A northern light on Shakespeare's 'broken' monarch
IN STRATFORD-Upon-Avon, he is the toast of the town. When he heard he was to be offered the role of the misshapen, wrongdoing Richard of Gloucester in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard III, 33-year-old actor Jonjo O’Neill, from west Belfast, had just emerged from a three-year stint with the company.
During that time he had played Orlando, Mercutio, Dromio of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors, Ilya in The Drunks by Michael and Vyacheslav Durnenkov, and Launcelot in Mike Poulton’s new adaptation of Morte d’Arthur.
“I had decided to take a break from theatre,” he says. “I’d been with the company from 2009 to 2011, performing a string of major roles in Stratford, London, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and New York. I was exhausted.
“Then this came up, which was, well, really surprising. It’s a massive part, the second-biggest Shakespeare wrote, and it carries a huge responsibility. Normally, I come on, do a bit of dirty work, then leave it to other actors to get on with it. But here, the burden of the entire play rests on the shoulders of the actor playing Richard.”
The production is one of a season of three plays under the collective title Nations at War (alongside Shakespeare’s King John and A Soldier in Every Son – The Rise of the Aztecs by Mexican writer Luis Mario Moncada) whose themes are the struggle for absolute power and the right to lead a nation.
O’Neill says that the role was not something on which he had set his sights and he describes it as a play in which actors make their name. And what a galaxy of starry names have gone before him – Laurence Olivier, Ian McKellen, Alec Guinness, Antony Sher, Al Pacino and Kevin Spacey among them.
“I asked [RSC associate director Roxana Silbert] if she intended doing a big number on it, like setting it in Nazi Germany. She said she just wanted to do the play, to go right through the middle of it. Once she said that, I didn’t hesitate. I knew I could go on a journey with the part.”
When it comes to the part, O’Neill appears to have done nothing very much, while pulling off an unforgettable feat of organic, naturalistic acting. For the play’s 3.5-hour duration, he seems no more and no less than his natural self, speaking in his native Belfast voice, exuding personal electricity and holding the audience in the palm of his hand. His intelligent, holistic performance perfectly suits the tone and rhythms of that voice and draws every last nuance and meaning from Shakespeare’s rich, tumbling poetry.
“I didn’t make a conscious decision to ‘do’ Richard with a Belfast accent,” he says. “I always try to do what comes naturally. I would take no joy in being anything less than myself. It’s the same with the physicality. I didn’t want to overdo it, so I have a limp, a stiff leg, a malformed gloved hand and a misshapen shoulder. That’s the minimum.
“People have been surprised by the amount of humour in this production. My job is to keep the ball in the air, to find the humour underneath the lines and hold the balance between it and the dark side of the character.
“I saw Richard as a broken, damaged boy. Shakespeare was drawn to broken characters and gives voice to people in crisis. His final scene is an amazing piece of psychoanalysis and, in spite of the terrible things he does, the character is sexy and attractive because he is unjudged by Shakespeare.”
While O’Neill is reluctant to make direct connections with growing up on the Whiterock Road during the years of conflict, he concedes that others may see certain parallels. He recalls the years when he and a group of aspiring young actors from the area dreamed of an acting career as an escape route.
“It was a violent time. Not a nice place to be,” he reflects. “There was nothing to do in the Whiterock so a crowd of us put things on and then got into Ulster Youth Theatre and did musicals with Michael Poynor’s Ulster Theatre Company. I was big into musical theatre at the time. All I wanted to do was sing and dance. The best thing about my training was leaving the house. I couldn’t wait to get away.”
He won a scholarship to Guildford School of Acting and has never looked back. He says that if the opportunity naturally arose, he would love to perform in Belfast but would not want it to be seen as some kind of showy casting deal. He speaks now with the confidence of being firmly established within the top ranks of classical actors. Next stop will be the National Theatre in London, where he will be doing a new play alongside Billie Piper.
His Richard registers as a smiling, chillingly seductive manipulator, who becomes caught up in a pattern of bloodletting. He is the puppet master. At his command, lives are brutally cut short, but his hands remain clean. When pressed about the perceived resonances of his performance to the politics of the North, he insists that it is not deliberate, but does make one important qualification.
“The opening soliloquy of this play is a seduction: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.’ The whole scene is about ceasefire. But the accent doesn’t lead down a single route. A ceasefire is not owned by Belfast. The Irish have happily embraced the underdog status so well. When things go wrong, it’s always someone else’s fault, never our own. Richard leads us laughing into the gates of Hell. In breathing life into the text, I can only bring to it what I have inside me.”
Richard III runs at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until September 15. rsc.org.uk