Love a good food fight? Well there's a huge one in the RSC's new autumn production King John. Just don't go in your best garb if you've booked a front row seat! Actor Richard Pryal fills us in.
Actor Richard Pryal makes his RSC debut this season in King John, Shakespeare’s rarely performed play about a nation in turmoil in which he gets to fight – a lot – and take part in a full-on food fight. Stylishly directed by Eleanor Rhode, it runs until March 21 2020. Born in Coventry, Richard grew up in Norwich and you may recognise him from Killing Eve, Manhunt and London Spy on the telly. His role in King John involves lobbing bread rolls aplenty and attacking his enemies with a meat cleaver. Blimey! Luckily he’s in a serene mood when we grab him for a chat.
I love the trailer with the food fight! It looks quite anarchic – is it advisable if you’ve booked a front row seat not to come in your best gear?
It depends whether you think you can pull off a fistful of salmon mousse as an accessory to your outfit… We haven’t encountered the foodstuffs we’ll be hurling yet, that’ll be a job for the coming weeks now that we’ve arrived up in Stratford.
Whereabouts in Coventry are your family from – any interesting city connections or family history?
My grandfather, Michael, was from Ballycastle in Co. Mayo. During World War 2 he moved over to Coventry with his brother Paddy to help with the war effort: working in the Rootes factory. He couldn’t sign up as he had lost a hand in a childhood accident. Paddy became sick and ended up in Gulson hospital where my gran worked. Michael met her when he visited his brother (their eyes met across a crowded ward I suppose) and they ended up settling down in Cov together which is where my dad, his brother and sisters were born. I was born at Walsgrave in 1979.
My dad had also worked at Rootes but ended up studying computing. When he completed his course he found work in Norwich which is where I grew up. We were often back to visit my gran though, and aunts and uncles on that side of the family. In 2012 I appeared in a show called We Love You City at the Belgrade; it was about the Sky Blues astonishing path to, and eventual victory in, the 1987 FA Cup Final. I could just about remember watching the game proudly wearing a Coventry City hat. It was a lovely thing to be a part of, and very nice to feel a connection to part of my roots.
How long did you live there for before moving to Norwich?
Not long: we left when I was 4. We lived on Burns Road and I have some vague memories of our house. I attended Binley Park Nursery as my Mum taught in the school. I have a clear recollection of crying through a Christmas performance as I didn’t like everyone looking at me. Hopefully I won’t repeat that this winter.
You’re making your RSC debut – how does that feel?
I’m delighted. It’s been a great ambition of mine to work here ever since my mum brought me to see the brilliant Michael Feast and Hugh Quarshie in Faust at the Swan in 1995. It’s an ambition that only grew stronger through my training and my career thus far. Stratford is a lovely place to be, the theatres are beautiful, and the RSC produces some astonishing work with great care and verve. It’s one of the finest theatre companies in the world. I also have a passion for Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre – it feels like I’m in the right place.
Can you tell us who you’re playing in King John?
I play the Duke of Austria who, prior to the action of the play, has killed Richard the Lionheart. This sets up a fairly antagonistic relationship with Richard’s bastard son. I have to fight. A lot.
Yes it looks pretty physical – I saw the rehearsal pics in which you’re wielding a lethal-looking meat cleaver. How long has it taken to nail those action fight scenes?
I’m not sure we’ve nailed them yet but we’re working hard at it. It’s a very physical show for me and quite a few others. The Fight Directors, Ruth and Rachel from RC Annie, are really exciting to work with, as is Tom Jackson Greaves, our movement director/choreographer. We’ve had to put in a lot of hours creating and rehearsing fisticuffs, running battles, a food fight, various dances, and some epic war sequences. I only hope we can do them all justice.
You’re trained in Kuk Sool Won, Kung Fu, Sword Fighting and Tai Chi – that’s a lot of martial arts you’ve mastered!
I was involved in Martial Arts as a kid before I became involved in theatre. I enjoy the discipline and the opportunity to be physical when I can so often drift into more cerebral pursuits (crosswords, reading, thinking about stuff). It’s served me well in my profession as I have often been required to swing a sword or a fist.
It’s great to see Chernobyl actor Rosie Sheehy cast as King John in Eleanor’s production – what do you feel she brings to the role?
Excellence. She’s just brilliant; so clear and specific, such a muscular performer, so connected. I feel very lucky getting to share the stage with her.
Great news that Goldfrapp musician Will Gregory is composing the score for King John – have you heard any soundbites?
I met Will in a workshop before we started rehearsals proper. He’s brilliant, enthusiastic, and has a really easy way with people. Every time we get to hear a new composition of his in rehearsal the room fills up with smiling faces and bouncing bodies. The funk is infectious.
Do you have a dream theatre role?
I’d love to play Austria in a production of King John at the RSC with Rosie Sheehy playing John and the brilliant Michael Abubakar playing the Bastard. If you could get Eleanor Rhode to direct that would clinch it.
