Lear Jaunt

Matthew Radford explains how a professional British actor wound up playing Shakespeare in a Central Texas barn

Radford prepares to transform himself into King Lear as Shakespeare at Winedale director James Loehlin looks on.
Radford prepares to transform himself into King Lear as Shakespeare at Winedale director James Loehlin looks on.

The Bard is back at the barn. Shakespeare at Winedale, the UT English department program that has been mounting Shakespearean plays in a 19th-century barn near Round Top for 36 years, has another trio ready for your pleasure: King Lear, As You Like It, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. But there's something different at Winedale this summer. In a departure from the program's custom of casting students with little or no stage experience, the title role in Lear is being played by Matthew Radford, an actor who's been performing Shakespeare professionally in the UK for 15 years. He came to Austin to get a graduate degree in the English department, although he's kept his hand in the profession by performing with the Austin Shakespeare Festival. (His performance as Buckingham in ASF's Richard III earned him a 2006 Austin Critics Table Award.) Shakespeare at Winedale alum Clayton Maxwell spoke with Radford about his summer at Winedale, what he's learning from it, and how Lear puts his iambic pentameter to the test.

Austin Chronicle: You originally came to Austin via the touring Shakespeare group Actors From the London Stage. Tell me about that and how it led to playing Lear with Shakespeare at Winedale?

Matthew Radford: I discovered Winedale in 1999 when I first toured with Actors From the London Stage – a group that does pretty much what the name suggests. I toured all over the States with a few other actors performing Shakespeare. I came back with AFTLS in 2001 and 2003, and each time I came through Austin. During my first tour, James Loehlin [Shakespeare at Winedale's current director] and Doc [James Ayres, the UT English professor who founded the program in 1970] told me about the barn. I asked them, "Why don't we do our show out there?" They said no, it's too far away, the space is too small, etc., and I said, "No, we can do it anywhere." And the next year, AFTLS did perform at Winedale. Then I came back in 2001, and we did Midsummer Night's Dream there, and I thought, "This is a fantastic place." We had four hours to totally reblock the entire show, but we did it. It was fantastic. So when I came to the university for a Ph.D. course last year, I became James' teaching assistant, and we did the spring Winedale class. Then he asked if I'd come out for the summer, and I decided to give it a go. It's a big commitment. I had no idea it meant getting up at 5:55 every morning. He kept that all quiet.

AC: You didn't know about the boot camp?

MR: Or the Bard camp, as they call it. No, I didn't know much about the rigors of Winedale when I accepted. Anyway, James asked me about playing Lear, and I thought, "That's ridiculous, I'm half Lear's age." James kindly reminded me that I'm twice the Winedale students' age. You'd really have to ask James why he wanted to bring me out here, but I think the idea was just to approach Lear as a professional actor would. In one sense, I am a professional actor, but I am also a student at the university. And I knew, from previous classes, two-thirds of these students. So I'm not some external actor/commentator just inserted into the equation. And I'm one of the assistant directors in two of the shows. [Dan Keegan is the other.] Because the students know me, it's not alienating. If I thought I was bringing too much professionalism into this world, I wouldn't have come. We'll wait and see if it's going to be successful or not, but it's not been a problem so far.

AC: What type of acting did you do in England?

MR: I've been based in London for the past 15 years, doing mainly theatre, loads of Shakespeare. Shakespeare chose me; I didn't really choose Shakespeare. I didn't understand it at first. I never would have done anything like Winedale when I was these students' age – would have scared the life out of me. I didn't get a good understanding of Shakespeare until my fifth professional production. Suddenly, I had the lightbulb moment, and it just made sense. I was 27, doing Macbeth at the Hong Kong Festival, and it suddenly was like – this is fantastic! And I can't get enough of it now. Subsequently, it's been nice that I've been able to work in Austin as well, with the Austin Shakespeare Festival and Richard III and Hamlet. It's been good to do Shakespeare with the acting community in Austin.

AC: Is theatre in Austin significantly different from that in England?

