Interview: Simon Stewart Talks My Other Self: The Evolution of Shakespeare’s Richard III

All or Nothing Theatre Company are heading to the Camden Fringe with a play which looks at one of Shakespeare’s most villainous characters through a very contemporary lens. The shows plays The Cockpit Theatre 19th – 23rd August and you can find tickets here. Ever a fan of Shakespearean shows, I caught up with writer and cast member Simon Stewart to find out about all things My Other Self: The Evolution of Shakespeare’s Richard III…

Tell me a little about the company. Where, when and how did All or Nothing Theatre Company come to be and what’s the vision?

All or Nothing took its inspiration from the old actor manager companies and rep companies that involved the legends of British theatre like, Dame Edith Evans and Sir Ian McKellen. We set up in 2018 and ran an incredibly ambitious first season called Remember the Clause, a 3 week run of 3 plays performed in rep using only 12 actors and three directors during the Pride Festival. We adapted Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure into an LGBTQ version, performed As Is by William M Hoffman and The Importance of Being Earnestby Oscar Wilde. 

We did these plays in this season to commemorate and celebrate those that fought against Margaret Thatchers terrible law Section 28 which was passed 30 years previous last year. The vision of our company is to re-imagine classics to highlight issues which we still face in today’s modern world. We intend to explore lots more Shakespeare (we love Shakespeare) and delve into other classics for example we have a production of Antigone in the pipeline. We would love to tour schools and communities across the UK,bringing excellent theatre to students and communities that may not get a chance to see these works at another time. 

My Other Self: The Evolution of Shakespeare’s Richard III is billed as ‘a bold new adaptation of three of Shakespeare’s most blood soaked plays.’ What drew you to this particular source material?

The War of the Roses, which encompasses 8 plays in total from Richard II, through Henry VI (1&2), Henry V, Henry VI (1,2&3) and Richard III, is an amazing story of the British monarchy and to read it all the way through is just as good as binge watching House of Cards or Game of Thrones , both of which took heavy inspiration from Shakespeare’s work. It is a work so full of complex stories and emotions. It is an exhilarating read and even more fantastic to get an opportunity to perform it.

The show looks at very current issues including mental illness and toxic masculinity – is this a consciously topical or reactionary piece of theatre?

I think it is both really. When you read Shakespeare’s plays which are still so relevant you can grasp different things from it every time you read them. With mental health and toxic masculinity being talked about more openly now it was not a surprise to me that they made their way into my reading of the saga and particularly Richards character but i also believe that those themes were already there, I just saw them more clearly this time around. Shakespeare really knew the minds of his characters and although he may not have called it toxic masculinity or mental illness at the time I believe that we can now view themes like this more sharply in his works. 

Looking at Richard III as ‘literature’s most infamous villain’ paints a dark and gritty picture of this play – how would you characterise the production in terms of tone and style?

I like dark and gritty. To me it says difficult to talk about, delving deeper than we have in the past and that’s what i am interested in. As a gay man and working on issues in the LGBTQ community such as HIV treatment, prevention and living with stigma is something that, just like mental health in men we need to talk about in order to dispel. Although I do not have HIV myself I see so many people feeling isolated and stigmatised because it is seen as a dark thing to talk about. The same can be said for mental health and toxic masculinity. We need to explore the issues, talk freely about them and get a little dark and gritty in order to be more accepting of each other. We have tried to base this play in some semblance of reality in terms of the issues, we want those to be the focus, the play jumps back and forward in time so it is exciting to keep up with and a real challenge for our actors

The company and show are supporting CALM, the ‘Campaign Against Living Miserably who support men living with and experiencing suicidal thoughts.’ This is very commendable work. Is the production purely about raising awareness or will you be providing opportunities for donations to the charity at performances?

CALM do amazing work and they are definitely the ones who need commending, their phone and web-chat service save lives every single day! We are so privileged that they allowed us to support them, We will be supplying some leaflets of theirs, promoting their services and we will have a donation box for patrons to give to in the bar of the venue during our performances.  

What drew you to this particular charity and subject matter as theatre makers?

As a man, and a gay man at that I know all too well the feeling of loneliness, the isolation and cruelty that the world but also my own self conscious can inflict upon my mental health. I struggle a lot with feelings of inadequacy and although I have never used their services, to know that there is someone out there I can talk to, turn to if i ever needed it is a life line. I, naively, had no idea that the largest cause of death among men aged 45 and under was suicide and when i found it out I wanted to help in some way. CALM provide this help and I knew we had to support them in whatever way we could, 

You say the show has been developed by studying Richard’s life ‘using modern psychological ideas on masculinity and Jungian principles of archetypal constructs’ – can you give a little more detail about each of these approaches and how they have influenced My Other Self: The Evolution of Shakespeare’s Richard III?

I was reading a fantastic book about Carl Jung’s theories on what it means to be a man and it looked at different aspects of the psyche. It explored how from childhood our psyche’s are constantly changing or being formed by events around us, relationships with our parents and evolving in line with our emotional interaction with the world around us. Richard starts his own play by proclaiming himself a villian in his very first lines and I wanted to see if I could apply these theories to his earlier life, seen in Henry VI parts 2 and 3 to investigate how he got to this point, rather than just take his word for how bad he was in the beginning of Richard III.

If you could have audiences take just one thing away from seeing the show, what would you want that to be?

Negative thoughts and feelings toward yourself are a natural part of your life, but it is the way in which we deal with them, perceive them and change them that will determine how we act towards ourselves and others. Talk about your mental health.

And if you could bring change in terms of opportunities in theatre right now, what would it be? Does the industry need more work like this in your opinion?

Theatre is constantly changing and I love to see all the different kinds and styles of theatre out there, especially Queer theatre. Often people have an idea that theatre has to be about either education or entertainment, I would like it to be about both. As ever it is a difficult business to thrive in, more funding opportunities would be great!  

To close, in one sentence, why should audiences come to see My Other Self: The Evolution of Shakespeare’s Richard III?

My Other Self is a bold new adaptation of three of Shakespeare’s most blood soaked plays, it explores mental health issues, jealousy, grief, toxic masculinity and little known aspects of the War of the Roses saga, the original Game of Thrones. 

So there you have it! Remember, My Other Self: The Evolution of Shakespeare’s Richard III? plays The Cockpit Theatre 19th – 23rd August and you can find tickets here.

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