Due to appear as Polixenes in The Winter’s Tale with the Royal Shakespeare Company when theatres closed, Andrew French tells Giverny Masso about his education work with the company before and during the Covid-19 pandemic…
How did you feel when The Winter’s Tale was postponed?
It was about two weeks before previews. It felt a bit like prepping for an exam or a big sporting event: you get psyched up, but then you don’t do it. You very tired, because the adrenaline is just starting to pump, then it doesn’t happen. For a month after it all stopped, there were a lot of actors about to go into work walking around like headless chickens not quite knowing what to do.
How have you found lockdown?
I’ve been acting for 20 years. As actors, we’re used to heartbreak and indecision. But this is worse because it’s not someone deciding whether you’ve got a job, it’s: “We’re not going to let you know anything about the future yet.” I’m lucky because firstly, I’m based in Stratford, and secondly, the RSC is still paying actors’ fees.
What work have you done with the RSC’s education department?
A lot. The education department at the RSC is extraordinary. Just speak to any of the 14-year-olds who came to see Romeo and Juliet last year. I was the same: growing up in south-west London, going to see a show at Polka Theatre, I thought: “Maybe I can be an actor, maybe the world is wider than SW17.” I was in Romeo and Juliet in the previous season and they got director Erica Whyman, Karen Fishwick, who was playing Juliet, and myself, playing Friar Laurence, to talk through some scenes. It was streamed live into classrooms, and the students fed back comments and questions. For Sonnets in Solitude during the lockdown, members of the company have recorded sonnets online, which people can also comment on.
How were your own experiences of learning Shakespeare at school?
I had two great teachers who would get us to stand up and perform. I clearly remember doing Richard II and the teacher grabbing a blackboard eraser and saying: “Okay, that’s going to be your sword now.” We were stumbling through it, but we got a sense of what the play was like. I’m a working-class black man from south-west London, and I feel like I own Shakespeare, that it belongs to me. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. I defy anybody to look at his plays and not find something – it’s as if Shakespeare is reaching forward 400 years and tapping you on the shoulder, going: “Hey, I’m talking to you.”
Is Shakespeare seen as elitist?
A lot of my friends feel they have to work out some kind of code or belong to a club before they can enter, but I’d say it’s the same in jazz, rap, ballet, opera or football. If you don’t know anything about football and watch a game and it’s 0-0, you might think that’s incredibly boring – but what if you know these are two teams that are fighting relegation and one player used to play for the other team? Then all of a sudden there’s a drama there. You have to know the story and do a bit of work. It’s the same with rap: you have to learn a little bit of a new language, and all of a sudden it clicks into place.
Training: BA in combined studies – Renaissance English, history and drama, University of Northampton (1991-93); MA in Shakespeare studies, Shakespeare Institute (1993-94); postgraduate acting, Webber Douglas Academy, London (1994-95)
First professional role: Ebb Tide, Glasgow Citizens Theatre (1995)
Agent: Bloomfields Welch