I met with Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann on Friday, September 13, at the end of my Shakespeare week. We sat down for a conversation at the offices of the RSC. I had seen Pippa Nixon in two plays: As You Like It and Hamlet. I had seen Alex Waldmann in three plays: As You Like It, Hamlet and All’s Well that Ends Well.
How do you keep up the energy doing more than one play a week?
Pippa Nixon: The most [performances] I’m doing is five, and the minimum is three. That’s as of a couple of months ago; before that, I was doing eight shows a week. Alex is doing eight shows right now. It’s a pretty grueling schedule here.
[To Alex Waldmann] You look tired.
Alex Waldmann: I am tired this morning. It is tiring, because I was doing eight shows a week and rehearsing in the day, so the days would be 10 in the morning to 11 at night. It is hard work, and they work you really hard here, but it beats doing a proper job.
We’re really lucky to do what we do. When you come out and there’s a thousand people watching and hopefully having a good time, that’s a really nice thing to be able to do. Especially with a show like As You Like It, you get a lot of energy back from the audience, so you end up feeling more awake at the end than you do at the beginning.
I don’t much like the beginning of As You Like It with all the exposition, but when you get into the forest, everything changes. The finish of the play with the music and dancing is magical.
Alex Waldmann: I know a lot of people don’t particularly enjoy the first half-hour of the play, and we did want to […] make it particularly bleak and alienating. I think in order to earn the joy at the end you have to make clear that Rosalind and Orlando don’t go to Arden [Forest] looking for a good time, they go to save their own lives. They’re going to be killed if they stay at the court, and we need to make that clear in order to have that huge journey and have the audience go on the same journey as the characters.
What is it like being in a company like the RSC? How different is it to be in a company doing more than one play at a time? Is there cross-fertilisation among the actors and plays?
Pippa Nixon: When you take the job on, you know that you’re going to be in Stratford-upon-Avon for at least six months. It asks for a specific type of actor, because not every actor wants to leave London or be away from friends or family for that amount of time. A lot of people in the company have young families that they bring up here. That already starts to change the people that you’re in the company with.
We rehearse two plays at the same time. We rehearsed As You Like It and Hamlet, and we had twelve weeks to rehearse those two plays, which is a long time. Normally for a play standing on its own, you might have four or five weeks in London. But saying that, these are two massive plays, and it takes that amount of time when you’re doing two at the same time to completely internalize it.
Both of us are fortunate that we’ve got to the point of playing lead roles, but it’s the people that have smaller roles that we take our hats off [to] all the time. Alex was saying to me yesterday that in Hamlet, there’s an actor in our company that is just so in it the whole time, and stands in one scene, at the back of the set, with a gun, completely in character. You won’t be able to see him because there’s smoke, and the lights and the set are pretty dark and he’s just constantly on it. I think that within this company there are loads of people like that who are doing all three plays, could be understudying in all three plays. Some people in our company have been rehearsing since December 17, and didn’t stop until the middle of August.
Both of us are fortunate that we’ve got to the point of playing lead roles
You do two plays: you put Hamlet on, then you put As You Like It on, you understudy the understudy run for Hamlet and the understudy run for As You Like It, and the rehearsals for All’s Well and the understudy run for All’s Well finished in August. It’s grueling. It’s a massive commitment. Some people, their only period of not working is probably between 11 o’clock at night and 9:30 in the morning.