INTERVIEW | Oliver Johnstone | RSC

This year in conjunction with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the RSC are live screening their productions worldwide. Tomorrow, Cymbeline, the romantic play that explores power and jealousy will be screened across the world. I spoke to Oliver Johnstone who plays Iachimo in Cymbeline and Edgar in King Lear – which will be screened from the 12th of October. We talked about his two highly contrasting roles and the process involved in screening a live play with an audience.

“The fact both parts are so contrasting is what really attracted me to the job,” Oliver explained. “People keep saying to me that it must be a really good season because I am playing a goody and baddy. I don’t really see it in black and white terms but Iachimo is deceptive and could be considered a baddy in some ways, but I have to justify the things he does.

I don’t see him in that way, but that is the most interesting part of playing darker roles, you work out why the characters do hurtful things – you turn into a bit of a psychiatrist. He is a fun role to play because he tries to get the audience on his side, so they are aware of his deception, but the characters on stage aren’t which makes a really fun dynamic.”

Oliver has also immersed himself in his role Edgar in King Lear, Gloucester’s older and more legitimate son. He explained: ” I found Edgar a lot more challenging as it is a very emotional role. There are two fundamental questions about Edgar, which is how does he play poor Tom so convincingly when he has lived such a sheltered and aristocratic lifestyle? And once he comes across his blinded father, why doesn’t he reveal himself to his father straight away?

So during rehearsals I have just been trying to work out these questions and dualities of the character.” Despite the roles being so different, I questioned Oliver on whether he has found any connection between the two characters. He said: “I think they could learn from one another, I sense Iachimo could learn some humility and virtue, but then again Edgar is incredibly naive as he is deceived so easily by his brother. However, I wouldn’t suggest hanging around too much with Iachimo because he is corrupted.”

Oliver Johnstone as Iachimo in Cymbeline

Oliver Johnstone as Iachimo in Cymbeline

This isn’t Oliver’s first season with the RSC, after playing Puck in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Regents Park Open Air Theatre, he reprised the role in the RSC’s production last year. “If you’d have asked me which one Shakespearean role I would never play, it would have been Puck,” Oliver said. “I didn’t leave RADA thinking I know exactly how to do Shakespeare. We did a bit of Shakespeare, but I felt like I was more adept at more modern stuff.

I never felt fully confident in it, but then I got cast as Puck at Regents Park. The director wanted a darker vision of Puck, he wanted him to be mischievous but expand that quality into something darker – there seems to be a scary trend in my characters.”

Working on two different plays can be challenging, but as an actor, Oliver finds it interesting to work with two directors that have different approaches to rehearsals. “Some processes are similar, but no director is exactly the same,” Oliver said. “Cymbeline with Melly Still was a lot more open, it was a playful and creatively interpretive way of exploring the text. Whereas with King Lear, it was a more traditional approach. We did table work for the first week, where no one reads their own lines and everyone reads other people’s lines. You go through the text very precisely and everyone knows what everyone else is doing. So the whole company have a real sense of ownership over the play, which makes it really clear for storytelling.”

Aside from the pressure of the audience, the actors will experience something very different during the live screening of Cymbeline tonight. “I am really excited about it because it is a really colourful, vibrant and energetic performance,” Oliver said. “It is really nice that the camera can pan into a close up, allowing you to see the real detail that you might not see in a normal performance. You can actually see the actors eyes, which I love.”

Oliver Johnstone as Edgar in King Lear

On top of rehearsing for the plays themselves, the actors are involved in camera rehearsals ahead of the live screenings. “It is still for an audience,” Oliver tells me. “It is a live theatre performance that just happens to be streamed. The rehearsals are more for the camera team, in order for them to work out what shots suit the scenes best. But it is also good for us to get used to having the cameras.”

After working extensively in film, tv and theatre, Oliver speaks highly of the RSC. “It becomes like your family,” he said. “You begin to know everyone and there is no sense of hierarchy, because everyone is working to create the best theatre they can.”

Cymbeline will be in cinemas from tonight, September 28th, and details can be found here.

King Lear will be screening from the 12th of October and details can be found here.