Roger Rees Tests His 'Will'
Sunday, March 25, 2007
When he speaks to young people about the actor's life, Roger Rees finds he has to edit himself. Severely. The stars who defined his gold-plated years on the British stage -- 22 of them with the Royal Shakespeare Company -- might be seared into his consciousness, but they haven't necessarily been etched into the next generation's.
"Now, when I talk about Shakespeare, I can't talk too much about Gielgud or Olivier," he says. "Because nobody knows who I'm talking about."
Maybe it's not such a bad thing that memories of great classical actors fade, and quickly. The more important constant surely is the classics themselves, and the enthusiasm of fresh crops of acting talent to tackle the plays and try to make them their own.
Rees, who at 62 still looks to be in fighting trim, is keen on up-and-comers plotting their own journeys through Shakespeare. But he is also eager to share what he has learned in his own encounters. Which is what he plans to do in the one-man show he is unveiling in a world premiere Friday at Folger Theatre: "What You Will: By and About the Bard."
The piece is a showcase for Rees's relationship with the playwright he deems more central to his love of his craft than any other. The performance -- a compendium of anecdotes about, and monologues by, his favorite characters in the canon -- is an extension of the "anthology" shows about Shakespeare and other authors that classical actors often compile and tour with in England. As he himself has done.
"I've been with Shakespeare all my life," Rees says, sitting recently in the Founders Room at the Folger Shakespeare Library. This might come as something of a revelation to those who recognize Rees from his recurring roles in such TV series such as "Cheers" -- he played Kirstie Alley's boyfriend Robin Colcord -- and "The West Wing," in which he portrayed glib English ambassador Lord John Marbury. (He's now playing a dapper heart surgeon in a three-episode arc of "Grey's Anatomy.")
Rees made a pretty sharp turn away from Shakespeare, though, when he settled in the United States in the 1980s, after his many years with the RSC and a notable triumph in its landmark "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby." The 8 1/2 -hour stage adaptation of the Dickens novel -- which opened in London in 1980 and later came to Broadway -- made a sensation of Rees, who won a Tony for playing the title role.
Stage, film and television work kept him busy here, and he would settle into an enduring relationship with Rick Ellice, who worked in theater marketing and later found Broadway validation as co-writer of the book for "Jersey Boys," the hit musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. If it's the case that Rees never quite found another role with the galvanizing impact of Nickleby, it's also true that he's carved a satisfying niche for himself, on the stage and the screen.
In 2004, his profile rose significantly in the theater world when
he took over as artistic director of the highly regarded Williamstown Theatre Festival, a company in western Massachusetts that each summer showcases contemporary and classical drama.
Working in this country has changed Rees's perceptions about acting and the playwright he considers a continual inspiration. Although Americans tend to lionize the achievements of a cadre of British Shakespeareans who came of age in the 1960s and '70s -- a group that included such luminaries as Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Derek Jacobi, Alan Bates and Ian Holm -- Rees has come to admire just as much the approach on this side of the Atlantic, particularly by younger actors.
He says he sees actors here acclimate to Shakespeare surprisingly naturally, "once you take away the daunting aspect. Some of the finest Shakespeare has been done recently by college theater programs. I'll tell you what these young kids have: They have a natural authority in Shakespeare. They feel a right to do it. And once they honor the humanity of it, the rhythm of the verse comes with it."
Rees was part of the RSC in a remarkable era, epitomized by the leadership of director Trevor Nunn. During a given season in the mid-1970s, for instance, the company would produce something like a "Comedy of Errors" sung through as if it were an Italian opera, and a "Macbeth" designed in black and white and featuring the likes of Dench and McKellen.
Rees appeared in both of those, as Antipholus of Syracuse in "Comedy of Errors" and Malcolm in "Macbeth." (A few years later he would play Hamlet for the RSC, as well as star in the original London production of Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing.") Many of the actors from that time in his life remain good friends, especially Dench, with whom he carries on a tradition of affectionate, long-distance practical joking. One of their more whimsical ongoing games, he confides, is having orders of sushi delivered to each other at unexpected hours.
Looking back on his RSC years, however, he wonders whether the actors of his generation didn't become too concerned with style. "When I see these kids acting," he says, "I think I'm a Restoration fop.
"It doesn't seem Shakespeare works if you turn him into a religion," Rees adds. Shakespeare's plays, after all, were not composed for solemn contemplation, let alone spaces on library shelves. "They were done on bare boards, in the middle of the afternoon, in the actors' own clothes."
Rees likes to think of Shakespeare as hanging with the meat-and-potatoes crowd. "He would have worn Levi's. He was a guy. He wrote plays to make money. And the people he worked with were in love with the theater and wanted to do it morning, noon and night."
Some things about acting Shakespeare really don't seem to change.