“My heroes were all in the theatre. I wanted to be part of that great tradition that ran back to Garrick and Macready and Kean. That’s what I wished for, when I was asleep and dreaming.” – Damian Lewis in an interview with Telegraph
For those of you that are not familiar with these names, and I confess I was not, Damian is talking about David Garrick, Edmund Kean and William MacReady, celebrated British Shakespearean actors of the 18th and 19th century that had substantial influence on the interpretation and understanding of Shakespeare.
Damian, while he is a drama student at the Guildhall School, often goes to the Barbican Centre, next door to his school and Royal Shakespeare Company’s London home at the time, to see Simon Russell Beale and Ralph Fiennes on stage:
“They were just ahead of us doing the stuff. So we would look up to them and ‘oh one day I’ll be working at the RSC and wearing tights, too… something to look forward to.”
Well, he does! About two years after graduating from Guildhall, Damian joins Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and performs with them in four plays between 1995 and 1998.
Damian says in an interview with Channel 4 in 2012 that his years with the Royal Shakespeare Company felt like a campus life:
“It gave me a campus life that I hadn’t had. It was a bit like going through another training – you’d have voice lessons and verse lessons, and you’d rehearse all day and perform all night. And you just happened to be living in a small wendy house of a 17th Century workman’s cottage right next to the River Avon, with Shakespeare’s graveyard 300 yards one way and where he lived a couple of miles the other way. It was a rather extraordinary, rarified existence for a year. I loved it.”
I was extremely lucky to ask Damian a question during the audience Q&A at the New Yorker Festival in October 2015. I was still very much fascinated by Damian’s performance in American Buffalo that I had seen a few months ago and was dying to find out about the different approaches he takes towards stage and screen work.
I love it that Damian’s response is driven by his experience with the RSC which,in the couple of years that he performed with them, further shaped his stage acting. AND big thanks go to my husband and my partner-in-crime, Lewisto, who was smart enough to record my question and Damian’s answer. Please enjoy! And you will see why I am saying I was “extremely lucky” when you hear the recording! 😀
Damian’s first role with the RSC is Wittipol in The Devil is an Ass, a Ben Jonson play, written in 1616 and first performed by the Kings’ Men, the acting company Shakespeare belonged most of his career, at the Blackfriars Theatre in 1616. Surprisingly, there is no other record of its performance for the next 350 years! This particular production Damian performs in is the first RSC production of the play staged at The Pit in Barbican Centre.
The play is about a minor devil, Pug, who takes some time off from hell and goes to earth to cause some mischief. But all his tricks go wrong since the mortals are already far more wicked than anything Pug can imagine! For example, when Pug tries to make trouble between Fitdotterel, his boss on earth, and his wife by arranging for her to have an affair with young Wittipol she assumes her husband is laying a trap for her.
Roy Shaw, theatre critic for The Tablet at the time, seems to love the play and in particular Damian’s Wittipol:
“The play has several other delights to offer, especially Damian Lewis as Wittipol, a young gallant who falls in love with Fitzdottrel’s put-upon wife. When he appears disguised as a Spanish lady who can teach the wife how to manage her prospective exalted fortune, his performance is a comic triumph that makes Charley’s Aunt pale into cosy insignificance.”
Wittipol should be a delightful role to play that Damian cites it as his favorite role in his RSC years.
TV Guide: “You went on to a couple of years at the Royal Shakespeare Company. What’s a favorite role from those days?”
Damian: “Wittipol in The Devil Is an Ass, a Ben Johnson play. I spent most of it in drag.”
Now, who would not give a nonessential organ to have just one picture of Damian disguised as a Spanish lady? SIGH. Yes, in capital letters, too!
Then comes Don John in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
Here is our Don John plotting with Barochio to ruin Claudio’s wedding plans! Damian naturally has no idea at the time that he will bring a hilarious Benedick to life in BBC’s Much Ado About Nothing in Shakespeare Retold series a few years later. And he obviously has no idea that he will have a pretty scary motorcycle accident that would force him to take a break from the play.
Damian tells Indie London: “I had just been on stage with the Royal Shakespeare Company, we were doing Much Ado About Nothing. A cab pulled out, it was just a typical clichéd motorbike accident. Where I was the only thing in the road and I saw him 400 yards back and I got 200 and I thought ‘well he has obviously seen me’ and then 50. And then he just pulled out. It’s just one of those things when you are riding a bike, it’s going to happen to you at some point. People just don’t see you. Amazingly, I broke nothing but I had concussion for three months.”
Telegraph reports that, three weeks after the accident, Damian feels well enough to go back to stage. But he has to sit down during his first night back on stage.
“I gave the rest of my speech from there. If I hadn’t sat down, I would have keeled over. I probably wasn’t ready to go back.”
Then comes Little Eyolf, a late Ibsen play that starts with a family tragedy. Alfred and Rita lose their only child Eyolf, who is disabled, to a drowning accident. As they grieve over his death, dark family secrets get revealed over the course of the play. The play opened at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon and then moved to The Pit at the Barbican.
Damian brings to life Borghejm, an engineer, who is in love with Asta, Alfred’s half-sister. The problem is, yet another twisted family secret in the play, that Alfred has some unhealthy love for his half-sister.
