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Reuben Joseph talks about going from Hamilton in the West End to Macbeth at the RSC.

In just a few years and still in his mid-20s Reuben Joseph has gone from being in Macbeth at the Almeida, the West End as Hamilton and now back to Macbeth, but this time as the top dog, at the RSC. The immensely talented (and yet lovely and modest) actor talked to Gill Sutherland about his career to date.

Where did you grow up and what made you want to become an actor?

I grew up with my mum and dad and three sisters in a wee town called Helensburgh just outside of Glasgow. My eldest sister Florence did school plays and I ended up following her, like siblings do. Florence had the sense to grow out of the acting and is now a paediatric nurse.

When you’re growing up your always desperate to find your clan and that was what the drama club after school became for me. By the end of school I thought let’s give acting a shout, my parents were really supportive.

n RSC actor Reuben Joseph plays Macbeth in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest production. Photos: Mark Williamson
n RSC actor Reuben Joseph plays Macbeth in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest production. Photos: Mark Williamson

Were your folks into acting?

No not at all. My uncle was in the national youth theatre as a kid and had a wee part in that movie That Sinking Feeling (1979 Bill Forsyth comedy), which is funny all these years later to go back and see clips of him. But I didn’t have any family connections to the arts, but they were very passionate about theatre and culture. We would always go see the panto.

They must be very proud.

Yeah, they are, and it’s more than I could have hoped for already. It’s all happened in the space of like five years since I’ve graduated. So I’m beyond grateful for how it’s all turned out.

What was your break?

I was lucky that straight out of college, in 2018, the National Theatre Scotland were doing a rerun of Midsummer [comedy by David Greig and Gordon McIntyre]. I played a little bit of guitar and they were looking for someone who could play and fill in some bits here and there. We got to put it on in The Hub during Edinburgh Festival.

How did Hamilton come about?

It’s been a bit mad, I acutally had an audition for Hamilton when I was still in college in 2017 – I sent in a self-tape. I got quite far in the process much to my surprise, and had an audition. They were so sweet because I was so green. We got to the end of the process and it was just not right for me I was far too young and wouldn’t have handled that work well.

So years later I did Macbeth at the Almeida, which really was a bucket list space. That was really cool to do that show. The resident director at the time was a pal of one of the Hamilton company members and he came and saw the show and we met and chatted a bit. After that my agent got a message from the casting team asking if I wanted to come in for Hamilton.

I was a wee bit reluctant to at first because I was a kid when I auditioned for it and my heart was broken as it was my first no. But it would have been a bit daft not to be seen for it. It was lovely when they offered me the part, and then to be able to go into that space and feel comfortable and myself.

Why did you stop being Hamilton?

I made the decision to leave because Scotland is home and I love being there immensely. I will come down for the work, but doing that show at that level felt like the largest commitment I’ve ever made to anything. I was really glad I did it because it as one of the best experiences of my life, but it was a lot.

I enjoy trying different things, and not being boxed in as one type of actor. A year is a long time to do a show, so by the time it came to being asked to it again it was hard saying no but it felt like the right choice.

How have you found going from Hamilton to Macbeth, one intense role to another?

There’s an alternate Hamilton that does the first show of the week so they gave me a five-day working week, so I had significant rest time. It’s sadly really boring vocal rest – you need a whole day where you can sit and do nothing with your voice really.

If there’s ever a moment where you’d feel tired in Hamilton you just listen to the strings and Lin’s work and it is just so sustaining, it gives you everything you need if you are willing to find it.

Going into Macbeth is difficult for different reasons. There’s so much joy in performing Hamilton and the arc he goes through. He starts from low means and ascends until the fall at the end. But with Macbeth it’s quite intense because I have my first line and then it’s just downhill from there.

When we did our first run-through at the Other Place I literally just went outside and just ranted into my voice notes. I was like, “I don’t know if I can do this that was so intense and so scary!” Being in Stratford I’ve never been here before and I didn’t have my safety net as such to ground myself.

