This year's Pragnell Award winner Adrian Lester speaks about his life and work
The Pragnell Award is given at Shakespeare’s birthday each year to those that have furthered the enjoyment and understanding of the Bard’s work. This year it goes to actor Adrian Lester CBE.
Born in Birmingham, Adrian is a multi-award-winning performer. He’s known for seven seasons of the hit TV show Hustle (2004), The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and Primary Colors (1998) and his extensive classical work in the theatre playing Othello, Henry V, Rosalind and Hamlet to name but a few.
Married to writer Lolita Chakrabarti, he has two grown-up daughters and lives in London.
When Herald arts spoke to him over the phone, he proved to be as sharp, witty and engaging as you would expect.
How was it hearing you were the recipient this year?
I had that sense of unworthiness. I went ‘Me? Really?!’ I think of people who win awards like this as having written a lot of books. Professors who do lots of research and lectures and change young minds in the classroom – that kind of thing. I just walk around and pretend to be someone else… but that’s the whole point. I’m very flattered and humbled by it, and I’m now thinking I should say something interesting in my speech.
Well we’re looking forward to you coming to Stratford for the celebrations, but you’ve not been on stage here, why’s that?
People think I have but I’ve never worked for the RSC, but I have played the RST – because As You Like It toured and we were there for ten days – but that was years ago.
I have been offered a series of roles at the RSC but it didn’t work out in the end.
You grew up in Birmingham, what was your first brush with Shakespeare?
I didn’t do any drama at school. My school was not any good at teaching the arts, it was all maths and things like that. I wasn’t very academically gifted as a kid – now get me on to any subject and I won’t shut up.
I went to the RSC on my own as part of a National Youth Theatre expedition – I went to see Sean Bean and Niamh Cussack in Romeo and Juliet (1986). It was a great show and I was surprised I understood the Shakespeare because it was the first I’d seen.
The director of the youth theatre, Derek Nicholls, knew I wanted to go to drama school, and he said you have to get to grips with Shakespeare. He gave me a copy of Measure for Measure and a Shakespeare dictionary and said this will be the easiest to understand – just to kick you off.
He said don’t expect to understand it, expect to work it out. And that was great advice because I think the mistake we always make with kids – it’s English, go on read it. But they can’t because they need a key, a codebreaker. I didn’t get it all, but what I did get very clearly was the Duke, Angelo, Isabella and her brother – and I remember that moral dilemma sitting at the top of the play and thinking this is great.
Were your parents theatrically inclined or anything in the genes that indicated you might become an actor?
No nothing at all - they didn’t really have that leaning although they did have an appreciation. My mum wanted me to get a sensible job. By the time I was saying I wanted to go to drama school I’d already been on stage at the Birmingham Rep, and I worked at Pebble Mill Studios, and had positive reviews in the papers. I had been a walk on for Central Television so each summer kids would go off and get jobs I would do three or four days and I’d get 60 a day. I was an extra in the background… You had to have an equity card and not many people like me had one, so they liked to get me in. I even appeared multiple times in the same crowd shot – with different hats on. Yes, I was Where’s Wally?.
When I turned around and said I want to do this for a living she kind of went ‘actually that makes sense’ so it was all good and she helped me as much as she could.
When did the acting bug first get you?
I sang in the cathedral choir starting when I was about ten. For the Christmas concert we were stood on the steps in front of the altar – I’d been in the choir about nine months and still had the ruff and purple cassock, so not a full chorister. We sang Bruckner’s ‘On this day’ chorale. I remember being in the middle singing and loving all the harmonies and thinking it was a lovely piece, and I looked up at the congregation and I could see people crying and
I thought this is a bit of magic. Something happened as the sound left us and entered the ears of the congregation and moved them to tears, and I thought this is like magic, it’s weird, how does it work?
So I kept singing, dancing and acting up until I was about 15 and then I decided to follow the acting.
You went on to RADA, how did that develop your relationship with Shakespeare?
RADA was brilliant, I felt like I grew up there. I am an August baby so always the youngest – I was just 18 when I got there and left at 21 – it taught me everything.
After three years at RADA you could put me in any performance and I would be able to handle it – be it comedy, modern, commedia dell’arte, mime – the whole thing and also taught you how to look after your voice and body as an actor. We were taught how to fill a 900-seat theatre with just our voice.
We did a lot of text work – sonnets and speeches, we learned to break apart meaning and deliver it to an audience and it’s all about stress and rhythm.
Sometimes audiences baulk at modern interpretations of Shakespeare plays, what do you think about that?
Well I have never done Shakespeare in a period costume. All my Shakespeares have been modern dress or they’ve been an eclectic mix of everything…
Shakespeare wrote and dissected the shadowy areas of human behaviour – shadowy because they are negative and also because we don’t understand them. In order to do that we play on other tropes in performance that we have got used to, like you know – when you look at his plays it’s a male physique playing these parts and sometimes it’s good to do some of his plays with a single sex cast – and that brings a buzz and a frisson to what’s being spoken about and the kinds of love that are being spoken about on stage. Twelfth Night and As You like It, I’m thinking about. but they have to be relevant otherwise you may as well be watching a museum piece – and how we make them relevant is a constant experiment; and with that experiment we have to be allowed to fail, because at the same time with the freedom of being allowed to fail every now and again you will get gold, and something meaningful.
