It would be easy for Paul Shelly to put his feet up and stay indoors watching the sort of daytime TV which he sometimes appears in. Now aged 71, and after more than four decades working with the likes of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre onstage, as well as with film directors such as Roman Polanski and Richard Attenburgh, and on the small screen in such classic serials as Secret Army, you wouldn't blame the veteran actor for taking it easy.
As it is, Shelley is about to tackle one of the biggest stage roles for actors of a certain age outside of Shakespeare's King Lear. Yet, as he prepares to play tormented theatrical patriarch James Tyrone in the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh's new production of Eugene O'Neill's semi-autobiographical epic, Long Day's Journey Into Night, Shelley may be gimlet-eyed in his dissection of the play, but he appears positively laid-back at the prospect.
“It's an incredible journey, this play,” he says. “You can do it on the surface, and it's so beautifully written it probably works. Or you can start to get into the emotional murk, and that's where we are just now. The closer we get to opening, we'll have to come up for air, but at the moment, we're finding out all the things that don't work before we find the thing that is right. It's like life,” he laughs.
Given Shelley's elder statesman status, one is tempted to draw parallels between him and Tyrone. For all his levity, it's a notion that's clearly passed through his mind.
“Listen, there are things I say in there,” he says, making a clanging noise that implies an epiphany of recognition. “There are bound to be. He's an older man, I'm an older man. He's an actor, I'm an actor. He's made some terrible mistakes in his life, I've made some terrible mistakes, so there's bound to be. He's a miser, and there are reasons for that, and I hope I'm not a miser, but I husband my resources, so you use that.”
For all his talk of journeys, Shelley is more than aware that he hasn't given himself an easy ride, even if director Tony Cownie has been working with Shelley and the rest of the cast on cutting O'Neill's mighty text to a manageable length, “or we'd all still be here at midnight,” as Shelley observes. “But who are we to say that it's over-written. It all just tumbled out of him, and he couldn't stop.”
O'Neill based Tyrone on his own father, writing himself as the youngest son in a family plagued by dysfunction, failure, addiction and loss that was so near the knuckle that he left instructions to his publisher that the play wasn't to be published until some twenty-five years after his death. With his widow transferring the rights of the play to Yale University, Long Day's Journey appeared in 1956, three years after O'Neill's death.
The Royal Lyceum's new production marks something of a coming home for the play. While Long Day's Journey premiered in Sweden, followed by a Broadway run, the play's first UK production was in Edinburgh. That came during the 1958 Edinburgh International Festival, when Jose Quintero, who had been in charge of the Broadway production, directed Anthony Quayle as James. Also in the cast were Ian Bannen and Alan Bates as the brothers.
The last time the play was seen in Scotland was a touring production in which David Suchet played Tyrone. If these are big shoes to fill, Shelley is only too aware of the scale of the task he's facing.
“When I was offered it I wondered whether I could learn it all,” he says. “You get to a point where actors have to face themselves. I've seen it happen in other productions when I've been younger, and older actors have terrible trouble with the lines. How does he know when is the time to stop is quite a question, but the reason I accepted this, once you've read the play, if you're still an actor, you accept.
“If I had said no, it cannot be because of the play. It cannot be because of the part, never mind the money. This is rep. It could only be fear, and fear is something actors face from their youth. But being an older actor, one of the things is just being able to hold the lines and keep it going. I had to challenge myself is what I'm saying. A couple of lines in a film, that's fine, but if you're offered something like this, you don't say no. You're only offered a handful of parts like this in an entire lifetime.”
For a couple of years, Shelley was most familiar from what he calls a semi-regular role on lunchtime medical soap, Doctors. Shelley discovered that show's mass appeal while on tour with Mike Bartlett's contemporary version of Greek tragedy, Medea, which visited the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow in 2012, when the stage door was besieged by autograph hunters.
There is the matter too of the YouTube collage of tender scenes between Shelley's character, Jed, and his onscreen daughter, Zara, played by Elisabeth Dermot Walsh, which a fan has posted and set to a schmaltzy soundtrack.
This is all a far cry from Shelley's roots in Leeds, where he resisted becoming an actor until long after his elder brother had, and he ended up at RADA. After seasons in rep, Shelley wound up being cast opposite Sir Ralph Richardson on the West End, and appeared in Richard Attenburgh's film of Joan Littlewood's Oh! What A Lovely War. Shelley went on to appear as Donalbain in Roman Polanski's 1971 film of Macbeth, dividing his time between stage and screen in a way that few actors of his generation manage.
Shelley played the title role in Julius Caesar at Shakespeare's Globe, and after performing in Tom Stoppard's play, Arcadia, on the West End, was visited backstage by Hollywood couple, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Shelley has had a long relationship with the Orange Tree in Richmond, and has worked at the Donmar Warehouse and with a younger generation of directors such as Rupert Goold. Unlike James in Long Day's Journey Into Night, Shelley has kept moving, with little or no chance of falling into a rut.
“Some things I've done well,” he says, “and some I've done not so well, but what else am I going to do? I'm fit enough, mentally and physically, to keep going, but that'll go soon enough. At the moment it's the challenge of doing great parts like this. That's what keeps me going.”
Long Day's Journey Into Night, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, January 17-February 8
Paul Shelley - An Actor's Life
Paul Shelley was born in Leeds, and became interested in acting while at university before training at RADA and following his brother, Francis Matthews, into the business.
He worked in rep before appearing in Richard Attenburgh's film of stage hit, Oh! What A Lovely War, and as Donalbain in Roman Polanski's film of Macbeth.
Shelley appeared extensively with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal National Theatre, while appearing in numerous television roles, including Secret Army, Doctor Who and Paradise Postponed. Between 2010 and 2012 Shelley appeared regularly in TV soap, Doctors.
At Shakespeare's Globe, Shelley played the title role in Julius Caesar, and Antony to Mark Rylance's Cleopatra.
Shelley played Duncan in Rupert Goold's production of Macbeth, which opened at Chichester Festival Theatre before transferring to the West End and later to Broadway.
Shelley has a long relationship with the Orange Tree in Richmond, where he last appeared in The Conquering Hero. Shelley toured in Mike Bartlett's contemporary version of Medea, and in 2013 appeared in King Lear at the Theatre Royal, Bath.
The Herald, January 14th 2013