Darren Dalglish, the founder of the London Theatre Guide, praises the production:
“Little Eyolf is a dark and sad play, and if not produced exactly right will bore you silly. However, this production is almost perfect. It will not appeal to everybody, but it is a must for anyone who loves serious theatre with powerful acting.”
Telegraph calls this RSC production of Little Eyolf an “Ibsen High” and adds: “That this late chamber play is rarely staged seems puzzling when Noble’s cast – and Michael Meyer’s spare translation – bring it to life so startlingly.
Dalglish finds the acting of the highest quality:
“Robert Glenister is Alfred, a writer who, while struggling to write a book, decides all of a sudden to dedicate his life to making his son happy. But has he done this for the right reasons? Robert Glenister puts in probably the best performance of his career, with breathtaking emotion that is believable, powerful and convincing. Joanne Pearce is equally superb, if not better in her performance as Rita, his wife who is very jealous of both her son Eyolf and her husband’s half-sister Asta. She plays the obsessive, tortured wife with scary realism and force. Derbhle Crotty as Asta and Damian Lewis as Borgbejm, a engineer who is in love with Asta, both perform fine, but are overshadowed by the brilliance of Glenister and Pearce.”
Well, it seems the two young actors perform pretty well because both Derbhle Crotty and Damian Lewis receive an Ian Charleson Award, rewarded annually to the best classical stage performances in Britain by actors under age 30, for their performances in Little Eyolf.
The last part Damian plays in RSC is Posthumus in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline staged at the Barbican in London and later at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York and JFK Center for Performing Arts in Washington DC in 1998.
Posthumus is a kid taken in and raised by Cymbeline, the King of Britain, after his parents die – that is where his name is coming from. The King has a new wife who has a son called Cloten, a real laughing stock, to whom Cymbeline wishes his only child and daughter Imogen to marry. However, Imogen falls in love with Posthumus. The angry king sends Posthumus to Italy for exile and the story picks up from there. You can see our detailed post on Cymbeline here.
Rhashan Stone, who shares a dressing room with Damian at the time says: “He was always the person most likely to make it. He was someone who would make the most of a break. He always had his eyes open. He was primed and ready. But he’s also very easy going, one of the guys.”
Washington Post critic Lloyd Rose, who says “Cymbeline pus the ‘fairytale’ back in romance” argues Imogen-Posthumus-Iachimo triangle is the most successful element in the production: “Steadfast, courageous Imogen bears comparison with the heroines of the great comedies, and the grave, gentle Pearce, with her beautiful low voice, does well by her. Posthumus, who first makes a bet with Iachimo about Imogen’s virtue and then is fool enough to believe that scoundrel’s lies, is a loser of a character. Though the handsome Lewis does what he can to make the character more impulsive than stupid or mean, the happy ending is somewhat marred by the audience’s suspicion that Imogen is way too good for him.”
I cannot agree more because an actor can do only so much about Posthumus; in fact, it’s almost universally accepted that he is one of the weaker Shakespearean characters. And, Imogen being one of the strongest female Shakespeare characters makes Posthumus all the more weaker as a character.
Ben Brantley of New York Times also talks about moments of “searing emotions” in Cymbeline saying “most of these come from Ms. Pearce, but the intense Mr. Lewis brings a haunting feeling of irreparable injury to the scene where he is made to believe that Imogen has betrayed him.”
Damian bringing “a haunting feeling of irreparable injury”? Ha! We know THAT very well!
Lots of high moments. Any low moment? Damian shares with Epigram:
“Worst moment though was when I was at the RSC and heard my cue over the tannoy system. I was still in my dressing room 4 floors up and quite literally skidded to a halt at the end of my hysterical dash on to the stage. The other actors were pacing up and down. If looks could kill…”
Lucky us! 😀
While he enjoys his time with the RSC, Damian also starts getting curious about THAT new world he does not know much about: Screen.
He shares with the audience at Times Talks London:
“To be honest with you, I did, at some point in that period, get into a bit panic that I might never work in front of a camera, on the screen, at all because it wasn’t a world I knew much about. And I didn’t aspire to be a film star and certainly not a TV star. My family didn’t really… I didn’t grow up watching a lot of TV. But… around me, at school, there were one or two things happening with good friends of mine. Joseph Fiennes did Shakespeare in Love and Ewan did Transpotting. I suddenly realized there was this quite glamorous, sexy world which was a bit less localized, if you like, less insular than the theatre world can sometimes be and I did start being curious about it. But at the same time I was very passionate about performing the great roles and, I suppose in a more traditional sense, taking on the great roles that the actors of the previous generation had taken on.”
While he is building a stage career with the RSC, Damian is cast in the BBC miniseries Warriors, a drama about the UN Peacekeeping efforts during the Yugoslavian civil war, by a director we know pretty well: Peter Kosminsky!
Damian tells in his New Yorker profile: “I walked in there with my hair down to my shoulders, having been for several years, you know, shouting onstage doing Shakespeare. I initially felt intimidated by the camera and uncertain what to do in front of it. I remember saying to Peter, ‘You’ll look after me, won’t you? You’ll be strict with me?’ ”
He remembers a sense of relief that a serious director cast him in a serious BBC drama:
“I sent a huge bunch of flowers to my agent from the relief. Because I got the sense that maybe I was going to be just too sort of expansive, too big or too red to be on telly or be in the movies.”
He may be a 27 year old on his way to discover a whole new world, but Damian will always come back to his first love – theatre.
Next: Damian Does a Musical!