Claudette Williamson is a member of the Richmond Shakespeare Society, an amateur dramatic society based at the Mary Wallace Theatre in Twickenham. She is directing Shakespeare’s rarely-performed play King John as part of the society’s extensive year-round program. King John runs from March 5-12, 2011.
Can you say a bit about yourself and your work with King John?
My name is Claudette Williamson, and I am directing the production of King John at the Mary Wallace Theatre in Twickenham for the Richmond Shakespeare Society. We try to do all of the works of Shakespeare—I think we’ve more or less done it—I don’t think there’s one we’ve missed. We last did [King John] twenty years ago, so it’s a long time ago.
I’m just aiming to tell a story, to be honest. Because [King John] is not that well known by even people who go to the theatre a lot...the aim is not to do anything clever with it. I was going to...set it in a kind of nondescript period, but then I thought, “No, you’re going to have problems recognizing the people. You’ll just make a rod for your own back.” That’s why I’m setting it in the period—medieval.
How long have you been involved with RSS?
It’s nearly 30 years. When I first moved to Twickenham, I caught one of their productions—one a year they do outdoors; it was Merchant of Venice...Then I read a review, because this was the year that [the Mary Wallace Theatre] opened—1981—I read a review of Ricahrd III, and I thought, “My goodness, that sounds really good.” So, I came down and saw a Christmas production—they were doing Charley’s Aunt. And [the theatre] was very different [from what it looks like today]: it was really sparse in here, because we did all the work ourselves, we didn’t have lottery [funds] or anything like that, and so I came to see Charley’s Aunt and joined up. The very first play I was involved in was The Book of Sir Thomas Moore—some of it is attributed to Shakespeare. And it was a great way to meet everyone in the acting company because it’s about 60 or 70 characters, and a lot of actors have two and three parts. I seem to remember being two parts, and for a woman that’s pretty good going. So I got to meet everybody, [and] I did a lot of acting. I’d directed before, but I did a test piece here to go onto the director’s list.
How does the company work?
Anyone can join to become an active member. We have audience membership as well, which is only 10 GBP a year, and they’re our core audience. If you want an active part, then you pay a bit more money, first of all, and then you can come to auditions. You don’t have to audition to get in, or anything like that. And that’s how it goes, really. With directing...you can either do a test piece, or if you’ve got a CV and people know of you and have seen your work, then you can go onto the director’s list.
How have you approached King John?
I couldn’t understand [King John’s] popularity at the time [the 1590s], but apparently there are so many parallels to King John and Elizabeth the First. She was excommunicated by the Pope, she was considered to be a bastard; they said they would canonize anyone who killed her—any regicide. So there are lots of parallels. There’s even a character in the play called Essex, and he was very much her favorite up to a point, and then he went against her and there were the riots and so on. So, to me it must have been Shakespeare’s way of showing the corridors of power and the machinations going on, because historically it’s not very accurate, in terms of dates and things like that. Certain people would not have met because they were born too wide apart, but he puts them together for dramatic effect. A few years ago I directed a combination of the three histories—the Henry Sixes, called The Plantagenets, which the RSC did years ago...And again there are historical inaccuracies, but it’s for dramatic effect. He introduces certain characters, particularly for example the character of the bastard in [King John]—Philip Faulconbridge, who then is knighted by the king because he’s the bastard son of [Richard] Coeur-de-Lion, and he actually talks directly to the audience—he’s like a choral figure almost. And that link with the audience is quite a novel idea. So you can see it’s well-crafted. [Shakespeare’s] been a magpie, really; he’s picked up on the themes he’s wanted from John’s life.
But my main intention is to tell a story, and hopefully people will be engaged.