Had your worked with Wils Wilson before?

I hadn’t. Wils and the casting team came and met me while I was doing Hamilton, and then they saw the evening show of Hamilton that night. In retrospect I realised what a great platform that was for that – in terms of verse speaking and display of physicality. I had another meeting with Wils after, and they offered us the part, which was really exciting.

Reuben Joseph as Macbeth
Reuben Joseph as Macbeth

When you had those initial conversations with Wils about Macbeth – what was her take and how have you adapted your character?

The world in the show is very broken and fractured and it feels like the system has collapsed – it’s been a gradual decent into the breakdown of economics and politics. She knew she wanted a younger Macbeth and wanted the youthful arrogance of someone who thinks ‘I’m good at this’.

Boxing came into my head because the full title of the play is The Tragedy of Macbeth - for it to be a tragedy there needs to be another world where it could have gone different. I think that starts with Macbeth being a good man but he has to do one bad thing. But we know that bad things will begin more bad things and blood will have blood.

In terms of physicality, I went to the first meeting having watched boxing videos. I think this guy is Muhammad Ali because everyone in the play gives him honours. They love Macbeth he’s an incredible warrior and he’s also a poet as well – Shakespeare gives all his characters such beautiful lines but Macbeth especially has such beautiful imagery. So my thought was Muhammad Ali and then he’d sort of slide into Mike Tyson with the showmanship turned up to 11. He’s a man that’s only been rewarded for violence, and he’s so aggressive that he’d bite people’s ears off.

And how does that fit in with Valene as Lady Macbeth?

I think it really works for the dynamic of it – they are people who have something to lose and have it all to win for. They have so many years ahead of them. Valene is a very giving actor as well.

The production does things a little differently - staging the loss of the Macbeths’ child, delivering the ‘tomorrow’ speech via a microphone, so avoiding cliches. While some audiences want a more traditional approach, this feels quite brave and edgy. How does that sit with the company?

It’s funny that was never the goal or discussed. The impetus was to tell the version of the story that felt right to us and this company. I haven’t been to Stratford before and I haven’t seen any other RSC productions so I don’t know the expectation here. But I did know that we didn’t want to do the Gielgud version, we will do it as the bunch of Scots coming into the space and we will do it as ourselves. I mean how often do a predominately Scottish group of actors get to come into the RSC and do The Scottish play? We might as well give it a big swing and pull out the characters of this world.

Does the cast have a sense of ownership over the ‘The Scottish Play’?

Yeah, and it’s really great to hear it in these voices and with such a range of regional accents as well. We feel the risk of that – to lose your home nation. It’s not to say that Macbeth should be done but Scottish companies always – anyone should be free to tell the story in whatever their version of Scotland is, but it’s interesting at least that it is out of the norm for Scottish people to be telling the story. I don’t know if I’ve seen Macbeth in Scotland that much actually.

And you are alright saying Macbeth?

Yes, we have no qualms about that!

There’s a real physicality to the show…

The witches in this production are actually the scariest I’ve ever seen – their movements are incredible. With Macbeth’s soliloquies he sort of goes into these rhythms – prayers almost – praying to the devil and Hecate. There’s a shift there and it feels like he’s allowing himself to be possessed because this is a world where the devil and evil is real and we need to feel them. He’s a God-fearing man is Macbeth but he’s not worried about the repercussions of hell. The Joker became a reference point actually. He kills those guys and then has this moment of grotesque and ugly movement. He needed to feel powerful and beautiful in the moments after to do these terrible things.

There’s been a lot of debate about the Porter scene, where it’s delivered as a standup routine reworked by Stewart Lee, has the fuss been distracting?

It was interesting when it was first announced and how upset people were by that. It wasn’t intended to upset, it was done as a labour of love. It isn’t disrespectful to change the text. And we are lucky enought someone as brilliant as Alison Peebles [who plays the Porter] taking the stage.

