INTERVIEW: RSC actor Ralph Davis on Tamburlaine

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Ralph Davis in Tamburlaine. Photo Ellie Kurttz/RSC

It’s an old chestnut but young actor Ralph Davis is definitely a ‘local lad done good’.

He graduated early from RADA 13 months ago in order to play Edmund in King Lear at Shakespeare’s Globe; this was quickly followed by a part in new play The Open House, directed by Michael Boyd in Bath, which led to him being cast in Boyd’s Tamburlaine.

Jude Owusu as Tamburlaine

It’s local youth theatre organisation Playbox that he credits with his initial enthusiasm for acting, though. Recalling his first inauspicious encounter with the group, he says: “My mum dropped me off at a holiday workshop at the Dream Factory in Warwick to get rid of me for a bit – I was a toddler and I remember doing a session on Humpy Dumpty, then I have a sense that it didn’t go well — I either fell asleep or soiled myself!”

As we sit and chat in an RSC marketing office a few days ahead of Tamburlaine’s opening night, Ralph — who is easy to chat to, funny and clever — explains his route into acting.

He did all the sessions available at Playbox, including their Shakespeare Young Company, and went on the company’s regular semi-annual tour to California. Warwick School, where he had a great drama teacher, also had an influence. “I did a lot of drama and never didn’t know what play I was doing next. So much of what is instilled in me is from Playbox. I was doing voice classes there when I was seven! Going into Tamburlaine it felt like half of what I knew about acting is from RADA and the other half is from Playbox.”

Growing up around Stratford, the RSC was a big influence too — Ralph says his parents took him and his older sister to RSC shows a lot. They still live locally, and Ralph says it’s probably the theatre that keeps them here, otherwise they would no doubt retire to their second home in Italy.

Ah, yes, the Davis family…

What a talented and clever bunch they sound — no wonder they spawned such a talented and affable fella as Ralph. Dad Bill is a high court judge and keen amateur actor; mum is Ginny, well known for her one-woman plays locally; while older sister Rosie played Pip in The Archers on Radio 4 for a few years, before eventually going on to get a proper job in PR in London (“she gets a salary” quips Ralph).

Ralph is definitely the high-achieving actor of the family though. In fact Tamburlaine is his third involvement in an RSC production.

Perhaps keen to make the most of their convenient geography, it was Ginny who spotted an open audition for children to be in King John back when Ralph was ten. “It was for a 10am call here, at Chapel Lane,” remembers Ralph. “We arrived at 8.30am expecting there to be queues snaking down the street. There was no-one else, just us… although others did arrive eventually. Anyway I ended up playing King Arthur at the Swan Theatre, which is of course where Tamburlaine is on. So it’s weird to be back — there are three kids in it that are ten and I look at them and think I had exactly your experience. The theatre may have been updated but the smell of it is the same, it gives me a feeling of déjà vu.”

Was that when you thought you would be an actor?

“Yes pretty much — I realised it was possible: that you could get paid to dress up; which is ridiculous! From there I went on to do Richard II with Michael Boyd — which we did in Stratford and then The Roundhouse in London.

“After that I had a growth spurt and couldn’t play children at the RSC any more.”

Now back at the RSC, the first time as an adult, does he feel daunted or nervous?

“It sounds corny, but it feels right. There were some other opportunities in the offing but there was something about Michael and being back here at the Swan — which I think is the best theatre in the world — that is really exciting.

“It feels right, and I’m ten minutes up the road from Mum — and I’m living next door to Christopher Eccleston!

“Although I’d be lying if I said Tamburlaine isn’t a little bit daunting — it is a hard play!” says Ralph as we move on to discuss the play itself.

He continues: “Marlowe is boundless; the language is huge – everything you say has to rise up to that level.

“Edward Alleyn, the first guy to play Tamburlaine, was teased for being over the top; but that’s what it demands almost — you just have to go there without vanity.”

Explaining further, Ralph continues: “In rehearsal you watch everyone spill their guts and then you go on and add to it.”

He declaims a line or two by way of an example: “Now he that calls himself the scourge of Jove shall travel headlong to the lake of hell!

“There’s nothing domestic about the language… To come onstage and suddenly say lines like that you have to rise to it.”

Tell me about the three characters you play.

“I do play three characters – but I’m not necessarily thinking of them as three separate characters. My first character dies and informs the second one who’s seeking vengeance for that — he dies too and then both of them are in the third character. We’ve embraced the theatrical reality of them being the same actor — rather than ‘oh I will do a funny walk’ for one of them.”

Can you explain Michael’s vision for the play and what its appeal is?

“Tamburlaine is dense so Michael’s cut it really well so its pacey and the storytelling is brought out — he’s cut those bits where Marlowe gets carried away. But he’s tried to stay as true to the play. It’s got light and dark, it’s very textured and especially with the reincarnations, with actors playing lots of different roles. I could get pretentious and talk about history repeating itself, but with characters coming back and being treated awfully it becomes kind of like a vengeance thriller.

“There’s a bit where I stood up having died twice, with another couple of people who have died twice — including Tamburlaine’s wife — it’s like we’re the avengers squad.

“It’s quite like the Histories, if you remember when Michael did them here [in 2006] – he’s working with designer Tom Piper and Jimmy Jones is on drums, giving a real pulse to the action; it feels like they’ve got a brand of storytelling down pretty well.”

Finally, where does he see his career going?

“Well for now I’m very happy saying ‘thou’ instead of ‘you’… I want to play more classical parts. Of course Hamlet, no young actor would say no!

“But I’m drawn to the Iagos and Macbeths and I would kill to do Romeo. I remember seeing Jonathan Slinger playing Richard III and Macbeth here — he has such charisma and opens up that bit inside that you shut down in everyday life… bad guys are more interesting.

“That’s one of the things about Tamburlaine that’s fascinating — every desire is completely modern, it’s human. What I’m excited about is people seeing themselves in him.”