Union Interview: RSC Actor Peter Eyre

Morwenna Jones 2 May 2014

Peter is a seasoned and distinguished actor who has performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.  He has also starred in the TV show ‘Friends’ and the film ‘The Remains of the Day’. 

So how do you feel about the outcome of the debate?

I don’t care.  I think the logic here means that you can’t really say I’d rather have one or the other.  It’s a nice excuse to talk about a certain aspect of literature and how things are constructed.  I think it’s good.

When you opened your speech, you said that you were a ‘stranger to the academic world’… do you really think that’s the case?  You’ve explored Shakespeare in immense depth and have played three characters in Hamlet alone…

Well I didn’t have much of an education but I think that if you’re in a lot of Shakespeare plays then you learn how to do Shakespeare.  It’s quite difficult, actually, to learn how to do a Shakespeare speech, it’s technically challenging.  You get to know the world of Shakespeare and the incredible breadth of it.

Perhaps I can’t compare. I’m not an academic, but I’ve read a lot of books about Shakespeare but I don’t really see the point as nobody really knows everything that happened.

I spoke to an actress the other day who’s played Cleopatra a few times and she’s also directed Anthony and Cleopatra and she was telling me what she’s learnt from working on the play for so long.  She wants to write a book on how she thinks that the part of Cleopatra couldn’t possibly have been written for an adolescent boy but that it was written for a woman but she’s worried that academics will think she’s nuts.

You spoke about the ‘other world’ that Shakespeare opened up for you as an eleven-year old boy.  What was this world for you as a boy and how has it changed over your career?

Well, as a child because I’d never seen a straight play before I suppose the variety of experience, of ideas, situations and aspects of human nature was just very overpowering.  I think maybe when you’re in Shakespeare plays there’s an incredible richness and cleverness that you notice.

I was once working with some students on As You Like It, specifically on a scene that goes from prose to poetry to prose.  We examined why that happens structurally and why that happens musically.  When you study Shakespeare and get into it, it’s a bit like a musician in an orchestra.  You realise the extraordinary possibilities of Shakespeare and of his imagination and range.  Everything’s in Shakespeare, everything.

You’ve starred with some big actors on Broadway in productions of Hamlet, notably Jude Law and Ralph Fiennes.  If you could pick any actor to play Hamlet, who would you choose? 

I didn’t see him but I would love to have seen Ben Whishaw in the production at the Old Vic.  Apparently he was very good.  I think he’s a very talented young actor.  He’s strong but he’s also got incredible sensitivity, like all his fibres are there, quivering.

Both Ralph Fiennes and Jude Law have brought out fantastic things from Hamlet and that’s the thing about the role.  Playing Hamlet demands so much from an actor, any good actor can be good at Hamlet but not very many can be great.

Of the actors you’ve seen, who would you class as a great?

I saw Peter O’Toole when he was quite young at the Bristol Old Vic.  He was very sensitive, very alive, he had a lot of humour.  He seemed to cover all the different little aspects of Hamlet.

You’re also a French-speaker, you adapted the letters of Flaubert for the stage in Chez Maitre.  What do you think makes the language of England and Shakespeare, and indeed Shakespeare’s play-writing, unique and so special in relation to that of France and other countries?

I suppose the range of the language and the breadth of it.  If you think, Shakespeare has 1,199 words or something like that available in his vocabulary whereas a French writer like Racine only has a vocabulary of about 420 words.  It’s a very different thing.

Also, Racine and the other French dramatists or tragedy writers are all very limited by genre.  They don’t have that ability of Shakespeare to contain everything.

So why did you choose to study in Paris instead of at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where you’d been offered a place? 

I went to Paris initially to go to the Sorbonne with a mind to go to RADA afterwards.  The thing is, I’d worked my way into this sort of drama school thing in France and I’d had lessons with various teachers.  It somehow got into my head that I could actually get a job in the theatre in England without going to RADA.  Maybe I should have, I don’t know.  It probably would have been good if I had.

How does it feel, having seen Shakespeare as a young boy and admired those leading actors, to now be one of them?

Well I don’t think of myself like that at all.  If you ask me now who I want to see in Shakespeare I’d have to think rather carefully.  I think the whole style of acting can change over a lifetime.  If we saw the actors that I saw when I was a child, Oliver etc, I think people would think they were mad!  You know, they stretched their voices in a sort of way that people wouldn’t do now and they had a very, very different approach.

Now, because I know the plays and the actors, I often thing ‘Oh I’ve already seen it’.  Then, now and again, you see something that is really quite inspiring.  The way to get to know Shakespeare is to read it out loud or to read it with your friends and then it comes alive in a sort of way.  At one time, I read a lot of Shakespeare criticism but I can’t pretend that it was of any use to me really.

And finally, if you could be any mythological creature, what would you be and why?

I think I’d like to be Apollo.  He was pure and artistic and he represents something very idealised.  That’s what I’d like to do.