Of late, Shaftesbury Avenue has been a hive of success for the resurgent RSC. Until recently the double bill of The Taming Of The Shrew and The Tamer Tamed had the Queen’s Theatre packed to the rafters with baying crowds. And just next door the Gielgud is currently selling out as audiences throng to see All’s Well That End’s Well. As the popular show extends, Matthew Amer talked to one of its stars, Gary Waldhorn, about all things Shakespearean…
“When I come in everyday, I see a little stand outside which says ‘For Returns Queue Here’. There are people queuing up at every performance for return tickets and to me that is incredible.” The popularity of this rarely performed Shakespeare has taken everyone a little by surprise. As if to prove the show’s popularity, there are also hoards of audience members clamouring at the stage door to have a quick chat with members of the cast. Old PE teachers, neighbours and chiropody assistants are all fighting with handbags and big sticks to get past each other. In the interest of safety I try out a new profession as a doorman while waiting for Waldhorn to recover from the matinee performance.
Once the bear pit of the stage door has been escaped, the interview takes place in a room reminiscent of the Tardis. Hidden away deep within the Gielgud, the small room has PCs and laptops wherever you look. Waldhorn seems unfazed by the volume of techy toys adorning the tables, and is much more concerned about trying to eat his Marks and Sparks Greek Salad whilst simultaneously answering some prying questions. He doesn’t like to perform on an empty stomach, but can’t eat a full meal before a performance. The salad bowl seems custom made for his existence.
"It’s quite nice playing kings because people do what you tell them and you get to wear fantastic capes."
Waldhorn plays the King Of France in this tale of love and mistaken identity. At the beginning of the play he is not in a well state, in fact he is so near to Death’s door that he could touch the Grim Reaper’s knocker. But with the help of doctor’s daughter Helena he recovers and expresses his gratitude by allowing her to take any man in his kingdom as her husband. As all good Shakespearean scholars might expect, the man she chooses is the son of a Countess who would rather tickle his nose with a porcupine than marry a common doctor’s daughter. Thus ensues a tale of cat and mouse, as characters swap places and imitate each other in an attempt to end up where they want to be. Waldhorn is very happy in his regal role: “You get to cry, you get to shout and then you become a great, magnificent king again in all his regalia. It’s quite nice playing kings because people do what you tell them and you get to wear fantastic capes. It’s just great fun.”
As a play, All’s Well That Ends Well is often neglected and rarely performed. By definition a comedy, inconsistencies in the plot leave it dubbed by many a ‘problem play’. Waldhorn himself struggled to get to grips with it when he was first approached by director Greg Doran. However, these problems were addressed by Doran, who has created some of the most memorable Shakespearean productions of recent years, on the very first day of rehearsals.
Doran’s techniques for getting behind a play are indicative of his analytical approach to directing. For the first week of rehearsals the entire cast took each scene in turn, reading out parts which were not their own, to get a feel for the meaning of every line and bring any important issues into the foreground. It is a process of which Waldhorn is a fan: “There is an analysis and an attempt to completely understand what is really being said. I’m not sure you can really do Shakespeare unless you actually know what you’re talking about. It’s common sense, isn’t it!”
Aside from Shakespeare’s scintillating plot and a wealth of marvellous acting, All’s Well That Ends Well has a couple of big names which are also proving to be audience attractors. One is the RSC itself, which with its heritage and reputation, has a loyal band of followers. The other is the first lady of British theatre, Dame Judi Dench. Waldhorn has warm words to say about both of these national institutions. “The RSC has a vision of what it is and where it wants to go. It’s bigger than any other [theatre company], it’s more ambitious and it has more money. The costumes for this show must have cost a fortune, but they’re great, so why compromise?”
“Shakespeare was perhaps the greatest genius who has ever lived, regardless of whether it was him or not."
On his diminutive co-star who recently won an Olivier Award for her amazing achievements within British theatre and who could probably sell tickets to watch her do the housework, his words are equally affectionate. “She’s wonderful, genuinely wonderful. She’s an extraordinary actress of great depth and warmth and humanity, and as a person she’s very much the same.”
