When Patrick Page was 8, the future actor and playwright regularly dozed off to an unconventional bedtime story: an audio version of Laurence Olivier’s film adaptation of “Richard III.”
“But luckily,” he adds, via video chat, “I always fell asleep before he killed the little boys in the tower. So that character really drew me in.”
Thus began an infatuation with immorality that eventually led Page to write the one-man show “All the Devils Are Here: How Shakespeare Invented the Villain.” And who better to venture into such darkness? The booming-voiced actor, 58, is widely seen as Broadway’s go-to scoundrel. Among his performances: Scar in “The Lion King”; the Green Goblin in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”; and, most recently, the titular king of the underworld in “Hadestown” — a show Page says he hopes to return to, along with the entire original cast, when Broadway reopens.
In Washington, many know Page from his work at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, where he has prowled the stage as “Othello’s” Iago, “Hamlet’s” Claudius and the title character in “Macbeth.” Now, audiences can see Page embody those characters — and many others from Shakespeare’s body of work — in a streaming production of “All the Devils Are Here,” filmed this past fall at Sidney Harman Hall under coronavirus restrictions.
Equal parts conversational discourse and acting tour de force, the show presents a chronological voyage through the Shakespearean canon. As Page tracks the evolution of Shakespeare’s perspective on human evil, he performs myriad monologues from the Bard’s deep bench of antagonists and antiheroes.
Last month, Page discussed his decade-long process writing the show, the acting challenge the production poses and how the theater community should evolve post-pandemic.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: In the show's prologue, you explain that you'll be inhabiting characters of varying ages, genders and ethnicities, including roles you typically wouldn't play. How did you approach that aspect of the production?
A: My hero was Laurence Olivier, and Olivier said he always had the childish belief that the audience wouldn’t recognize him, one character to the next. My training ground when I was with the Utah Shakespeare Festival and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was repertory theater. So on one night, I would be playing Marc Antony in “Julius Caesar,” and then the next night, I’d be playing Doctor Pinch in “The Comedy of Errors.” I had the same kind of ambition here, which was to make the characters as distinct as I could — physically, vocally, rhythmically.
Q: You use the show to draw parallels between Shakespeare's work and modern life, with allusions to the Trump administration and references to such shows as "House of Cards," "Breaking Bad" and "Game of Thrones." How did you pinpoint those comparisons?
A: Shakespeare transcended the particular moment and is universal, which is why today, 400-some years after his death, there are still hundreds of Shakespeare theaters all over the world. For example, I just did a radio recording of “Julius Caesar,” and the play has a scene in which one of the characters quite famously goes out and, without ever saying, “I want you to go storm the Capitol,” gets the mob to go storm the Capitol. He knows precisely what he’s doing. So that play means something different, post-Jan. 6, to us in America, than it did pre-Jan. 6. So I look for that — I look for the plays that are urgent now.
Q: Which villain did you most relish portraying?
A: Years ago, [then-Shakespeare Theatre artistic director] Michael Kahn asked me to play Shylock, and I was coming to Washington to do it. Something came up on Broadway, and he was kind enough to allow me to do the Broadway show and to step away from “The Merchant of Venice,” but I always regretted not being able to play that part. So being able to play Shylock in this has been great.
Q: How did you handle the experience of performing without an audience, in a filmed production where the camera can really push in and enhance the intimacy?
A: It’s a challenge, because of course one feeds off the audience a lot — not only but especially in the comic scenes. So doing Malvolio [from “Twelfth Night”] without any of the laughs in the house is a challenge, right? You just have to trust that they’ll laugh where it’s funny. But the flip side is the camera can come in so close. And Shakespeare, especially in the soliloquies, is really spoken thought. So when you know that the camera is right there — and I can act it exactly as I would, but I don’t have any responsibility to get it to the back of the house — that’s a great luxury. I would love to do more Shakespeare on film for that reason.
Q: Digital productions such as these have become common with theaters shut down. How do you think this trend should influence the theater community on the other side of the pandemic?
A: I hope it encourages the actors unions and the artistic directors and producers to think in terms of having some kind of digital presence and film record of their work. People are always doing fundraising campaigns to build a new theater or build a new space. If I were doing it, it would be fundraising to have a permanent film presence of three to four cameras that are in the theater at all times capturing performances that can then — if the performance is remarkable — be edited and create something that will last. That’s a question of the will of the people who run things to get that done.
All the Devils Are Here: How Shakespeare Invented the Villain
Shakespeare Theatre Company. shakespearetheatre.org.
Dates: Through July 28