After a July run in The Brick’s “Shakespeare in the Theater” festival, This England is extending for four more performances August 25-28 at our old home, IRT Theater. As we prepare for this second run, we're sitting down with our actors to find out why they love performing Shakespeare, what their favorite moments from the show are, and (most importantly), who they side with in the Wars of the Roses.
Our fifth interview in this series is with Graham Miles, who plays King Richard III, John of Gaunt, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, and Exton in This England. This is Graham’s first project with Strange Harbor!
Strange Harbor: What do you most enjoy about watching and performing Shakespeare?
Graham Miles: There's so much beauty in the complexity of his language, and that beauty has the capacity to extract deeper meaning from what's happening on stage by framing it in a way that appeals to our sense of wonder and gets us to engage with his ideas in ways that we might not if they were presented in a simpler format.
SH: What first drew you to this project?
GM: I am a starving actor who likes pretending umbrellas are swords, so naturally I pursued this opportunity very enthusiastically.
SH: Why is it important to do these plays now? Why all together?
GM: I think another important question is, "Why here?" Because I think, if ever there has been a year where Americans badly needed a reminder that power corrupts, it's this one, and seeing all these plays at once really drives that point home.
SH: Which of your characters do you feel the most connected to? Why?
GM: It's Richard III, hands down. I think there's something admirable about a character who doesn't embrace the superficiality and insincerity of the social order around him, and who manages to succeed in spite of that. If Richard has any quality worth emulating, I think it's that one, and I love tapping into his guilt-free sense of total irreverence for custom and decorum.
Richard is a killer and that is obviously not exactly something to aspire to. But then again, so is nearly every other King in our production at one point or another, and I think putting them all together like we have really helped me to understand something important about Richard, which is this: it isn't actually what he does that makes people hate him so much as it is the way he does it. Consider: Henry IV makes a big show of feeling conflicted about wanting his rival dead, so we pity him. Henry V ascribes his violence to a higher cause, so we see him as noble. But Richard III comes out and says, "I'm doing this because I want to", and so we're supposed to hate him while those other guys—who have also done awful things—get a pass. Why is that? I don't think people really hate Richard because he's a killer. I think they mostly just hate him because he doesn't pretend to show remorse for the people he's killed. Which is to say: he's someone who understands the rules of the political game, and isn't willing to sugar-coat his actions in order to make them palatable for others. And the fact that he's reviled for that above all else exposes how shallow and empty the unspoken codes of behavior we've always organized society and government around really are. Which I think a lot of people find uncomfortable, so they deal with that discomfort by vilifying the person who makes them aware of it. In this case, it's Richard. Or to quote Chuck Klosterman in a really good book about what makes a villain a villain (called I Wear The Black Hat): "the villain in any given situation is [just] the person who knows the most, and cares the least." For better or worse, that's a statement I often feel I can identify with.
SH: What discovery in rehearsal most surprised you?
GM: I think it was the remorse I felt as Richard when his father, the Duke of York, is (spoiler alert) murdered by Queen Margaret. I've seen Richard played as a person who just doesn't care about anyone outside of what they can do for him, but I think there's more to him than that. If you look at the play, York is pretty much the only person in Richard's own family who ever has anything good to say about him. The others abuse him more or less constantly. So when we practiced York's death in rehearsal, I was really shocked by what a sense of loss I felt as Richard. And I think that feeling of having lost the only person in the world who might have seen you as more than a monster is part of what spurs him to become so monstrous later on.
SH: What has been the hardest challenge in working on this play?
GM: Probably sweating through my clothing every single night to the point where my deodorant gives out. But if you think that's tough on me, imagine what the rest of the cast has to put up with.
SH: York or Lancaster?
GM: Who is England's King, but great York's heir?