Mad about the bard

Mad about the bard

I’d had the idea of establishing a professional classical theatre company for maybe ten years or so. Last year a back injury forced me to take a break from filming work, so I was looking for other projects. In November last year I discovered the theatre at Salomons so Laurence Taylor, who is our executive producer and The Shakespeare Project’s co-founder, and I started reaching out to various groups in order to help finance our first production, Macbeth.

We had so much support with our initial Kickstarter fundraising campaign and that really empowered us to pursue an Arts Council grant which I’m pleased to say we were successful in securing. This has enabled us to reach a wider audience by offering affordable school tickets. We’ve been able to build brilliant partnerships with many of the local schools, helping to support both their creative and academic work.

The modern audience is just as worried, anxious and frightened for the future, full of the same fundamental drives and desires as Shakespeare’s audiences

We’ve got an incredible team, both on and off stage at The Shakespeare Project. Our director is Joe Pitcher, a Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) associate director and we also have Mike Robertson, an Olivier winning lighting designer, composer Simon and Charlotte Cooke who is looking after the design element of the production. Off stage we’ve had huge amounts of help from our production associates Carole Wheeler, Matt Turbett, Ina Sylvester Smith and Tash Hall.

We have also assembled an incredible group of actors and I feel very honoured stepping into the role of Macbeth surrounded by such talent who include Aamira Challenger, Tom Chapman, Louise Jameson and Aaron Sidwell. As well as partnering with ACE and local schools we’ve had some subsidised rehearsal rooms courtesy of the Jerwood Foundation and the EM Forster Theatre in Tonbridge. And also, our media partners and corporate sponsors have been fantastic!

You only have to step foot into the theatre at Salomons to see why we chose it as a venue. I remember the first time I was there, I ran around the space like a kid thinking, ‘we could do this and this and this and…’ well I must have spent about an hour in there trying to control my imagination! I think that the team at Salomons thought I’d gone mad! In a way, it seemed wrong to me that such a significant, privately owned theatre is not being used for performing plays. Tunbridge Wells is crying out for professional theatre and we are so excited about the venue. Salomons’ staff have been so welcoming and accommodating in what has been a very new venture for them.

No other writer reaches across the centuries and convinces us of our common humanity in quite the same way as Shakespeare

We picked Macbeth because its content – ambitious rulers, a nation torn apart, paranoia and suspicion – all sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?

What I love about Shakespeare and Macbeth in particular, is that the warnings inherent in this play are just as relevant today as they ever were. It really irks me when theatre companies try so hard to make Shakespeare ‘relevant’. Okay we smell better, on the whole, but mostly the modern audience is just as worried, anxious and frightened for the future, full of the same fundamental drives and desires as Shakespeare’s audience. Our job as actors is to tell the story and then let the audience make up their own mind. I don’t like being preached at in the theatre. Also, the fact we’re opening on November 5 is perfect as Macbeth was penned in 1606 as a direct response to the Gunpowder Plot.

Our version of the play has been carefully cut in places to help with the storytelling (and the playing of multiple parts!) and I feel that the script we have captures the fast-paced and exciting descent into chaos. From the moment the doors close in on the audience we want them to join us on a journey, a free-fall into hell and back.

I want to transport our audience, to challenge them to imagine themselves in the scenes. To let the poetry, music, lights and language transport them to an alternate world where they can explore these moments together. In this ever more isolated world, there is something about coming to a shared space and experiencing a story with those who may have wildly different views and opinions, backgrounds and beliefs than you. If we just sit at home on social media platforms or Netflix then eventually we will forget how to talk to each other and discuss ideas. So relinquish your Apple TV remotes and come to see a play about what it is to be human.

I want to transport our audience, to challenge them to imagine themselves in the scenes

It’s so important to continue Shakespeare’s legacy and ensure it continually reaches new audiences. For me, no other writer reaches across the centuries and convinces us of our common humanity in quite the same way. His work helps to connect us with the past, with history and the importance of context. We all ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ and I feel that modern literature needs the context of Shakespeare in the same way that Shakespeare needed the Bible or the Greeks.

What’s next for The Shakespeare Project? Well I’ve spoken to so many people over the past year, many of whom have asked how they could best support the arts, and here’s the bottom line: buy tickets and support this new venture. We’ve done this off our own backs and the task is to generate a big enough audience to support future work, then we will be poised for 2020 with a possible three-show line-up, including new writing and a summer production.

Our company mission is to build a lasting legacy of quality classical theatre for the people of the South East and beyond. This production should land us on the cultural map and give us a base for further work into the future. My hope is for The Shakespeare Project to be around for years to come, generating work for artists and creatives, entertaining and moving audiences with our stories.

Tickets are on sale now from 
Facebook: @TheShakespeareprojectUK 
Twitter: @TheShakespeare8

Casting notes

‘Director Joe Pitcher and I auditioned lots of actors for all the roles and we saw so many talented people. Narrowing down that field was a real challenge, I just wanted to give everyone a job. However, we settled on an incredible cast. There are ten of us in total and they include:

Louise Jameson (Queen Duncan): A household name with an incredible CV which includes Tenko, Silent Witness, Doctor Who and EastEnders. She has been so supportive of the project, right from its inception.

