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Mark Douet

The War of the Roses: Robbie Sheehan

25 September 2015 Imogen Greenberg

Robbie Sheehan is probably best known for his television appearances, as the sarcastic young offender Nathan in Misfits, and Darren in Irish gangland drama Love/Hate. After a break from the theatre, he’s back on the stage at the Rose Theatre, Kingston in a mammoth production of three of Shakespeare’s history plays, The War of the Roses. London Calling spoke to him as rehearsals came to a close, about returning to the stage and why Richard III is a great character.

London Calling: Hi Robbie! So you’re in the middle of rehearsals for The War of the Roses at the Rose Theatre...

Robbie Sheehan: We are indeed. We’re almost beyond that point now, we’re in tech rehearsals and there are lots of people with scary looking equipment, all sort of shouting. The horse has bolted! There’s no turning back now.

LC: Have you enjoyed getting to grips with the three plays, and the sheer volume of the material?

RS: Yeah. There’s a certain ambivalence, because some days you leave the rehearsal space utterly adrenalized and positive, full of good feeling thinking I’ve made five leaps forward today, great. Other days you come and think I’m an absolute fraud and a charlatan and I don’t know what I’m doing. You can’t predict what day will be what. But it’s been more positive than the latter, so it’s good.

LC: Richard III is fairly notorious, as English kings go, particularly at the moment with his recent re-burial. Are you trying to embrace the old stereotypes or approaching the character with a fresh pair of eyes?

RS: Because of my ignorance towards Shakespeare, having never done any Shakespeare before, I can only approach it with fresh eyes and be guided and stewarded by Trevor Nunn [director]. I learnt before we even started how much you don’t understand. You skate over the imagery and the density of the imagery sometimes gets washed out. There’s mixed metaphors left right and centre, and you just keep reading it. There are points where you don’t feel like you’re actually absorbing the genuine meaning. One of the great things about working with Trevor is you have an encyclopaedic brain, that can pick apart meanings in words people haven’t said for 300 years. But I think I try to bring along instinct to any role I do.

LC: It’s being billed as Shakespeare’s Game of Thrones. Does this version make Shakespeare more accessible to audiences?

RS: I think that was the intention of billing it like that. It also suggests Shakespeare was a reverse plagiarist, who ripped off that George Martin fellow about 500 years ago! But a lot of the structures of Game of Thrones come straight out of English history.

LC: One of the Game of Thrones effects is that you root for unlikely people. Will the audience be rooting for Richard III?

RS: Absolutely. How could they not? He’s got all the best lines. Not that I’m biased! I suppose he’s one of the most unlikely people close to the crown to actually end up usurping and wearing the crown. The interesting thing about the play Richard III is it has the most direct narrative, as opposed to the other two plays where seeds are being planted, and there are three or four different intentions. Much like Game of Thrones I suppose, where they take in that sprawling, seed-planting, story-building structure. Richard III is more like a 100-yard dash. The main guy comes out right at the beginning and he explains his reasons why he’s going to be absolutely mischievous and villainous from the get go. You can’t help but love him. But there’s a tipping point in Richard III, where it just becomes deeply uncomfortable for the audience to continue rooting for him.

LC: Some people think the History Plays can be a bit dull, compared to the tragedies and the comedies. Do you think the History Plays still have resonance today?

RS: Absolutely. They’re completely entrenched in all the themes of current political affairs, dictatorships, megalomaniacs, and near absolute power. Most of the characters, whether they’re draped in political garb or religious garb, or whatever else, they’re all after one thing. That’s sort of one of the big points in the play, they’re all megalomaniacs, because power corrupts. Henry VI is long, and John Barton and Peter Hall, back in the early 60s, took upon themselves this monumental task of focusing, sharpening and editing it down. What you get is perhaps a faster paced, more engaging version. I have to be cautious about the language I use, but they’ve sort of trimmed the fat off them. I’m sure Shakespeare-ites everywhere will love me for saying that... but it ticks along and it’s very engaging.

LC: You’re most recognisable for your television roles. This is a bit of a return to the theatre for you. How does it feel to be back in that very different process?

RS: I think coming back, I’ve learned from the mistakes of last time round, which was complacence. I wouldn’t go so far as to say laziness. But I think there’s something absolutely quintessential about never being truly happy and always questioning and always searching for meaning. One of the most infuriating and thrilling things about theatre, as an actor, is that you can go out one night and all of the meaning can be right there, shuffled perfectly in a line, and you go out the next night and you struggle to navigate through a quagmire of meaninglessness. You can really drive yourself mad, and you constantly have to rediscover as the thing goes on. The show changes and grows and diminishes and gets better and worse. You can’t put down the script! That’s something I didn’t realise last time. But also you get one chance with these things, and it’ll either go down in people’s minds as one of the best things they saw that year, or they just get forgotten. It’s such an opportunity to make something incredibly special, so you’ve got to keep at it.

LC: You left Misfits and Love/Hate at the height of their popularity. Was that a deliberate move?

RS: No. I suppose in hindsight you could say that. I honestly didn’t leave or stay on anything due to its popularity. The thing about Misfits was I was just a very impatient actor. I had done two summers of that, it was great craic, but I wanted to keep myself free, and go off and do other stuff. I think with Love/Hate, it was a different story. At the end of the second series, I was talking to Stuart Carolan [the writer] and he said ‘I suppose we’ve lost you from the show then’. And I said well I don’t know, what were you thinking, are you feeling like there’s more? And he said I think there’s one more series for Darren and I said let’s talk about the ideas. I knew the axe was going to fall but I just didn’t know at what point in the third series. I’m extremely glad I went back and did that series because it’s possibly the best series of the five, in my opinion.

You can see Robbie Sheehan at the Rose Theatre Kingston from now until Saturday 31st October. To book tickets, see the website. His new film The Messenger is out in cinemas now.

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