Joseph Arkley was never meant to be a man who would be king. If things had gone to plan, the former politics student would have embarked on a respectable career which could have led him to a ringside seat in the offices of power. Now here he is, about to take the stage at Perth Theatre in the title role in a new production of Richard III, Shakespeare’s slyest and most complex of charismatic villains.
According to Arkley, Richard is also “one of the great stand-up comics. He’s somewhere between Malcolm Tucker and Limmy. That’s what’s coming out at the moment. He’s a sociopath, but you love him.”
The influences on Arkley’s interpretation of Richard are telling. Both Malcolm Tucker, played by Peter Capaldi in political sit-com The Thick of It, and real-life comedian Limmy combine a driven ferocity with unfettered hilarity. They are key as well to an approach which aims to remain faithful to the play, but with extra added drive.
“It goes at quite a pace,” Arkley says of Perth Theatre artistic director Lu Kemp’s production. “We’ve not been taking liberties with the text, but I suppose we’ve taken out some of the history in order to push the plot forward.”
This won’t be the first time Arkley has appeared in Richard III. Last time out was in 2016, when he played Earl Rivers in Rupert Goold’s Almeida Theatre production that featured Ralph Fiennes as Richard. It was, says Arkley, a very different experience to playing the lead.
“It felt like a completely different play. Rivers was one of the first to get knocked off, so I was done by the interval. As Richard I’m straight in there from the get go, and in some respects I find it far easier to play Richard, which is bizarre.”
Arkley isn’t being cocky here.
“I feel like I’m jumping through every hoop I can, and when I go through all that stuff, I relish it.”
Born and brought up in Norwich, and with family in Greenock and Inverness, Arkley acted at school before studying politics at the University of Nottingham. Distracted from an essay by some female students, he found himself auditioning for a student production of Peter Shaffer’s play, Amadeus, and was offered the part of Mozart’s musical nemesis, Salieri.
“That was it,” says Arkley. “After that I spent all my time in the theatre, and I only just scraped through with a 2:1 because of that. That gave my parents heart attacks when I said I wanted to do acting rather than join the civil service or something.”
Fellow students in Nottingham included actress Ruth Wilson and director Carrie Cracknell, the latter of whom went on to train at what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama before going on to co-run the Gate Theatre and work at the Royal Court and the National Theatre. Arkley also went to RSAMD, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. It was here he first encountered Kemp, who later directed him in Titus, a monologue for young people in which Arkley was onstage alone for the best part of an hour.
“Joe is one of the most brilliant performers I’ve ever met,” says Kemp, recalling Arkley’s performance in Oliver Emanuel’s translation of Belgian writer Jan Sobrie’s play about a ten-year-old boy considering suicide. “I directed him in a radio production of Tolstoy’s Resurrection, and he just about blew the roof off. He was the same when we did a show at the Latitude festival that used Eraserhead as a springboard. I’ve never seen anyone throw themselves into something with such courage.”
Arkley’s first professional job was at the Traverse Theatre during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in a show called Stoopud F***** Animals. He also appeared there in one of Mark Ravenhill’s breakfast plays, before being cast as Tom Wingfield in Jemima Levick’s Royal Lyceum Theatre production of Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical play, The Glass Menagerie. This was followed by three years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, then led by former Tron Theatre artistic director Michael Boyd. As well as Boyd, Arkley worked with directors including Roxana Silbert, David Farr, Lucy Bailey and Greg Doran.
With Boyd in charge, Arkley got to work with great Scots actors including Forbes Masson and Meg Fraser, the latter of whom will be joining him in Richard III. It was at the RSC too that Arkley first worked with Goold, who cast him as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet.
“In terms of doing classical work, his approach was something I’d never encountered before,” says Arkley, who likens the experience to working alongside actor Geoffrey Rush in Genius, a five-part TV mini-series about Albert Einstein filmed last year. “Working with someone like that totally raises your game,” he says.
Despite the visceral nature of Arkley’s acting style as described by Kemp, there remains an intelligence at its core. Much of this, one suspects, comes from his university studies, and politics remain a big influence on his working life. This is clearly the case in a play about power like Richard III, but it’s there as well in Arkley’s interests beyond it.
“Politics is still key to everything I do now,” he says. “There’s so much of that in Arthur Miller’s work, and in something like Richard II as well. At some point I’d love to do Shakespeare’s entire history cycle, so I could track it.”
Some present-day political leaders pique Arkley’s interest more than others.
“I’d love to play someone like Tony Blair,” he says. “For good or bad, I think there’s something in him that’s really fascinating. You might think he’s as duplicitous as Richard III, but there’s something in his righteousness when he thinks he’s made the right decision. He was a great operator as well, like how he got Alastair Campbell to work harder. He’s also the consummate performer, who really knows how to work an audience, whereas if you look at Trump, for me he’s just a crap actor.”
Arkley also expresses an interest in recent political discourse in Scotland, from the 2014 Independence referendum to the ongoing fall-out of the result of the Brexit vote. All of which in some way trickles down into what he’s doing in Richard III.
“It feels like I’m combining my two training backgrounds,” he says. “it’s great fun, especially doing it in this climate where we’re looking for leaders. That’s how people like Richard III get in, on a wave of populism.”
Such easy popularity isn’t something Arkley sounds particularly interested in.
“I’m ambitious and I want to work,” he says, “but I don’t just want to do anything. It’s got to be something I really relish.”
That word again.
“You want to keep doing gigs that scare you. It’s like when Lu first asked me to do Richard III. I’ve never played a part where you break the fourth wall and speak to the audience directly before, and that really scares the s*** out of me.”
Like Richard, Arkley sounds hungry to take a leap beyond the ordinary.
“I love getting as far away from me as possible,” he says. “Being a 30-something middle-class man doesn’t interest me. Playing a character like Richard, who causes all this chaos, on the other hand, that’s thrilling.”
Richard III, Perth Theatre, March 17-31.
The Herald, March 15th 2018