Mike Shepherd, Founder of Kneehigh and Joint Artisitc Director of the Company, speaks about playing Albert Steptoe
Do you have you any memories of the TV series, Steptoe and Son?
Yes, I used to watch Steptoe with my Dad, I remember quite clearly feeling fascinated and troubled, he chuckled and I couldn’t see what was funny amongst the cruelty, my Mum knitted. I’m of a generation for whom the 2nd world war was very present in our childhoods. My parents had survived the London Blitz and my Dad survived repeated bombing raids over Germany, they then moved to Cornwall. Safety and security were priorities as was a desire to “get on” in the world and to “better” oneself. The class system was very prevalent in England (as it still is today) and my parents aspired to be middle class which is similar to Harold’s snobbery and desire to get above himself. This was a time before John Lennon wrote the song Working Class Hero.
How does it feel to play a character that is so well known by many people?
Emma was very clear that she didn’t want to replicate the TV series, why would you? Theatre is a heightened form; Steptoe was a half hour sitcom. I really didn’t want to do an impression of Wilfred Brambell. There are shows which aim to accurately reproduce film or TV but it feels uninteresting to encourage audiences and press to assess the success of the performance on how close you might have got to the original. We decided to make Harold and Albert Cornish, the robustness of the dialect really suited the robustness and energy of Galton and Simpson’s brilliant script and in many forgotten corners of Cornwall’s post-industrial landscapes, families continue to scrabble an existence from scrap and salvage. My inspiration for Albert came from the energy and busyness of my Mother, from silent movies, from the “grotesques” of Dickens and Hogarth and from my fascination with the clown Grimaldi. Albert starts our show as a grotesque with a sense of generations past and, as the decades pass, ends up in a sports jacket, in love and with a set of false teeth.
If you could describe Albert in five words, what would they be?
Albert in 5 words? Damaged (post traumatic wartime disorder?) Sprightly, Sharp Survivor, Wicked and teeming with life
What preparation did you do before starting rehearsals?
Preparation for me is always to do with familiarising myself with the world of the play, to gently become consumed and open to possibilities. This openness is vital to making new work. Preparation should not be about predetermined ideas, it should be more about finding a state(as an actor) where you can make offers for a director to either accept or reject and a willingness to try absolutely anything with generosity and good spirit. Steptoe was an unusual process for Kneehigh as we never normally start off with a script but, more usually, arrive at the script as the performance evolves. We would more often explore characters through improvisation with music, action and design feeding their development. In this instance there was a script to learn and my preparation was mainly to do with familiarising myself with the complications of line learning, it was hard with no easy solutions!
How does your character develop/change during the course of the play?
The character develops as the show evolves, it’s important to keep crafting nuance and precision whilst remaining true. It’s vitally important to truly understand what the piece needs and what your director sees and wants rather than become obsessed with your own performance. There is a place for marvellous method acting i.e Robert de Niro and film acting generally but theatre performance does not allow you the luxury of “becoming “the character. It would be a dangerous state to be in! At any given time in a Kneehigh show an actor is doing at least three things at once - engaged with your own inner narrative (remembering your lines, dance steps etc..) engaged with your fellow actors, engaged with the audience, moving set and props, costume changes and helping other actors with costume and props. If you allowed yourself the self-indulgence of method acting, everything would grind to a halt.
In the rehearsal room, how did you and Dean Nolan explore the relationship between Albert and Harold?
Harold and Albert’s relationship is obviously vital and Dean and I quietly but consciously work hard to make sure we have a delight in each other on and off the stage. We are touring until next April, we are not part of a large ensemble it’s vital that Dean, myself and Kirsty keep a sense of glee and an electricity in the work.
Has playing Albert and being part of this production, presented new challenges to you as an actor at all?
Yes, playing Albert is a challenge and how marvellous it is to have a challenge. I’ve never been that interested in the comfort zone.
What lessons, if any, do you think we learn from the production as an audience?
Theatre shouldn’t preach so we not looking to teach any lessons. Theatre should entertain, provoke and resonate. Steptoe delves into a dark world of post war loss, family and entrapment, of what might have been and a world spinning by. For me it’s about two men trapped on an island of junk, it feels bleak it feels like a Beckett play, it feels like a consequence of war. The lessons are there to be learnt but it seems that mankind has an inability to learn them.
Mike Shepherd, Albert Steptoe, Joint Artistic Director and Founder of Kneehigh, 2012