"It's just like plugging back into the mains for me -- as an actor I feel completely recharged." So enthuses the delightful Claire Price about her latest venture for the Crucible Theatre Sheffield. Price is playing Beatrice in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. "When I tell people I'm playing Beatrice they tell me how much of a favourite the play is and how much Beatrice means to them -- it's certainly something to live up to!"
This latest production is directed by Josie Rourke, whose Believe What You Will is a great success in the RSC Swan season at Stratford . Rourke has amassed a fine cast, with the new Artistic Director of the Sheffield Crucible, Samuel West, playing Beatrice's verbal battle companion and love interest, Benedick. "I guess I get to kiss the boss!" muses Price: "I certainly was aware of that at first, but Sam is so generous that I soon forgot about that after the first few days."
Price is very supportive of her co-star. "I've always admired him as an actor -- even more so now he has moved into directing. This is such a disempowering business for any actor --- it's wonderful to get to the position where we can generate work -- make choices for ourselves." Price thinks West has made the right decision in starring alongside her as Benedick: "This is the first production of his new reign. This way, he gets to experience the stage as an actor -- that can only benefit his understanding of the space as a director."
As for Beatrice, Price says she is not so much finding her as "she is finding me": "I don't have to improve anything outside of the play -- it's all on the page -- covered completely -- I just can't go off track emotionally if I play what's written."
At this stage of rehearsals, roughly halfway through, Price has already recognized an approach to Rourke's directing technique. "The first week we spent slowly reading and understanding the play. She wanted us to locate it -- to really understand the world. One way Josie helped us create a real world we all understood was to fill the rehearsal room with all sorts of props -- loads of different things -- anything the stage management could lay their hands on."
"Then she'd ask the company to choose which objects belong in the world of the play and which don't -- we all agreed to discard things like sunglasses and plastic umbrellas -- until we all agreed on certain things that made the world real for us. Because we all picked these things -- all recognized them -- this world now hangs together for us all." The result, a company at one with the world which they inhabit and freed from anything but an emotional response to the narrative as it unfolds.
"Immediately we got up on our feet and started to rehearse the play" says Price. "Instinctively we've all gone and learnt it, and last week we all as a group blocked through the wedding scene, IV.i. -- a massive scene -- and we realised we'd learnt the parts like the actors in Shakespeare's time -- learnt our individual lines and our cues -- and just ran the scene. It was so liberating."
Price is grateful that Rourke gives her actors so much freedom. "We are making the instinctive choices -- negotiating a way through the play -- she allows us our own spontaneity.." Price's comments are reminiscent of so many actors who have experienced working with Michael Grandage. It certainly seems that this work ethic, this desire to work unencumbered by a script is spreading through the British theatre scene: "The script is an actor's security blanket, and it is vital we get rid of it as soon as we can."
Price respects the intellectual approach -- "the historical context" to Shakespeare's work -- but is herself more interested in the "emotional aspect" of her part. "I once worked with Howard Barker, playing Saint Ursula -- I did tons of research and then I went to rehearsals and Barker says 'I've absolutely no interest in research -- this is purely an exercise in the imagination!'. That's what Beatrice is to me, another exercise in the imagination."
Of course, Price has had a theatrical background to her successful life so far. Her parents were both actors, John Price and Andr ée Evans. "I grew up on Shakespeare, it's what we talked about over the breakfast table. I even did Much Ado as my 'A' Level text, so I feel I've always been preparing for this part in the back of my mind. I recently saw the film again -- I love this play so much."
There is such excitement in Price's voice that one instinctively knows that fascinating talent is being employed in Sheffield . "I know there is some really fantastic work happening here -- things are travelling down to London and proving that Sheffield is a great success as a production base -- that's testimony to the quality of play here." There's no doubting the energy and commitment of the new West regime. Provincial theatre is alive and flourishing -- without it talent young and old would be sorel y wasted. Claire Price, like the Beatrice she portrays, is an intelligent and passionate ambassador for her craft. Empowerment -- now that's much ado about something I'd say.
Kevin Quarmby © 2005