INTERVIEW: Actor Christopher Saul talks about Imperium at the RSC

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Christopher Saul plays Pompey — and several other parts — in Imperium.

Stratford-based actor Christopher Saul talks to Gill Sutherland about being part of the Imperium ensemble at the RSC, and how he got started at the company during an extraordinary period in the 1970s.

How did your involvement in Imperium come about?

I got a call in March to attend a three-day workshop at The Other Place in the big rehearsal room — there were 12 of us. Author Robert Harris, Mike Poulton, and director Greg Doran were there and we started reading this very long version of Mike’s adaptation of Robert’s books. There were lots of discussions and changes made along the way.

Mike was very open and welcomed any ideas we had. On the third day in the afternoon we recorded a read-through, and he’s basically been with us every single day through nine weeks of rehearsal and he’s still with us for previews [both Imperium plays open today, Thursday].

It sounds like quite an intensive rehearsal.

There’s been a lot of talk! In rehearsals Greg has a little bell and if anyone goes on too long then he gives it a ring. Mike got it most of all! Because he’s full of not just information about Robert’s books but also the historical facts of this period.

I should add that you don’t have to have read the books. It’s like sometimes it’s better to see the movie before you read the book and then you can go back to the book and enjoy the detail.

You’ve got several parts, how is that?

Most people have except Bill [Richard McCabe playing Cicero] and Joseph [Kloska, playing his assistant Tiro]. My main part is Pompey [military leader] and he has quite a short but showy scene. Because Pompey was apparently very proud of his hair so there’s a touch of Trump about the wig.

There has been a great discussion about it and not wanting it to be too Trump. So I am not him but do use a hand gesture [does an OK sign] that he does a lot. It’s been interesting because it got more of a reaction two weeks ago than now because Trump stepped over the line [supporting British far right] and is no longer a figure of fun and so the reactions are now more groans than anything.

It’s interesting to be playing something that is history itself, where moods change day to day.

It’s quite weighty historical stuff, what are the audiences making of it?

Yes, I personally worried about clarity — whether with so many characters if it would get too confusing, especially with part one. Because we might know Cicero vaguely from Julius Caesar but not necessarily the others, such as Catiline

and Clodius, that most of us haven’t come across before; whereas in the second play you are back to tradition, with Caesar, Antony and Octavia.

But judging by the audience reaction they are absolutely following the story, and the

response has been fantastic — they’ve been up on their feet. It’s great storytelling.

How is it being with this cast?

Bill’s performance is staggering and he’s just so grounded. He threw me in rehearsal because I would give him a line and then sometimes I thought we had come out of rehearsal and he was just talking to me — but he hadn’t, he is just so real and extraordinary.

When I was a young actor here in 1975 I had Ben Kingsley and Alan Howard — it was great to be young and to look up to these actors; whereas as you get older that begins to fade so it’s a very rare thing to come and be in a company of fantastic actors… and it’s not just Bill, there are some extraordinary talented young actors here. Sometimes I have been overwhelmed in rehearsals, I think ‘Should I be here?’ I just bellow along!

There are six plays — how is that, confusing?

All of us are probably seeing it differently. It’s clear now, but earlier on I’d sometimes get mixed up where I was — you think ‘hang on, are we on play one or two?’ There were a few missed entrances! That’s been ironed out! Each play is an hour long and very distinctive, and people who have seen it say it doesn’t drag at all — quite the opposite.

Anyway, audiences really love the epic — it’s like ‘bring your sandwiches and your flask!’. They want to be immersed, it’s like Netflix and having a binge watch! That’s a good soundbite — come and have an epic binge at the RSC!

When you first came here in 1975 you worked with Terry Hands and Buzz Goodbody on her famous Hamlet — during which she committed suicide. Tell us about those times.

I left drama school in 1969 and had done a bit of rep and fringe, and a year in Fiddler on the Roof in the West End. Then I found myself here in January 1975 –– so this was one massive leap for Chris Saul into this extraordinary world, for me it was all mind-boggling stuff.

For Hamlet we had ten weeks’ rehearsal with this group of actors with incredible commitment who were totally different to anything I had been used to.

I got to know Buzz Goodbody because she was going out with actor and fight co-ordinator Anthony Naylor who I was sharing a cottage with. She was extraordinarily intelligent and exactly the same age as me — she would be coming up to 72 now. Anyway we rehearsed Hamlet and her little phrase was ‘courage to fail’ and I thought that was wonderful, and so the whole idea was that you just let anything happen.

I played Guildenstern in Hamlet… Buzz decided to do a rehearsal of the gravediggers’ scene with Hamlet, played by Ben Kingsley, at Holy Trinity… The idea was that we carried Ophelia in round the back of the church. Charlie Dance was Fortinbras and George Baker was Claudius. We thought it was a bit of a giggle to start with. As we walked along the river and turned right and laid Ophelia down in her grave, Buzz had obviously detected a little bit of scepticism and she accused us of not being committed to the whole thing, and then there was a nuclear explosion down by the back of the church — where people were railing against the idea of what we were doing.

George Baker, who was the oldest actor among us, said to her three times ‘You look for death and you will find it’ and stormed off — because this was on consecrated ground and it was 1975 and so people had religious feelings.

Of course two weeks later, after press night, she said she was going back to London on the Friday and she must have done it [committed suicide] on the Saturday, and of course George’s words all came flooding back.

When we returned on the Monday it was all very low key; we didn’t know why Buzz had done it. It was heartbreaking. Trevor Nunn came in and refocused and the show went on…

After that long season at the RSC it felt like everywhere you went the outlook was different. One was taken a bit more seriously, like you had a stamp of approval. I did some great stuff at Leeds Playhouse, all on the back of having worked at the RSC.

You’ve done amazing and diverse things — what stands out?

There’s so much… I did a tour of The Comedy of Errors with Tim Supple for the RSC in the mid-1990s that stands out. We took it to India and met Mother Theresa — these glorious things that have happened as a result of being an actor.

How did you get started in acting?

I played Othello in 1963 in the lower sixth form of my grammar school in Skegness, I wore my mother’s earrings and was all blacked up [he cringes, amazed]. I have photos. I suppose that must have been the start.

What have you got planned after the Imperium plays?

I have a one-woman show I’ve written, Flo: Now and Then, about my grandmother, which is on at The Bear Pit in February. It is recognition of all those First World War widows who brought up their children in the austerity of the post-war years. It was based on discussions I recorded with my grandmother. (Look out for more news on this in the Herald in the new year.)

Finally, are you getting a break over Christmas… and what will you be up to?

I worked with Phil Davis back in 1973 so it will be lovely to see him here in A Christmas Carol. Otherwise I will be with the family — we live in Albany Road, Stratford. My daughter Gemma and her six children — who are all at school around Stratford will join us. We have 11 grandchildren in total and some Aussie relatives visiting, so it will be busy!

The Imperium plays run at the RSC until 10th February. For tickets and more information visit www.rsc.org.uk