Aaron Sidwell (Macduff): This brilliant actor trained at youth theatre in this area and then started out in TV as a long running character on EastEnders. In recent years he has developed a great reputation as a commanding stage actor in shows such as Henry V, Wicked, Ghost the musical and American Idiot.

Ffion Jolly (Lady Macbeth): The Ian Charlston Award nominee actor trained alongside me at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and has spent the last decade ratcheting up an impressive list of Shakespeare’s finest parts – including playing Macbeth a few years back.

Vangelis Christodoulou (Banquo): You might recognise him as he was in the recent Trinity production of Terror at the old courtroom in Tunbridge Wells. He is a superb actor and his sheer physicality will prove a good match for Macbeth, as these two Thanes return from war together.

In addition we have: Sarah Waddell as Lennox, Amiera Challenger as Angus, Tom Chapman as Ross and Adam Sopp (another Bristol Old Vic alumnus) playing the infamous Porter and the would-be king Malcolm. Each of these cast members comes with impressive and extensive acting CVs. We are also thrilled to welcome to the company, local actors Anna Cutler-Methven and Gerald Bishop.’

ON THE CHALLENGES OF MACBETH: ‘Our three main ones have been money, time and will. At one point in the play, Macbeth says: ”Full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife” and there have been times on this project where I really connected with how Macbeth feels!’

ON THE BENEFITS OF MACBETH: ‘I love the fact that we are creating jobs for creative people and that we are setting out to produce theatre that is accessible, affordable and local. When I was a kid, my family wouldn’t have had the money to take us to see a play, I had to make do with my Uncle Laurie’s drunken one-man renditions of Henry V (which were quite brilliant actually). But I would have loved to have had access to good theatre. Plays have the power to delight and transform us. If we can bring a little of that magic to the place where I grew up, well…I think that’s work worth doing.’

Getting personal with Peter

Tell us a little bit about yourself…

What do I want to say…okay so, I’m married to a horribly talented wife, I have a ridiculously funny son and a cat who brings nothing to the table.

When and how did you get into acting?

About 17 years ago. In fact, my first ever show was a local amateur dramatics production on the Assembly Hall stage – shout out to the ‘CHESS’ company! Then I did my first Shakespeare at Trinity, Romeo and Juliet, and was then hooked on acting. I eventually moved to London, went to drama school and started acting professionally.

What do you enjoy most about acting?

I love the variety of roles you get to play as an actor. I’ve spent the last five years doing more action film/TV roles and that’s great fun – running around with guns, fighting, stunts, playing cops and robbers…I’m basically a big kid on set. I have to say, I’m loving getting the call from EastEnders every now and then to give some bad news or arrest someone. PC Anthony Rogers has been a fun part and also opened up some other roles on the BBC.

Do you ever get star-struck by fellow actors?

All the time. I try to be cool, but I’m really not! I’ve actually worked with some very famous people and it’s weird for about two minutes, then you sort of realise, oh, they’re just people. One of the strangest first meetings was when I worked with Simon Callow on his comedy series, The Rebel. We had a scene together in bed and we were both in our underwear. It was an odd way to be introduced to one of your acting idols. I was pretty star-struck meeting Louise Jameson to discuss Macbeth. I remember her mostly from Bergerac when I was growing up, it was required viewing in our house! Oh, and the first day on EastEnders was the most nervous I think I’ve ever been. Not because of the actors really but because I was filming on THE SQUARE! Having a coffee beside Brad Pitt on World War Z didn’t cut it compared to being on THE SQUARE.

Who have you enjoyed working with and why?

So many people for so many different reasons. I should probably mention my wife, but she always tries to make me laugh on stage, so er…not her! The thing is, not every job gives you the time to really get to know someone. I will say that, when I worked on Skyfall, Judi Dench gave me a slice of her pineapple upside-down cake – with custard. That was a real career highlight.

Is there anyone you really want to work with?

I would love to work with Greg Doran, the Artistic Director at the RSC, and a job at the National would be lovely thanks. I’d love to work with the entire cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Joss Whedon on the film spin-off – maybe I could be a rogue vampire hunter or something?! Oh and finally, Chris Pratt because he seems like he’d be a lot of fun on set!

Why I love Tunbridge Wells: Peter Basham

What are the benefits of being based here as opposed to London?

London is great to visit but I don’t think I could live there again. It’s great to be close enough to go in for castings and shows but, after a few days the crowds start to get a bit much. I love Tunbridge Wells, the clean air, the fact that the family can be in the countryside within minutes or dining in a really great restaurant, or just sitting in an uncrowded park. Tunbridge Wells is fantastic but please don’t tell too many people.

Where’s your favourite place to shop?

Waterstones, or Halls bookshop if I’m at the bottom end of town.

And to eat out?

You can’t beat a curry and Junahki is pretty good on St Johns Road. We also love Java Bean for brunch. My wife is obsessed with poached eggs and it’s great for kids.

And for coffee or cocktails?

Okay, coffee…I drink a LOT of coffee at Salomons when I have work and reading to do. If I want to be totally reclusive and not see anyone I’ll head to one of the many splendid hotels in town. My favourite cocktail would be a pint of ale: a Spitfire, at home with a book, by the fire.

Finally, where’s the best place to go locally in order to get away from it all?

I’m not going to answer that because then everyone will know…But if you really are desperate to get away from everyday life, to escape the humdrum, there is a show I’d highly recommend…

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