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10 Questions for Actor David Troughton | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Actor David Troughton

10 Questions for Actor David Troughton

The RSC stalwart, Gloucester in Gregory Doran's production of King Lear, talks politics, blinding and cricket

'I stumbled when I saw': David Troughton as GloucesterEllie Kurttz

David Troughton (b.1950), a familiar face on television and a Royal Shakespeare Company veteran, is a versatile actor. His most recent RSC appearance before Gloucester displayed his talent for comedy: he was a funny and energetic Simon Eyre in Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday in his favourite theatre, the Swan at Stratford.

Previous roles for the company have included Kent in an earlier Lear with John Wood as the king, Bolingbrooke in Richard II and the title roles in Richard III and Henry IV, parts 1 and 2.

Earlier this year, in the West End and on tour, he played the eccentric, reclusive Tom Oakley whose life is transformed when he takes in a wartime evacuee child in Goodnight Mr Tom. In 2004 he was a manipulative, even sinister Duke Vincentio in Simon McBurney's landmark production of Measure for Measure at the National Theatre and in 2009 he played larger-than-life lawyer Matthew Harrison Brady in Inherit the Wind with Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic.

Especially memorable among Troughton's many television roles was Dr Robert Buzzard in Andrew Davies's legendary Eighties satirical university saga A Very Peculiar Practice. He has appeared in comedy, drama and whodunits since the 1970s and was a notable villain in several episodes of New Tricks.

The Troughtons are an acting dynasty: father Patrick was the second Doctor Who, brother Michael and sons Sam and William are all in the profession (his third son, Jim, captained Warwickshire). His nephew Harry Melling is playing Edgar to Glenda Jackson's Lear, having graduated from Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films. Sam has been Romeo for the RSC. David and William play father and son, Tony and Tom, in Radio 4's The Archers. David Troughton is also a cricket buff and a fully qualified umpire.

When we meet in his dressing room at the Barbican he is still finding blood on his hands after the morning's technical rehearsal: "Messy play, this," he observes.

HEATHER NEILL: The audience always dread the blinding of Gloucester. Is it a moment you dread too?

DAVID TROUGHTON: No, because it's a very technical moment for all of us: we're all palming blood balls and Jim - Cornwall [James Clyde] -  has a belt with blood all round which he has to press at a certain time. So it's a very technical scene over which you have to lay the emotion that comes with having your eyes pulled out! I'm in a glass box, so the audience is very well protected. The box idea is based on Francis Bacon's paintings. To begin with, King Lear is ethereally up there in a glass box and suddenly the box becomes a torture chamber. It does focus the action well and, as with any Shakespeare, you should put it into now: a man being tortured in a box is like what we've heard about.

Rehearsals for King Lear took place in the wake of the Brexit vote. Did this resonate in your preparations for the production?

It did indeed. A decision causing absolute chaos. A decision made in error. And, yes, the American election result will no doubt impinge on performances as well. There are times with a Shakespeare play when you don't need to place it. It's a socialist play, this: both Lear and Gloucester come to the conclusion that it's better to give away wealth and make everyone more equal. The poor are visible in our production, a big motif, and we begin by clearing them off the stage physically to start the play.

Greg Doran has a reputation for meticulous but very open rehearsal methods. Is that your experience?

Yes - we had a two-week sit-down all together round a huge square table. We went through the play, line by line, in groups, so everyone had a go. I hardly had any of Gloucester's lines - for some reason, I was always a servant or messenger - and we went through to find out what it actually means. You don't think about verse or rhythm at this stage, not yet. And everyone chips in - not just the people with the words - which is great.

What guiding principles have you used in finding your character?

I wanted to get away from the dithering Gloucester. He was perhaps a warrior. He's not an erudite scribe. He thinks everything is going fine and he's totally blind to the political situation. He had a good time when he was young, he fucked around and Edmund came along. Edmund's been sent away but now Gloucester is introducing him at court, in which he's also blind, because all Edmund wants to do is to bring him down. He's literally blind later when he understands the truth and his line, " I stumbled when I saw" - that's the big motif I have. He's got to be a bit cocksure at the beginning to have a fall and to learn something about himself. He hates beggars; that's why he doesn't recognise his son in the storm on the heath - he appears to be just another beggar.

Did you work together with Paapa Essiedu (Edmund) and Oliver Johnstone (Edgar) on your family relationships?