MR: It is different. In England, the government subsidizes theatre. It's not a lot of money, you understand, but a living wage. That means you can just act, that's what you do most of the time. Here, most actors just can't earn enough money; it's not there. So everybody has a day job, which means rehearsals are at night. That's a shocking experience. Because everyone's tired. Because you have to rehearse until 11 o'clock at night, then get up early, do a full day's work, and go back and do it again. I have nothing but admiration for how people actually do it. It does mean there's a lot less rehearsal time than I'm used to, so it's kind of done on the fly. If you're an actor, it's your only choice, which means that some things are far more creative and adventurous because people have to jump out and say, let's try this. So it's not better or worse, it's just very different.

AC: Isn't your coming here to perform Shakespeare kind of like my going to London to two-step?

MR: Coals to Newcastle, as we say. Well, I don't think it's surprising as all that. Shakespeare is not that popular in our country. It's not done as much as people think. You have the famous companies: the Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company. And the National Theatre will occasionally put on a production. But outside of that, the repertory theatres or the regional theatres all over the country will only do Shakespeare every one or two years. And they won't dare put on the more radical ones, just Romeo and Juliet or whatever is on the school syllabus – so that the kids will come in. You're sure not going to see Henry VI, Part II. But in the U.S., because people are doing Shakespeare for the love of it or as part of summer festivals, there is a lot more Shakespeare done here. In the summer, I am amazed at how many hundreds of productions are going on across the country, and they're done in all sorts of different ways. So I think in some ways there is a greater appreciation of Shakespeare here than in England. I really do. When I came with AFTLS, we got that feeling almost from the outset. People really like and care about it here.

AC: Are the students in the U.S. also more appreciative of Shakespeare?

MR: Absolutely. There are battles in the UK to take Shakespeare off the syllabus at school. They don't succeed, but persistently there are battles about this. It's a bit embarrassing for us. I always say that just because I'm English – well, Welsh actually, but we'll say English to keep matters simple – that doesn't mean my mother read Shakespeare to me in the cradle. Some people assume because you've got the accent, you grew up doing Shakespeare. I promise you that is not the case.

AC: How is the Winedale program different from the Shakespeare you've done before?

MR: It's hugely different. I've never done anything like this. It's a very intense experience, isn't it? Certainly in the first week I wasn't sure it was the right choice. It was very alienating, a culture shock – you know, singing songs before breakfast. Totally immersing yourself, never being alone for a moment, making your own costumes, your own props – it's tough. But now I'm into it. You have your down days where you think, "I just want to get out of here." But the teamwork is incredible. Yeah, I love it.

AC: Are you participating in everything the students do?

MR: Yes, yes, making my own costumes, my own props. We all performed poems on the first night. At the moment, I'm teaching them the Welsh national anthem. Lear was a Romano-Celt, so that's my argument. I said to James that as a Welshman, I think we should learn the Welsh national anthem, so he said, "Why, are you going to teach it?" Now he likes it so much that I hope we are going to put it in the show, which will please my dad a lot.
Radford's Lear cradles his dead daughter Cordelia (Annalee Sweet) in the play's final act.
Radford's Lear cradles his dead daughter Cordelia (Annalee Sweet) in the play's final act.

AC: What would you say the students are gaining from your being here as an actor and director? This is the first time that this has been done out here.

MR: It's difficult for me to answer that question. There are times when I've thought that perhaps this is not a good idea. But we did the dress rehearsal of Lear last Saturday. Terrifying, after a week. We rehearse a show for a week, then dress rehearse it in front of ex-Winedalers, then go to the second show for a week, dress rehearse, do the same thing with the third show, then return back to all the plays. And once you've got an audience out there, it's a performance. It's a very focusing experience. And there were 35 people there for the dress rehearsal of Lear. Oh, dear me, we had a few close calls, but we got through. James said afterward that he was glad that I was here, so I was relieved to hear that.

So how do I help them? A lot of practical stuff. [At this moment, Rachel Sibley, a student, walks in.] Actually, you can ask her what the hell I'm doing here.

AC: Hi Rachel. OK, would you mind telling me how it helps to have a professional actor here?

Rachel Sibley: You've asked a very specific individual because I'm the Fool in Lear, so Matthew and I do a lot of work together. It's interesting because we have James as the director – you know, as much as anyone is an official director out here – and Dan is also an assistant director, but Matt plays between the lines because he's also in a play. We call him "Gags" because he keeps throwing gags into the scenes.