With Brexit and the chaotic nature of contemporary politics in Britain, is the turbulence of King John designed to reflect this?
We aren’t explicitly connecting the play to the events of today, although there are apparent parallels. We’ve approached the play from a more domestic perspective; it is, after all, about the struggles of a single family, as well as being about England in Europe. When I say family think ‘Corleone’, rather than ‘The Archers’.
Brexit: remain or leave?
Guess! I don’t think that anything in human culture is as polar as we often believe. Things are complicated. I’m really sad about the way things have gone leading up to and since the referendum. There has been vitriolic rhetoric from various individuals on both sides with honesty, shades of grey, and measured debate seemingly being discarded in favour of outright lies, frenzied propaganda, and lashings of hypocrisy. I worry about how the people of the world (given that this looks to be a global phenomenon) pull back together in the future, and worry more that great swathes of the political and media classes don’t seem to care. I have two little girls and I am concerned for their future but want to be hopeful, and to take action to make things better where I can.
Wow – Killing Eve! What was it like working on the second series, as Aaron Peel’s lawyer?
I’m in it very briefly but it’s been a real treat receiving late-night messages from friends who are surprised to suddenly find me appearing in their living-rooms. There were great feelings of warmth, professionalism, excitement, and care every time I encountered people involved with the series.
Ever been star struck?
I hope I’m struck by people’s actions or abilities in the real world, rather than their reputation, which is often a carefully constructed thing. That said, I have a healthy respect for the well-earned regard in which some people are held and it, inevitably, can affect the way one encounters them. I’ve had good experiences and bad: stars are just people after all, with a really extreme set of difficulties to handle alongside the undoubted benefits they receive.
What are your current culture ‘fixes’?
I get through a lot of books! I’m currently reading Iraq by John Robertson which I strongly recommend. A history of the land between the two rivers is a history of the dawning of modern civilisation and he writes accessibly and with great love for his subject. I saw Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (on the recommendation of the Bastard) a couple of days ago and it instantly became a favourite). It’s funny, moving, and aesthetically stunning. I’ve been listening to a lot of John Smith who I first heard live with my littlest, Seraphine, at the Black Deer Festival. I loved his voice and his virtuosity on the guitar, she loved dancing to his percussive strumming. I’m hoping to catch him live again at some point as he’s a really charming presence on stage. Hummingbird and Salty and Sweet are on repeat play.
As a dad-of-two how does acting away from home fit in with family life?
We moved out of London a couple of years ago, though obviously I’m in-and-out for auditions, rehearsals, and work (when I’m lucky). It’s tough being away for extended periods (for my wife as much as me, not sure how much the girls notice). We have two ferocious daughters, aged 2 and 4, so even a week away sometimes sees me missing a milestone or a growth spurt; things can seem very different when I get home. But all parents face different challenges and one benefit to us is that I often have long periods when I can spend a great deal more time with my family than many other Dads. Ari came to see me in Love’s Labours Lost last Summer and spent the following few weeks shouting: “Forsooth! at every opportunity. It was lovely to be able to share the uniqueness of what I do with her.
Was acting something you always aspired to do?
I’ve been acting since I was 12, though I also write, teach, and direct so it’s never been all-consuming.
My mum got me started in amateur theatre at the Maddermarket in Norwich which I suppose set me off in this direction. I was in a couple of productions there directed by a wonderful man called John Dane which focused my love of Shakespeare’s plays. There are also myriad tiny influential moments: the right word here, an approving glance there, seeing a brilliant performance, devouring an inspiring script – too many to recall or list.
You studied at Central School of Speech and Drama – are you still in contact with many of your peers?
As with any group of individuals observed over the years there have been some terrible tragedies and some great successes. I’ve lost touch with many, some of whom have gone on to do very exciting things in other fields. One of my closest friends is currently rehearsing a production of the Scottish play (not Brigadoon!) up in Manchester with another of our peers. Our families are very important to one another, partly because our first children were born a couple of days apart, so I’m very lucky that Central put us together.
Career highlights so far?
I feel so lucky to have worked with (British theatre and TV director) Howard Davies before he tragically passed away. He was an utterly brilliant man and his notes sessions are deservedly the stuff of industry legend. The most significant moment was probably playing Ferdinand and Caliban in The Tempest for the Oxford Shakespeare Company. There was a brilliant, smart, beautiful actress playing Miranda. We’ll celebrate our 6th wedding anniversary in December and our eldest daughter is named Ariella. Bonus Shakespeare points for knowing why…?
Been anywhere nice on holiday this summer, prior to rehearsals, or busy working?
I’ve had a fairly full-on year thus far so haven’t managed more than a couple of days in a tent which the girls loved, though my wife remains unconvinced of the benefits of canvas. Being up in Stratford, doing something I care deeply about, with a company of wonderful people is pretty much a holiday though, so I can’t complain, and I’m not too far from home on this occasion so I’ll be able to have my family up to holiday with me.
King John runs in the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon from Thur Sept 19 – Mar 21 2020. Book tickets here.