Waldhorn’s highest accolades however are saved for the writer of his current production, who would no doubt be stroking his goatee beard with suitable aplomb were he around to hear this praise. “Shakespeare was perhaps the greatest genius who has ever lived, regardless of whether it was him or not. I don’t care - the plays are there and that is what is important.”
Although Waldhorn has a long list of theatre credits to his name, it is for his role as David Horton in religious romp The Vicar Of Dibley that most people will recognise him. So successful was the show that it has been voted into the top ten sitcoms ever by BBC viewers and is currently rubbing shoulders with the likes of Fawlty Towers, Only Fools And Horses and Porridge. Much like All’s Well That Ends Well, the scale of the show’s success still shocks Waldhorn. “My God! Last year I went to Sydney and I could hardly walk down the street. You forget it is all over the world.” Although a new series seems unlikely - “Richard [Curtis] is too busy to write more episodes and I think Dawn [French] thinks it would be a mistake for someone else to write it” – Waldhorn refuses to rule out the possibility that some time in the future a Christmas/Easter/Pentecost special could once again grace television screens across the land. “There’s never an official ending to anything, particularly in television.”
There is more to Waldhorn’s long and illustrious career than playing the King Of France and the ‘Daddy Of Dibley’. Before ‘The Vicar’ there was 80s decorating debacle Brush Strokes in which he played the boss of cheeky chappy Karl Howman. In the theatre he has performed across the West End, at the National, in the Antipodes and on Broadway. His list of movie credits even includes the cult WWII football film Escape To Victory which starred Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone and a host of the world’s most talented footballers. Sadly the reality of filming was less exciting than the dream of impromptu 5-a-side matches in between takes and Pele swapping acting tips with Bobby Moore. “I didn’t see anybody, only Michael Caine and Max Von Sydow. Michael Caine was very funny actually, which was terribly amusing.” However, a wardrobe mix up did leave him with the Sly Stallone’s suede jacket. “It was enormous and just so wide.”
"Michael Caine was very funny actually, which was terribly amusing."
His time among the world’s footballing elite is not Waldhorn’s career highlight. That accolade falls to another RSC production, Good, in which he performed on Broadway. The story goes that when the production was to transfer from Stratford across the pond, one of the actors couldn’t make the trip and Waldhorn was asked to take his place. He, of course, jumped at the offer, but American Equity had other ideas and claimed that as he had not performed with the RSC before he was not a bona fide member of the company and as such would not get an American work permit. One special Stratford performance was thrown together faster than a bad juggler’s balls, and without much preparation Waldhorn made his RSC debut. Having performed on English soil he was then allowed to work in the land of the free. And it was worth it: “Every English actor should experience a reasonable success on Broadway because they’re crazy over there. Anything that smacks remotely of success and they’re all over you. You just feel so good. Here you just get a little congratulatory slap on the back and that’s the end of it.”
The confident exterior of Gary Waldhorn – sophisticated, well spoken, in control – breaks just once during the whole interview, when the topic of nerves is addressed. After such a long career the uninitiated might think that nerves have, like a horse chestnut in autumn, been conquered. But, as a recent conversation with Sir Antony Sher illustrates, they are still as powerful as ever. “We were talking about the terror of the final rehearsal… and of the dress rehearsal… and of the first preview… and of the opening night. The terror! People think it is easy. It’s not. And it gets worse the older you get. You’ve lost all the inexperience and arrogance that you had when you were a young actor. You know a lot more about what it’s actually all about and it’s very scary.” So scary in fact that Waldhorn may not continue forever. Recently there has been another calling which could move him away from the professional stage but still keep him in the sphere of drama. “I am quite attracted to teaching, even on a part time basis.” A spell two years ago talking to university groups while starring in Much Ado About Nothing opened his eyes to the pleasure of imparting knowledge to the next generation and kindling interests in the dramatic arts. But, and this is the sternest ‘but’ of the interview, he is not in the business of teaching fame. “I don’t have any sympathy for that at all. I like the idea of being with young people who would be interested in actual work.”