What productions you’ve been in stand out as being highlights?
It would have to be the As You Like It I did with Cheek By Jowl directed by Declan Donnellan in 1992 and then again in 94/95. That was a particularly special one for me.
A few years ago we had the 20th anniversary of that production and the actors came back together and spent a Sunday afternoon watching it on a big screen with our families and children.
It still stood up – it was just as silly, funny and joyous, and it was amazing to watch my two daughters watching me at a point before they were born. My eldest looked at Rosalind in her glasses and went ‘OMG they are my mannerisms’. It was weird for her thinking I am my dad while he’s wearing a dress.
Have your daughters followed in your creative footsteps?
The eldest, Lila, 21, has rebelled against her creative parents and went into science, she works in a biomedical research lab in Charing Cross Hospital – how very dare she! The youngest, Jasmine, 18, is doing A levels and she is still thinking – she gets A stars in drama and has a lovely singing voice, so she may or may not go into that theatrical world.
How diverse is the Shakespeare we see nowadays?
I prefer the word inclusive because in my mind incredible talent and brilliance of soul does not have a complexion or a gender or an accent.
It’s actually taken our industry quite a while to get round to that thinking that an empathic response rests on seeing someone like yourself – it’s this that has to be broken. Because the truth is that most people of colour in this country have grown up being moved, twisted, enthralled and excited by what people are doing who look nothing like them, so that empathic response builds up. But most people of no colour haven’t had that privilege. It’s a privilege because it stretches your soul.
Looking at companies and monitoring who is in the cast and saying we have to be more inclusive is just a natural progression, except in my mind I think why did it take so long? I’ll stop there. I think for me it’s something that’s a very welcome change.
When I grew up I didn’t see people like me reflected really on screens, which I know is not the same for my children which is great.
What Shakespeare productions have you seen recently that have impressed you?
I’m such a tough audience member – I can’t think of anything recent. I remember watching the Maly company do Measure For Measure directed by Decal Donnellan (2015). It had Russian actors, with surtitles. Somehow in Russia one person being given autonomy, being allowed to do what they want and twist morality around their finger based on what they really desire, spoke volumes.
You’re probably better known for your TV work, how does it compare with stage?
What you do on stage with a cannon you do onscreen with a laser – you can still do the same amount of damage and move people in the same way it’s just you have to be more specific and exact – and you can’t do a theatrical performance on screen, it looks too big and theatrical.
What I’m going to try and do now is get hold of that quality of character on stage and get that work on screen.
Normally the work I get on screen is not as complex. Although Undercover that I did for BBC was as complex as any I have played onstage or even Hustle, by the time I got to the end of the series with Nicky – I stretched my muscles. So that’s my goal for the next five years.
In terms of returning to the stage to play any Shakespeare roles is that something that you would like to do?
I’m going to be returning to the stage to do Shakespeare until someone says can you stop please. There is a clarity of thought and precision in speaking and expression that a lot of other plays don’t require so I can’t leave it alone. It pushes the audience members to have a better quality of hearing and understanding. When you’re watching these characters try to express themselves with ideas that are so detailed they become poetic in their expression. I love all that.
Which roles would you want to take on next?
I know I’ve got a King Lear in me – I’ll wait for that. I’d love to do Richard III, I think we need to be clever in the casting of that. A Falstaff. All the usual. And a Mr and Mrs M. I think I’ve got a Macbeth in me somewhere.
Finally, who would you give Shakespeare award to?
I would give it to Declan Donnellan, pictured, and Nick Ormerod of Cheek By Jowl –they reinvent Shakespeare and Declan instinctively understands the push and pull of the text. He said to me – and I now tell everyone else – you can’t say I love you to someone without being aware of the opposite, that has to take place in your mind before you speak the words I love you.
Pragnell Shakespeare Award Roll of Honour
1990 Dame Peggy Ashcroft
1991 Terry Hands
1992 Professor Muriel Bradbrook
1993 Peter Brook
1994 Barbara Jefford
1995 Tanya Moiseiwitsch
1996 Sir Ian McKellen
In 1997 the Award took the form of a tribute to the Flower family
1998 Sir Peter Hall
1999 Paul Scofield
2000 Dame Judi Dench
2001 John Barton
2002 The Folger Shakespeare Library
2003 Professor Stanley Wells
2004 Cicely Berry
2005 Corin Redgrave
2006 Sir Donald Sinden
2007 Harriet Walter
2008 Michael Boyd
2009 Michael Billington
2010 Barrie Rutter
2011 Patrick Stewart
2012 Dame Janet Suzman
2013 Simon Russell Beale
2014 Nicholas Hytner
2015 Sir Kenneth Branagh
2016 Sir Trevor Nunn
2017 Sir Antony Sher
2018 Jane Lapotaire
2019 Professor Jerzy Limon
2020 Juliet Stevenson CBE
2021 Dr John Kani
2022 Adrian Lester CBE