We had lots of discussions and worked out little back stories. We thought about where the mother is, why Edmund was sent away and where, why he has come back. I think Gloucester was a bit of a rake, a reveller in his younger days. He doesn't deal well with his sons: he's horrible to Edmund, embarrassing him about his birth, and he doesn't see that Edgar is going off the rails - he isn't there, after all, at the court for the coming wedding. One of the problems for Edgar is, in the Dover scene; why doesn't he say, "Dad. It's me"? But, in the old-fashioned way, I think he's trying to teach: a son teaching a father. It's the wrong way round, but the world is the wrong way round. You could say it's cruel, but may be he's being cruel to be kind: a son is leading a father as Cordelia leads her father, youth taking over from the dying old guard.

Antony Sher's Lear is very grand at the beginning. What has Gloucester's relationship with him been like? (Pictured above: Sher with Troughton)

I'm a servant, a member of the old guard. I've known him all my life, we were brought up together. I keep saying it's my duty to help him whereas Kent keeps saying he loves him. I don't agree with what Lear is doing, but I know my duty. 

Do you approach Shakespeare's text in a particular way?

I like to look at the words first, the shapes, the sounds and the rhythms to give me clues. Basically, you are what you say in Shakespeare - he didn't have Freud or anything like that behind him. And the soliloquies are vocalised thoughts, discussions with the audience, so that it becomes a dialogue. In Lear various words crop up - "eyes, "seeing", "nothing", "nought". All these you discuss: why are they there? What do they mean? And how you address people is important. An audience in Shakespeare's time would pick up why you are saying "you" or "thou" - so there are clues there.

Are you pleased to be back at the Barbican?

It's weird coming back! I started here in '83, just after it was built - and it hasn't change a bit! It's a listed building so they can't change it much. They could decorate backstage, though! The last time I was here was 2000, for Richard II and the Henrys and it's like a time warp. It's a pros-arch really, nicely rounded, but it's out front acting rather than all-over-the-place acting, which I like. It's more difficult to engage the audience with you, like the lovely moments on a thrust stage where you can look down at someone and up at someone. Here it's all black. I do like the stages in Stratford, but there are happy memories of times here too and the stage does have interesting angles.

Would you like to have a go at Lear yourself?

Yes - love to. And Falstaff, Prospero. I love mining Shakespeare's texts for a character.

Cricket is a passion, isn't it?

Yes, I'd really like to be a winter actor and have the summer off to do my umpiring - which I love! I'm a qualified ACO [Association of Cricket Officials] umpire. I do the Birmingham League, Second XI Stratford when I can. I once did a cricket play at the Shaw Theatre, White Game, a two-hander all set in a cricket net in South Africa, so there was the big discussion about an England player going there during apartheid. We slagged off Ian Botham a lot and this reviewer, a sports writer, didn't like that and he said, "David Troughton was about as wooden as the Duncan Fearnley bat he held." I thought, "I don't want to read any more things like that" and I've never read the critics since. Mike Brearley came to see it - that's my claim to fame.

You and your son William are both in The Archers. How much notice do you get of the story line?

Every month we are asked our availability for two months ahead. We give them a rough idea and they write stories for people who are going to be available but I don't know anything in advance. Nobody does! When Tony had an accident I thought they were going to kill me off. Even people who've been in it for 40 years come in and say, "Oh, I'm still here. I've got three episodes."


Greg Hicks, RSC. Hicks occupies the part with brisk and inventive intensity.

Derek Jacobi, Donmar Warehouse. A thrilling chamber version, though even at 72 Jacobi still seems too spry

Glenda Jackson, Old Vic. Jackson returns to the stage as an authoritative Lear, gender irrelevant

Grigori Kozintsev, 1971 Russian film version. Truly apocalyptic masterpiece, stunningly performed

Tatsuya Nakadai, Kurosawa's Ran. Lear-inspired epic of the futility of war

Jonathan Pryce, Almeida Theatre. Pryce heads a disturbingly dysfunctional family in a compelling production of Shakespeare's tragedy

Simon Russell Beale, National Theatre. Russell Beale's Lear budges up to make room for Mendes's vision

Barrie Rutter, Northern Broadsides. Jonathan Miller's vivid production puts Lear in a Yorkshire accent

John Shrapnel, Tobacco Factory. A traditional Lear triumphs in the heat of Bristol's alchemical vessel

Aleh Sidorchik, Shakespeare's Globe. Belarus Free Theatre stages Lear as post-Soviet Oedipal X-Factor extravaganza

Basically, you are what you say in Shakespeare - he didn't have Freud or anything like that behind him

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Thank you for this wonderful interview. I saw David´s Gloucester in Stratford and had to revisit it at the Barbican, such a thoroughly moving, intense performance. I do hope, we will get his Lear soon. And his Prospero. He is a divine speaker of verse, enlightening us and engaging us into the journey of the character.

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