So much of the politics of 1606 is baked into the fabric of that show so it doesn’t feel too much to make it reflect the times we live in now. And we do need a touch of levity in the show with so much child murder. It lets the audience breathe a little and it’s a lovely way to marry that with Macbeth on the mic [he goes on to address the audience and gets them joining in clapping]. The clapping feels like an interesting litmus test with the audience. It’s funny to see if the audience is on side there. Will you go along with this charismatic man who does these evil things? I don’t do it every night but if I see one person leaning forward in their seats, I’ll do it and usually if they clap others will go along with it.

You mentioned after the first run through collapsing in a heap on the floor – what do you have to have to be resilient as you perform Macbeth every night?

There’s a lot of glamour to be found in the world of being a method actor and if that’s your process that’s fine. And as important and as spiritually changing as this work has been to me, at the end of the day still a job and I am not that kind of actor. It does no good to walk around backstage and say to people “don’t speak to me”. Of course I am respectful to others who have to go through that [method] process to get through the show but I try to be myself and be a bit silly. That way it is easier to delineate spaces – out there is where that energy sits and backstage it’s different and I’m myself. It was the same with Hamilton. There are moments when you have to inhabit that character, but don’t carry it into the dressing room. Maybe that makes me in some people’s eyes a bad actor but I’d rather be that than carry the weight of it constantly.

Do you have things lined up or has it changed what you want to do next?

No I don’t have anything lined up. It’s interesting I think it must be something different and something I’m a touched scared of, but I think I’ll take a wee break first. It’s the first time when I haven’t got anything lined up so I’m looking forward to it. A younger version of me would have been quite stressed about but I’m not because things will be alright.

Would you be keen to come back to the RSC or do Shakespeare again?

Absolutely as the only two professional Shakespeare productions I’ve done have been Macbeth twice so I would love to come back and approach something different. I’ve had a lovely time so far.

‘Young people are the most honest audience’

As Macbeth is on the GCSE syllabus, young people make up a lot of the audience for the RSC production. Here Reuben gives Mery Sutherland, 17, some thoughts about the play and getting into acting.

Mery: Were you familiar with Macbeth before being in it?

Reuben: I wasn’t very academic but I did Macbeth for a wee bit at school. In that environment you have to be analytical, it doesn’t lend itself to imagining it performed. It’s lovely to see it come to life.

Mery: Did you go to drama school?

Reuben: I didn’t get into drama school, but went to Glasgow Clyde College which has a great acting course. That taught me that there is no right way to do it because it will happen if you are persistent. . I think the best actors are the ones with the most experience.

My mum’s back up for me was Philosophy which is quite funny looking back.

Mery: It must be quite intense being Macbeth.

Reuben: It’s overwhelmingly intense! My girlfriend came and saw the show and she was sat right at the front and she said it was one of the most overwhelming shows she has ever seen.

Mery: Does it make a difference when there are lots of young people in the audience?

Reuben: Yes it changes the show a lot. We get a lot more mobile phones going off, but it was the same with Hamilton.

It’s the most honest show you’ll get - you don’t get that learned etiquette of not to whisper to your friend “that bit was rubbish” so it’s quite nice to get that honesty.

Yes sometimes they are off putting but that’s the audience you have tonight.

Mery: Do you have to learn to not take that personally?

Yeah it’s funny isn’t it when you see something going on in the audience you have to both disengage from it and stay engaged with what you are doing – I don’t take personality as such because 9/10 it’s an accident or something is wrong. There was one time where a gentleman was quite rude to a younger audience member behind them and that was the one time I felt the impetus to stop…

Mery: If you could play any other Shakespeare character who would you play?

Maybe one of the Henrys, but also an Iago as well. I heard McKellen say to play Iago in your scenes you must be a nice man and in your soliloquies you must be an honest man.

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