Kelsey Brookfield is a member of Propeller Theatre Company, an all-male troupe under the direction of Edward Hall. The company is touring two shows: Richard III (PlayShakespeare review here) and Comedy of Errors. In Richard III, Kelsey plays Lord Rivers and the Duchess of York; in Comedy of Errors he plays the fabulous Courtesan. After the matinee performance of Richard III at Norwich Theatre Royal, I sat down with Kelsey and asked him about his background, his take on his characters, and his thoughts about being in an all-male Shakespeare company. What follows are excerpts from our conversation:
How did you become an actor?
Basically, I started acting when I was fourteen. I didn’t really take it seriously until I was about sixteen. It was a way of escaping my parent’s divorce, so I joined after school drama classes and amateur theatre around my area. And then, yeah, I got the bus from there really, and then when I was 18, even before I was 18 really, I just knew I wanted to do this as a career. For life really, so I was looking into drama schools and where to apply to, and I applied to the big five, as there are, and got into Bristol [Bristol Old Vic Theatre School], and did three years there, which was fantastic, and have been working ever since. Yeah, I basically went straight from school into drama school.
You are playing Lord Rivers (brother to the Queen), as well as the Duchess of York, Richard’s mother. How did you work on your scenes as the Duchess?
It was quite interesting actually because, yes, with me and Richard [Clothier, who plays Richard III] there’s an obvious age difference—I’m far younger than him—and also there isn’t that much of her in the play, so we knew that when we do see her, we have to be very clear with who she is, and I remember working that scene where she comes in and finds Richard—Elizabeth is crying about the death of King Edward—and Richard has no time, he’s got no sympathy at all. And it took us a while—took me a while—to really realize what she was saying when she came in: “Have meekness in your heart”, and actually we were working it, and she really scolds him in that scene, and the more I read, the more we did it, the more I thought actually her attitude toward Richard as this son is deformed, not as perfect as the rest, really kind of helped me see the way that she views Richard throughout the whole play, and how in the end, when they come face to face and she says “If I had the chance I should have ripped you about of me, and killed and terminated you.” That is really telling in how she actually views Richard. She kind of has a very negative view of him anyway, really, and the murders and all that kind of reinforces that.
As a male, how do you approach playing a female character?
It’s like playing every other character .... Obviously, when playing a female—people talk about mannerisms and all that kind of thing—and I think they naturally kind of—for me—come with it. It’s very subtle, and you just try to put a little bit of feminism in there really. But this is what I love about Ed [Hall] as well, when approaching the women, is to do them straight, and not to put in a female voice or anything like that, but to play it as a human being, as another character, because then I think the audience really listens to you. And plus it’s really interesting to hear a male’s voice speaking a female argument. It’s really interesting how that works. So, I mean, I think I approach it the same way I would approach any other character.
But, yes, I remember when I was playing Portia in Merchant of Venice and that was the first time I’d really played a woman, so with something like that, I did do a bit of research. I looked on the internet, I went to go see La Cage aux Folles—you know, a lot of guys dressing up as women—and seeing how other actors, other male actors, performed as women on stage and what they did. Some things I found helpful, some things I didn’t find helpful.
As she’s quite elderly, how did you approach the age of the character?
She must be in her 70s, she’s very old, I mean she’s the Queen Mother of our production. And, so pace is really important, and I was trying all of that out in rehearsals, but as the piece developed, as we moved on, things became faster in the show. And actually it didn’t really help me being too slow walking wise or speaking wise because the pace had just changed completely. We’ve always found it quite hard to get the audience to understand that I am Richard’s mother, but we’ve come to the veil, actually, which is probably the best thing so far in making her stand out, and aging me as well. We tried glasses, we tried everything. But because pace had kind of gone out the window, we realized with our production that it can’t really work. There’s no real time for pause or anything like that, so we’ve kind of gone to the veil to help with the aging process.
What do you think an all-male company brings to the text?
