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John Dougall - From Dunoon to The Globe

Summer Shakespeares can be a curse. The tradition of cosy outdoor productions of some of the bard’s lighter plays in the grounds of stately homes across the land has long been a strawberries-and-cream fixture of the heritage industry’s co-opting of culture for literary groupies. As Shakespeare’s Globe theatre company have already proved, however, you can still treat the work seriously while at the same time moving into the great outdoors. As a construction itself built in Shakespeare’s image, The Globe’s open-air shows are a long way from the perceived image of such events. Who else, after all, would bring The Winter’s Tale out into the open to face the Sun?

The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s problem’ plays, whereby what first appears to be an emotional tragedy is leavened by extended fantastical or comic scenes that change the play’s tone en route to is denouement. The Winter’s Tale first resembles an even bleaker version of Othello, whereby Leontes, King of Sicily, entreats his kingly colleague Polixenes to stay awhile longer at his court. Only when Leontes’ wife Hermione persuades the family friend to linger does he take up their offer. Leontes, alas, gets the wrong end of the proverbial stick, and, in a fit of jealous rage orders that Polixenes be poisoned before imprisoning Hermione. Such an extreme response to harmless flirtation duly sets off a string of events that only much later allow all parties to be reconciled.

“Kings are only human beings,” says John Dougall, who plays Leontes. “We’ve all been through it, when this wave of jealousy comes upon you and grips you in this mad, irrational way. In this respect Leontes is no different. You can play that in a kingly, statesmanlike and grown-up way, but looking at it now there’s something very young about the way Leontes experiences these extreme emotions. He actually reminds me of Romeo. Obviously he’s much older than Romeo, but that same sense of irrational passion is there with both characters. Leontes is totally consumed by jealousy, and the more I think about him, the more boyish and youthful he seems. He’s not like Othello or King Lear. There’s something much less grand at play here.”

This is Dougall’s third appearance in the play after playing Florizel in a 1984 Royal Shakespeare Company production as wel as in an English Shakespeare Company show.

“As an actor,” he says, “it’s a lovely thing to be able to revisit a play you’ve done before. Especially if you’re playing a different part and after such a gap between the two, obviously I’ve a lot more experience under my belt, and will hopefully be able to bring some of that experience into the rehearsal room. Of course, because most of our dates are in the open air, it’s a completely different way of doing things, and you’re totally exposed. It’s a big jump from the rehearsal room to the open space, and every venue’s different. In terms of acoustics, you’ve not got a stone wall to bounce off any more, so you have to adapt, and make sure you don’t just stand there and start shouting. Audiences who come to se outdoor stuff want to be engaged as well.”

Dougall hails from Dunoon, where he grew up before studying drama at RSAMD. On graduating he did a typical actors apprenticeship in the back of a van on theatre in education tours which took in Pitlochry and Inverness beyond the central belt. He auditioned for and got a rep job in London, after which he never really came back. A recent appearance in the National Theatre of Scotland’s look at at Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search Of An Author at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre was a rare exception.

Somewhere inbetween, as well as the obligatory turns on television in Taggart and The Bill, Dougall’s classical leanings have seen him appear in umpteen Shakespeares. With the RSC alone he’s been seen in Hamlet, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Measure for Measure. With the English Shakespeare Company Dougall has taken roles in Henry IV parts 1&2, Henry V, Henry VI parts 1&2, The Wars of the Roses, Richard II, Richard III, Coriolanus and Romeo and Juliet.

“I’ve just been lucky,” Dougall says of how he’s been cast over the years. “But Shakespeare is such a fantastic writer, and yet there’s a burden in the UK about how he should or shouldn’t be played. I love seeing Shakespeare produced by companies in Europe, where they don’t have some of the same hang-ups that we do. But there’s no mystery about him, which is something you sometimes have to remind yourself.”

Dougall has also worked at Oxford Stage Company, where he first came into contact with current artist director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Dominic Dromgoole. Since then, Dougall has done stints in both Coriolanus and Measure For Measure. This current production of The Winter’s Tale is directed by John Dove, himself no slouch in the classics department, as he has proved as an associate artist at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum.

“We’re doing a cut down version,” Dougall explains. “We’ve only got nine actors, so that restriction encourages a great deal of invention. “Because it doesn’t come under tragedy, in a way it’s much harder to clarify things, so we’re keen to keep it light in the playing. We try to play the absurd comedy that comes out in the second half.”

Dougall’s likening of Leontes to Romeo is perhaps borne out by the Globe’s decision to tour the play in tandem with another look at Romeo and Juliet. This first visited Glasgow in 2007, and has just played St Andrews prior to a short Edinburgh Festival Fringe run at the Botanic Gardens.

“The great thing with doing all these quirky venues,” Dougall maintains, “is the same as when you play the Globe. You can see the audience whether you want to or not, and you have to deal with that. The bottom line too is that wherever you are, the play has to be heard. So I tell you what, we may be doing this in the open-air, but it’s no stroll in the park.”

The Winter’s Tale, University of Glasgow Quad, Tue-Sun
Romeo and Juliet, Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, Aug 19-23
www.westendfestival.co.uk
www.shakespeares-globe.org

The Herald, June 17th 2008

ends

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