Since beginning his career more than three decades ago with the Royal Shakespeare Company (including a Tony-winning performance in the title role of The Life and Adventure of Nicholas Nickleby), Roger Rees has spent most of his time in America, juggling acting and directing. A 2012 Tony nominee (with Alex Timbers) for guiding Peter and the Starcatcher to the stage, Rees is back on the West End to do three weeks at the Apollo Theatre in his charming, chatty one-man show, What You Will. In 90 engaging minutes, the 68-year-old star riffs on Shakespeare-related topics and themes and his history performing the Bard. Broadway.com caught up with Rees a day or so after his arrival in London to talk life and art on both sides of the Atlantic.
It’s great to see you back on the London stage two and a half years after you co-starred with Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot.
That was lovely, and I did get quite a few little “squibs across my bow” while I was here with Godot asking whether I could do this or that. But I’d already been working for two years on Peter and the Starcatcher, so I thought, “I can’t really do that.” Maybe I can think about some of them now that Peter is up and running.
In the meantime, you’re bringing your solo piece on Shakespeare to the Bard's home country.
Yes, but don’t think for a minute that means Shakespeare is less well understood elsewhere. I recall doing [the show] in Orlando during a Shakespeare conference for people from Prague and Japan and Brazil, and they were an astonishing audience. At the same time, of course it’s lovely to do it back in London. I’ve got so many friends here, and when it was suggested, I thought it would be a delight: I get to reconnect to my British feelings [laughs].
How did this particular solo show begin?
I was doing an evening of modern poetry for the Folger Library in Washington DC, run by my friend Beth Emelson, and she said to me, “You really ought to be doing something on Shakespeare since we’re the nest of everything Shakespearean here at the Folger.” It’s a place where you can actually hold David Garrick’s script for Hamlet in your hand. So I found myself assembling materials and some anecdotes, and the result has proved to be lovely; people quite like it.
This kind of piece isn’t entirely new to you.
Not at all. I’ve made lots of anthologies for people over the years. When we were doing a small-scale RSC tour of Twelfth Night and Three Sisters, they also did an anthology of mine with Ian McKellen, Edward Petherbridge and Susan Tracy called And Is There Honey Still For Tea? The three authors got to have their pictures on the back of the leaflet, so there we were: Shakespeare, Chekhov and Rees [laughs]. I have it framed at my house.
It has been some while since you’ve been in a Shakespeare play in Britain.
I can’t believe it, but it must have been 1984 when I played Berowne [in Love’s Labour’s Lost] and Hamlet on the same day for the RSC. I used to like it when we did Hamlet in the afternoon because it was more fun to do the comedy at night. Of course, I’ve directed a lot of Shakespeare since and played Petruchio at Williamstown [opposite Bebe Neuwirth, which Rees also directed in 1999]. But the fact is, his words are always with you, and there are lots of parts I think I want to play. There are things still to do.
Presumably part of the fun of this is that you can roam through the repertoire, alighting on roles in which you are unlikely to be cast yourself—like the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet.
Except that all the parts were played by men originally so I might, in fact, be more than able to play the Nurse [laughs]. There is no bias against gender or race or anything of that sort in Shakespeare; it’s all available to everyone. But I tend to do things with which, inevitably, I connect. It’s not like I’m thinking, “I really should do a bit of Mamilius” [the young prince in The Winter’s Tale].
Also, you broaden the show to take on more than just Shakespearean recitations.
Very much so. I talk about what people think about Shakespeare or have said about Shakespeare and numerous stories pertaining to the performance of Shakespeare. In some ways, it’s a difficult show to sum up: You’ll have to decide what the evening gives you.
Does your time with the RSC feel like some other life, or career?
Well, I was very privileged and lucky to be able to switch my life over, somewhat free of the template I had dreamed of, which was to be at the RSC all my life. In my case, I suddenly found myself in Los Angeles doing [Tom Stoppard’s play] Hapgood, with Judy Davis, and the people from Cheers saw me and asked me to be on TV. Since I had lost my family at the same time, it seemed as if maybe I should flip over and be there. But it’s not as if [the career] was in any way planned. It’s all about telling stories and communicating with an audience.
And yet you’ve maintained a connection to the RSC.
I have. I’m an associate artist, and even though I’m out of the country most of the time, they’re always in touch, talking about things and asking opinions of the actors. I first did What You Will at the Swan Theatre [in Stratford] about a year ago following the renovations there, and it was lovely. That was where we had our rehearsal rooms when I was with the company in the late 1960s, so it felt a very romantic place to be.
Having co-directed Peter and the Starcatcher, will you be travellng up to Leicester to see the new musical, Finding Neverland, about Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie?
I actually saw a workshop of it several years ago; it’s been around a while. What’s interesting about this Peter Pan syndrome ongoing at the moment is that we’re all Peter Pan, really, which explains why he’s such an appealing superstar to have in a show: it’s a very poignant idea, that notion of being a boy forever, but what makes our play [Peter and the Starcatcher] remarkable, I think, is its suggestion that staying a child is not such a great idea.
Are there plans for Peter to come to London?
Those approaches are being made; there’s talk of taking it all over the world. It’s a piece of theater that’s very, very appealing because it’s loving and not too cynical and people respond to it. At the same time, I don’t think of it as a children’s play at all. To me, it talks about responsibility and making a choice in your life.