about 90 minutes the ISC comes up with a complete story, with multiple characters, all taken from the first title shouted out by the crowd.
“I’ve now seen them many times and done a dozen shows with them,” Stewart says. “It’s always terrifying but I know it’s good for me. Not only do they tell a story but they speak in blank verse and rhyming couplets.”
He was so taken with the group that he has brought them to the UK for the first time, opening last night at London’s Soho Theatre. While he’s unlikely to be performing during the run, he hopes to introduce the troupe on one of the nights.
The players, who have appeared across the US over the past decade, were confident Stewart would fit in, despite his fears over improvisation. “At the first show they said: ‘You’ll be fine, you’ve done more Shakespeare than we ever have.’ I’ve now become an unofficial member of the company. The deal is as long as I turn up an hour before the show I’m in.”
They have taught an old Shakespearean a few new tricks along the way. “They taught me the trick of improvising rhyming couplets. Which is to think of the last word first, and then you can head for it. Their skill at iambic pentameter and rhyming is extraordinary.”
His hope was to present the company at Shakespeare headquarters, aka the RSC, a stage he knows well. “That would have been amazing. We got close, but it hasn’t worked out. I hope to bring them back to Stratford.”
In the week that Stewart revealed he was to return to his iconic Star Trek character Jean-Luc Picard, he says he has a few Shakespearean characters he still longs to play.
”There are a few roles I could return to, but there are plenty of Shakespeare’s characters I haven’t played. The big one that’s waiting is King Lear, but as my pal Ian McKellen is doing it right now, it will be several years before I attempt to follow in his footsteps.”
Another role he is desperate to play, and would bring a pleasing circularity to his career, is Falstaff. Stewart’s first plays at the RSC in 1966 were Henry IV parts one and two.
He understudied Paul Rogers as Falstaff, but never went on, and was relegated to the minor roles of Sir Walter Blunt and Lord Mowbray. “Thank God I never got on, because I was 25 ands to strap myself into that padding,” he says. “I couldn’t have done it. Now may be the time.”
To Stewart, “Falstaff is an even greater role than Lear”. He adds: “It has so much variety as a character. He’s a delightful, charming, funny man but he’s also mean, horrible and cruel” and he ranks the Henry IV plays among his favourites.
“I kind of know Falstaff from when I understudied it,” he says. “I hope I get a chance to play him.”
The Improvised Shakespeare Company runs at Soho Theatre until August 18