Last seen at the Royal Shakespeare Company as pirate Knock Bone Jones in 2013’s Wendy and Peter Pan, Richard Clews has returned to play Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew and Adam in As You Like It in the current season. He tells Gill Sutherland about his life as an actor – and playing the same role as Shakespeare.
How did you first get into acting?
I grew up in a little village called Armitage in Staffordshire. At school I was always a singer – in the choir. One of my friends joined a drama group and said they needed men. I wasn’t particularly keen at first, I just thought well I’ll see what it’s like, but once I started going I was hooked. Then school got in the way… Another favourite subject was art, and I was encouraged to pursue that, so I went to Stafford art school to do a foundation. While I was there I thought I want to study theatre design – and then I thought no, be honest, you just want to go into the theatre. I mentioned to a lecturer that I wanted to act, and her husband was an actor and she said go and have a chat with him, he will put you off! He didn’t and I left to and got into Rose Bruford, and the rest is history.
Were your family arty at all?
There’s no history of theatre in the family. My dad was a miner and my mother was a carer – she looked after her own family after her own mother died here in Stratford [see box]. My father’s father was ill so she looked after him when we were still young – and there were also seven of us kids – I was the only boy; I had six sisters, and I was the second youngest.
What did your family make of your actorly ambitions?
I don’t think they thought a lot about me going to drama school – they didn’t quite understand, although they didn’t stand in my way, thank goodness. And it was those magical days when you had your education paid for you, so I was able to organise it myself.
Once I got into the business my mum would travel down with one of my sisters to Salisbury, where I first started, to see me in a show. My father never saw any of my work, he wasn’t really interested.
I was the only one of my siblings that went off and left the area. My older sisters had had all the battles, so by me they were quite tired and never stood in my way!
Growing up did you feel like an outsider?
We lived in a mining community on the edge of Cannock Chase. The comprehensive system had been introduced and I was encouraged at school – quite surprisingly for that time. When I reached sixth form we were given a lot of freedom and encouragement. I can’t say that I felt like an outsider, although I think I knew I would have to get out of the Midlands if I wanted to pursue a career. The only thing I found that was alienating was there was no theatre, no outlet for that. So I left for London which was a bit scary for a young kid from the Midlands with no connections.
Did you have an accent?
Oh God yes! It was those days that when you went to drama school they ironed it out – we had to get rid of our native accents, which I curse now. I very much feel back at home when I’m in the Midlands – the moment I hear that accent I relax and I’m happy.
I remember at drama school we had our ‘voice books’ and we were never allowed to drop our Hs or flatten our vowels. Even in break times someone would be listening to you! We used to go off in secret and read Cis Berry’s book Voice and the Actor which wasn’t on our curriculum – we could relate to it far more.
So after drama school you started acting?
All I wanted to do was work in a theatre – my first jobs was as an ASM [assistant stage manager] at Salisbury Playhouse – there were no ambition to be famous or even to work with the National or RSC, just to work in the theatre was it. It was the only thing I wanted to do, and to get paid for it seemed ridiculously great!
What kind of roles did you play?
One thing I was told at drama school was that I would never play the lead or lovers – I would always play the character, the man next door or the weirdos and that’s the parts that I played mostly. The weirdo, the wimps… for a long time in my career the baddies, which was great fun.
You haven’t thought ‘oh darling no one’s seen my Hamlet’?
No there are parts that you tick off as you grow older – oh well I will never play that. But often it’s the parts that you don’t think about that come along. Like Grumio, I never thought for a moment that I would be offered that, paticularly at my age. The fun is never knowing what the next part is going to be. I find that really exciting. What’s next? Where and who with?
You recently appeared with McKellen – playing the Gentleman/Old Man in King Lear at Chichester and London. How was that?
It was such a joy. As a 14-year-old I watched McKellen do Hamlet. Working with him for the first time I felt 14 again and starstruck.
Have you ever had moments of uncertainty in your career?
I did take a break and taught for a year, I think I had lost a bit of the magic. Then I was offered work – and I went back and the magic was there. That was on Phantom of the Opera at Dundee.
As an actor you prepare for those times when you’re out of work, and as a kid I used to garden with my father, so I’m quite knowledgeable about plants – and I garden in London when I’m not working in theatre and that’s a nice contrast. I’ve met some interesting people, they start out as clients but become chums.
Do you have a family life?
No family – it gives me freedom. I don’t know how people do it… I’ve been on tour when people have to make the call to speak to the kids – and you can see it breaks their heart.
We’d better talk about the current RSC plays! Tell us about The Taming of the Shrew.
I play Grumio, another old retainer – he has a lot of freedom to be anarchic and disrespectful, so one of the comic characters. In the play there is a strong matriarchy – the women are on top. It’s fascinating. The other day in rehearsals someone nudged me and said look – and there was a whole floor of women and just one man. It is an extraordinary event and I hope that feeds into the production – that celebration.
How is As You Like It? It’s been described as ‘riotous’.
It starts in court – and then as characters are banished or run away the action switches to the Forest of Arden and that’s where the riotous bits come in. Away from the restrictions of court you can be whoever you want to be. There’s great freedom in the production which I like and it’s very playful and gorgeous.
I was also hoping it might be an antidote to all the Brexit doom…
I think people are pretty fed up with what’s happening – or not happening – with Brexit. Hopefully this will come as a great relief – it is one of Shakespeare’s more joyous plays. It is celebrating love, and if only we could all run away to the forest for a better life…
Tell us about your role.
I play Adam, who is the old faithful servant in the Orlando’s family. He befriends Orlando, and hears that his brother is plotting against him so he helps him escape to the forest.
In Shakespeare’s play you are never quite sure if Adam pops his clogs when he gets into the forest – but we’ve decided he doesn’t – his life is transformed too. Interestingly it’s a part Shakespeare played – so there’s a challenge following in his footsteps. Who knows what kind of actor he was but I bet he was bloody good! If he could write like that – I think he must have been.
Are you aware of Shakespeare’s presence more playing ‘his’ role?
I think you are aware of his presence the whole time you are in Stratford. I can’t believe it’s just actors that feel that – when you walk along street and see what he saw. What were his thoughts? You can’t help it when you are in Stratford. I guess the magic is in the mystery.
Grandmother’s resting place…
When Richard and I meet at the marketing offices of the RSC, there is a mystery to solve. Richard knows his maternal grandmother is buried in Stratford and when the Herald offers to see if we can help, Richard is very grateful. He explains the background.
“My mother’s family lived here in Stratford for a while, they moved down from Rutledge in Staffordshire because there was some work in a canning factory in Snitterfield.
“When my grandmother, Ethel Grace Evans died in 1935, my mother came out of service to look after the family.
“I don’t know many details. But I found out she is buried in Bishopton churchyard from the record office. I would love to find exactly where she is buried.”
The Herald asked historian Bob Bearman if he could help. Alas it seems as though Ethel is in an unmarked grave. Bob told us: “There is an entry in the Bishopton burial register for Ethel Grace Evans, aged 44, of Churchills, Bishopton on 5th September 1935, and also a registrar’s ‘certificate of disposal’ (how horrid) dated 2nd September, the day she died. She does not occur in the churchyard survey, made in 1978 so presumably her grave is unmarked. I couldn’t get a lead on her address either.”