James Lawrence was a particularly notable performer when I enjoyed the pleasure of watching and reviewing Othello at Stafford Castle. It was fantastic to speak to him about his career to date and what it’s been like to star in this amazing piece of theatre.
Thanks for chatting to Break A Leg, you’re currently appearing in Othello at Stafford Castle, playing the role of Cassio, how are you enjoying Shakespeare in the open air?
I love it. I love performing Shakespeare anyway, but this job is something very special. Our wonderful designer Frances Collier imagined this incredible world for us to inhabit and the tremendous team from the Gatehouse have made it a reality. It’s a real treat to do this show. The audiences have been lovely as well; rain or shine they’re out in force which is great to see. When you look at The Globe and you think about how theatre was performed in Shakespeare’s day, it makes perfect sense to do it like this; it was written for this kind of space.
How well did you know Othello before you took the role?
Pretty well, I actually played Montano in a production at Riverside Studios in London in 2014. It was my first professional theatre job after leaving drama school, so Othello is a play that’s very close to my heart. But it’s been great to have the opportunity to revisit it, because the richness that permeates all of Shakespeare’s work means there are always new discoveries to be made. I do think Othello is a particularly fine example of what he was so good at tapping into, those darker sides of our personalities that we might not always wish to acknowledge. We can all privately identify to a certain extent with the jealousy, capriciousness and despair in this play and I think that’s why it’s one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated works.
Is there a scene in particular that you find poignant or that has become one of your most anticipated?
I’m always listening out backstage for the opening lines of Act 5, Scene 2 (“It is the cause, it is the cause my soul”) because that whole section is just exquisitely written and performed brilliantly by Oli and Maddi. You always feel watching that scene that there might be some way for Desdemona to save herself, that Othello might realise in time that he’s been duped by Iago. It’s one of those moments where even though you might know how it plays out, as you watch you can’t help but wish for a different ending. It used to break my heart watching it in rehearsal, so I’m a little disappointed that I can only listen to it now that we’re up and running! As for most anticipated, the scene where Cassio gets ragingly drunk is brilliant fun. I had to go deep with my research on that one. Nathan Turner (Montano) is a great fighter too, so our punch-up in that scene is always very enjoyable.
You trained at Arts Ed, to give an idea to any aspiring drama students out there, what was the experience of training there like?
It was hard. It’s a real insight into yourself and your own character which can be a very tough thing to face initially. I felt like a total fraud for most of the first term. Like any minute someone was going to come up and tap me on the shoulder and say “Alright mate, you’ve had your fun. Time to go.” I still feel like that sometimes. Perhaps paradoxically though, it was also the first place in my life where I felt I truly belonged. I’m not a morning person at the best of times, I would call myself a lie-in aficionado. But some mornings I literally jumped out of bed because I couldn’t wait to get in there. Even on the hardest days, I was so thankful that I was there and I genuinely loved every second. To aspiring drama students, I would say if you can’t see yourself doing anything else, you owe it to yourself to have a proper go at it. I couldn’t bear the thought of wondering what might have been. It might not happen the first time you go for it, but so much of the business of being an actor is about perseverance and going again. If it’s the right path for you, you’ll know. And it will show in your work.
What made you decide to train as a performer and to attend Arts Ed in particular?
I had never even briefly entertained the idea of being an actor until the last year of university in Cardiff when I joined the drama society. I ended up getting cast in The Crucible, which came as a massive shock as I’d pretty much just been gunning for playing one half of that year’s panto horse. I was sitting in a café in Cardiff talking to an actor called Sam Blythe who was in the show with me and we just sort of spontaneously agreed that we both had to try and take it further. And five years on, we’re both still here! In fact, he was also in the production of Othello at Riverside Studios, which was a lovely bit of serendipity. As for Arts Ed, I knew as soon as I set foot in the place that it was the right one for me. One size does not fit all when it comes to drama schools and I went around a few very good schools that just didn’t feel right. But when I auditioned at Arts Ed, I just knew I was home. Aileen Gonsalves was the course director there at the time and she was a big part of that feeling. I knew it was the right course for me and where I was at that point.
What have your career highlights been since graduating?
There have been a few actually. That’s one of the brilliant things about this job, every now and again a gig will come along – like this one – where you just catch sight of where you are and what you’re doing and you just think “Oh my God…this is so cool.” There are a lot of shows that I look back on very fondly, but my absolute highlight would be a show called Travesti which I did at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014. It was a verbatim show that told women’s stories through the mouths of men. That’s a potted description, but I don’t really know how else to describe it without getting a bit tangential. We were up there with a phenomenal cast and a great creative team behind us and it was an amazing month. People would stop us in the street to talk about the show and their response to it. It all felt quite surreal. The Scotsman called towards the end of the run to tell us they wanted to give us the Fringe First award, which was absolutely bonkers. We had our producer on speakerphone and we all just jumped around the kitchen for about 10 minutes. I’m a huge Camille O’Sullivan fan and she presented us with the award which was amazing. I’ve watched the video back and I think I played it cool, but inside I was going nuts.
Are there any parts on stage or screen that you would call your ‘grail’ roles?
I suppose this might seem unimaginative but in terms of stage, I really hope I get a shot at Hamlet one day. I fell in love with that play when I studied it before ever wanting to be an actor and now I just feel like it’s there in the background. It’s an itch I’m going to have to scratch at some point in the next 15 years or so! I’d love to be able to give Sunday in the Park with George a go when I’m older as well. I love Sondheim and that show is one of his finest. In terms of screen, The Doctor in Doctor Who. Without question. I’m a big sci-fi fan and watching Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant after the 2005 revival was amazing, that would be the absolute definition of a grail role for me. Even to just be on the show would be a dream come true. You look at someone like Simon Pegg who grew up loving Star Wars and Star Trek and then he ends up acting in them and writing for them! If that happened for me with Doctor Who (or Star Wars, I’m not picky) then I could die happy, everything else would just be garnish.
You also have a music career, what sparked your interest in music and how would you describe your style?
I think music was just this ever-present thing when I was growing up. My mum always used to play David Bowie, The Jam and her old punk records around the house and my dad used to sing in folk clubs and male voice choirs, so I think it’s always been something that’s been a part of me. I love how evocative music can be, it’s like nothing else. There are some songs that just shift my mood, no matter where I am and what I’m doing. I love Desert Island Discs for that reason, it’s fascinating to hear what makes people tick musically. As for my style, I’m primarily a guitarist so if I’m gigging on my own, I tend to gravitate towards acoustic stuff. It varies depending on where I’m playing. There’s a guitarist from America called Buckethead who’s sort of my musical inspiration. The things that man is able to do with a guitar are simply baffling. Antonio Forcione, Newton Faulkner, George Harrison, Chet Atkins and Paul Simon are big parts of what I do as well. It’s not particularly guitar-heavy, but You Can Call Me Al is my favourite song of all time.
Finally, with a few days left of Othello, what would you say to encourage potential audience members to come along?
The weather forecast for the final week is sunny! Not only that, but it’s a terrific opportunity to see not just one of Shakespeare’s best plays, but one of the best plays ever written. The backdrop of Stafford Castle is stunning, especially when the sun sets; the play really comes to life when it’s dark. Our director Clare Prenton had an amazing vision for the show from day one and it’s been brilliant to see everyone bring it life – actors, stage management, wardrobe, design, production, everyone. So come along, enjoy the summer and some great theatre and come and say hello afterwards!
All photo credits: Natalya Chagrin