It’s really interesting when you hear a man’s voice, but with a female argument. It kind of adds—I don’t want to say it adds strength, that would be sexist—it puts a different spin on it. I think you can give certain female characters more power—don’t know if that’s the right way of saying it—more power in certain situations. Especially in Richard III, it’s a male society, it’s dominated by men. The women, in order to be heard, have to be like men. They have to act like men in order to get any sort of control or power over what’s going on and to rise up and to make men listen to them. I think by having an all-male company you naturally do that, you do have women who are men, especially in this play where we don’t really feminize that much, we’re quite masculine. I think it really works. That’s what’s good. By approaching the women in a certain masculine kind of way it really works for the play.
What about the rehearsal process—How does the company work? What’s the dynamic?
The floor’s kind of open, in terms of the debate, Ed is great in coming with ideas, but he really does leave it open for everybody else to come in, and that’s what I love about Propeller actually. So many things we kind of find during rehearsal, and he will always ask you to offer up as much as you can—it’s a very collaborative effort. He comes in with the concept. He told me when we were in Sheffield that he didn’t really know what he was doing with it, but we sang Pie Jesu, which was all courtesy of Jon Trenchard who sorted out all of our music, and he said the minute he heard Pie Jesu he got it—he suddenly knew what he wanted to do with it. I mean I remember him telling me the whole concept months before we started , and it just went completely over my head. I hadn’t read Richard III; he was talking about "England is a slaughterhouse and we’re all butchers"—all of that sounded great, but I didn’t know what he was talking about. From the sounds of it, he never really knows the full picture, and yet I think we always think he does—but he doesn’t. It really is a kind of organic process throughout. I remember when we were doing Merchant, the final scene—the trail scene—he said we’ll never really understand what the play as a whole means until further down the line while we’re touring. And at the time I was like “Well, no, I kind of know what the play means.” But actually he was true. His whole argument was that it was a mirror to Christian society—look how you treat minorities. So that’s part of how he does it. We’re forever exploring, and it doesn’t seem to stop.
What’s it like working on Richard III?
It’s absolutely exhausting. With Comedy you feel like you can just let go, whereas with Richard everything just has to be on the edge, and it’s kind of controlled, while not having control at the same time. It’s a long, tough piece, and what’s great is that I think we’re really in the middle of it at the moment. I think there’s still more we can get out of it. It’s a very tough play to do, but it is fun—killing people as we go along. I just love the chainsaw moment, because I keep on thinking what are people thinking in the audience when they see that? Because we’ve obviously been used to it for weeks and weeks and weeks, but I’d love to hear what their response to that is.
Have you had any traumatic incidents in the audience so far?
You know what, we actually have....When we were previewing Richard... we had a guy that had a heart attack. Somebody did faint. Whether they were connected with the show, we have no idea, but they were in the theatre....We kind of put everything in there, even down to blood drinking. That took me a while to get used to because it looks so like blood.
How do you think the touring process informs the play, as opposed to staying in one city?
Because we’re constantly moving, we constantly have new audiences in different cities—the audiences here have reacted completely differently to where we were in Coventry. We haven’t had half the [size] and the reactions have been completely different. I think the shows have been different here [in Norwich]. I think obviously as the tour goes on—shows change in subtle ways. They kind of grow and become much bigger than what they are, which is great. We kind of fit into them perfectly. But yes, as we’re constantly going from city to city to city, I think the shows do change in respect to the audience and how they’re received. But I think it does help to keep the show alive, to keep it fresh. I mean what’s great is we’re doing two shows, and they’re so different—they’re absolutely exhausting to do, because they’re so different intensities in very different ways, but yet it’s the healthiest way to keep sane over eight or nine months. Because just to do Richard would be quite intense, and just to do Richard in one venue—I mean you’d never do that in one venue for nine months. I think moving helps to freshen it up, kind of keeps you on your toes, keeps it live, and keeps you excited about the project. I remember when we opened here we had about 1000 people come to see Comedy, and suddenly I had the jitters—I was absolutely terrified again. I got the whole adrenaline rush and everything. It was brilliant—I don’t think my head knew where I was. But we had a fantastic show. That’s a prime example of how keeping it moving really helps you.