MR: You always need gags.

AC: You mean little onstage tricks to keep people on their toes?

RS: He is an expert in that. We play with these improvised things a lot. But mostly, it's helpful to have a professional here because many of us are not very familiar with a lot of the basics of theatre: interacting across distances, angling out – the little things that are really important onstage. Matt gives us a lot of tips, but without being too hands-on, because it's a discovery process, discovering on your own. We talked a little bit amongst ourselves about the difference between acting on stage with Matt versus acting with one another. There isn't that big a difference really, except that Matt can really hold his own. Onstage, there are all these different levels of interaction, and you can rise up to a level or sink down to a level. Ideally, everyone in the scene works together, and you feel like the energy can reach a peak. Matthew helps us with this. He gave us this analogy, and it describes the phenomenon well: Are you passing on a tennis ball or a medicine ball to the person you are on stage with? The medicine ball is heavy and hard to handle, and it doesn't help you out with your line. The tennis ball is very light and easy to move back and forth. So we talk a lot about that – well, actually we don't talk about it as much as we grapple with it. Acting with someone like Matt, someone who is very comfortable, can oftentimes draw people out and makes it easier on all of us.

AC: Matthew, is there anything that Winedale has illuminated for you that your former acting experiences have not?

MR: Inevitably, yes, but how well I'm going to be able to put that into words at the moment I don't know. One of the reasons I wanted to come to the U.S. was to take a little sabbatical. In London, you become tired, a bit jaded, and you start doing it for the money. You start to encounter quite a bit of cynicism. But around here, well, cynicism very much doesn't work. You don't see it. The sheer exuberance and enthusiasm of Winedale reinvigorates any text that you come across. People are willing to throw themselves into any role – whatever the case. This has been enormously instructive for me. I'm playing a part that is ridiculous for me to play: an 80-year-old. But the last time it was done out here, it was done by a 22-year-old. So you think, all right, just do it – have a go, really. So it's the courage, I think. Yes, I've learned courage.

AC: At Winedale, each role has something to teach the student who plays it. Can you tell me something that Lear has taught you?

MR: Ostensibly, Lear is about a king losing his kingdom, losing it to two of his daughters and to his own vanity. But that kingdom is anybody's kingdom, anybody who is aging and facing loss. So the play is actually about all of us. An ex-Winedaler, Rob Matney, was here last weekend and saw Lear. He wrote to me, saying that the play made him consider the loss of his own kingdom at some point. Eventually, we will all have to hand over our power to someone younger than ourselves. The hope is to do it with as much decency and equanimity as you can – otherwise you are going to get in trouble. So that whole aging process has been a rather unpleasant learning curve this summer. At the moment Lear is very difficult for me. When you work on it out here, it is so intense and you have no perspective. So I don't know yet what else I'm learning except that it is going to be fun one day. But at the moment, it is just terrifying. They all think that I'm not nervous, and I say, "Are you kidding?"

AC: What do you like about playing Lear?

MR: The last few years I've become really interested in Shakespeare's use of poetry and the complexity of iambic pentameter. Lear is the most adventurous and dangerous use of iambic pentameter – there are very few regular lines. It breaks up all over the place. I couldn't really have handled that breakup without having better understood the basic element: the iambic line. I've been learning about that for the past couple of years, and now I am getting to put it to the test. I'm finding that I can actually handle the verse. I can't yet get the age, but I can handle the verse. And it's tremendous. To be able to speak 800 lines of wonderful poetry – it's magnificent stuff. And in such a small space. I love the barn – it's fantastic.

AC: When you describe Winedale to friends back home, are there any recurring words or descriptions that pop up?

MR: Yes, "magical" is a word I use a lot. "Idyllic." "Hot." "Isolated." But I love it. I say, "Just imagine playing Shakespeare in an open-sided barn for the summer, and people are having picnics under the pecan trees."

AC: Do you think you'll stay in Texas for long?

MR: No, I'm going home next year. I never meant to stay longer than a year, but I love Austin. I've made some very good friends here. We shall see. end story

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