chapter  11
11 Pages

Adrian Lester: Jonathan Holmes


Such is their centrality to English-speaking culture that, in performance, all Shakespeare plays become history plays, though that history is rarely made as those involved would wish. Actors engaging with this canon of work find themselves negotiating a wide range of historical influences, and engaging with an unusually complex mesh of personal and cultural experience. Appropriately, then, the approach of most actors to their work revolves around a

conscious investigation of different forms of memory and history. Over the past century there has developed a tradition, largely inaugurated by Stanislavski, of bringing the actor’s own life to the process of rehearsing and playing a part on stage or screen, and for most actors it is now the case that this latter use of experience dominates all else. The actor Harriet Walter, in one of the pithiest articulations of this mesh of experience, writes that ‘acting is what I do with who I am’, (Walter, 1999, frontispiece) while the subject of this essay, Adrian Lester, grounds his whole acting process, from preparation through rehearsal into performance, in a dialogue with an extensive series of parallel systems of experience. Lester has appeared in only three Shakespeare productions on stage, yet each has

been a landmark event in the history of staging those plays. The parts played, too, represent an unconventional sequence in the career of an actor: Rosalind in Cheek by Jowl’s touring As You Like It (1991 & 1994) directed by Declan Donnellan, and the title roles in Hamlet (Bouffes du Nord, 2001) directed by Peter Brook, and Henry V (National Theatre, 2003) directed by Nicholas Hytner. In discussing this trajectory in interview, it becomes clear that for Lester in particular the experience of playing Rosalind at the age of 22 continues to influence his subsequent approach to Shakespeare, and in particular to the notion of character. After being cast in Donnellan’s all-male production, Lester began quite logically

by addressing the issue of gender difference: ‘I started off thinking I was playing a woman, so I began researching how a woman would walk and move.’ Very rapidly, however, he found this approach deficient:

There was a paradox in what I was doing, which was about playing ‘woman’; I was being more and more general in an attempt to be particular. As I rehearsed it suddenly clicked that all this was ridiculous, because I was trying to displace myself to play some idea of ‘woman’, whereas from the

start I should have been playing Rosalind, this individual, a Rosalind who happened to be my height, my shape, with my voice.