ED2014 Interviews ED2014 Theatre ED2014 Week3 Edition

Philip Whitchurch: Re-imagining the Bard

By | Published on Monday 18 August 2014

Philip Whitchurch

If you’ve so much as walked past your television set in the last couple of decades, you will surely recognise Philip Whitchurch from his extensive work on such programmes as ‘The Bill’, ‘Wire In The Blood’, ‘Holby City’ and ‘My Hero’. What you might not know is that Whitchurch is also an accomplished playwright, and this summer he has come to the Fringe not only to present a play, but to appear in it too, alongside his wife Sally Edwards. ‘Shakespeare, His Wife And The Dog’ has garnered great reviews, not least from our own ThreeWeeks reviewer. We spoke to Philip to find out more about what inspired him to write a show featuring the bard.

CM: What is the premise of the play? What happens in it?
PW: So much is written about Shakespeare and yet so little is known about him other than his work. Everyone assumes he retired a rich and successful playwright, but how does an artist simply stop working? I decided to turn the assumption on its head so… Shakespeare has retired to Stratford and, yes he is rich and successful, but he is not happy. Why? All that money and fame? Why can’t he sleep? Who is he waiting for? Why can’t his wife Anne find their dog? A sleepless night in Stratford. The lies, secrets and resentments of a marriage laid bare.

CM: Where did the idea for the show come from?
PW: I had this idea about doing a one man show about Shakespeare set the night before he died. It would be about the man looking back on his life and would include all my favourite bits of Shakespeare, including bits from the parts I would never get cast in! I wrote the first twenty pages and showed it to my wife and asked her opinion. Her only response was, “where’s my part?” So, it became a two hander. If I’m honest, one person shows are difficult to pull off. The only dynamic is with yourself and/or the audience. It’s more fun being on stage with someone else.

CM: So the idea of performing the piece with Sally was there pretty much from the off?
PW: Yes, I always intended to do this show with Sally. We’ve been married for twenty two years – not quite as long as Will and Anne – but we’d never worked together. She’s such a fine actress and I wanted to create something we could do together.

CM: What’s it like working together on this, especially when you’re playing a couple?
PW: Working with your partner? Not always easy – in fact quite tense at times – but we managed to leave most of the disagreements in the rehearsal room. I have huge respect for her instincts and opinions.

CM: You borrow some of the lines from Shakespeare, don’t you? How did you select them? Is there method in it…?
PW: I was interested in the relationship an artist has with the work and a private life. I became intrigued by the idea that Shakespeare’s work was autobiographical. Steinbeck’s great novel ‘East Of Eden’ is in fact a fictional imagining of his own family history, so I wrote about a man who plundered his private life and experiences and put them into his plays. As an artist he is so steeped in his work he cannot separate it from his real life and this drives his wife to distraction. She is furious to see their private life made public. Once I had settled on a storyline, quotes and clips from the plays happened organically.

CM: You’ve written quite a bit in the past. How does writing and acting compare? Have you performed one of your own plays before?
PW: Yes, I’ve always written. My first commissioned play was at the Liverpool Everyman back in 1984. Since then I’ve had my plays performed at various theatres in the UK including a soul musical – ‘In The Midnight Hour’. I like telling stories and that’s what actors and writers try to do. This is the first time I’ve ever performed in my own work and I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy it but I’ve had a great time!

CM: Have you performed in many Shakespeare plays? What’s your favourite Shakespearean role?
PW: Actually I haven’t done a huge amount of Shakespeare. I love the plays but many of the parts I wanted never came around, so I got on with other stuff. My favourite role though was Iago in ‘Othello’. One of the great parts and I was lucky enough to be directed by the fabulous Michael Boyd. Villains are great fun.

CM: How does playing the man himself compare…?
PW: Playing the man himself? What I wanted to portray was a husband who just happened to write plays – but it had to work on several levels. People who like Shakespeare can enjoy the verse but basically it’s about the mess of a long marriage, warts and all.

CM: Do you think people need to be a bard-aficionado to enjoy the play?
PW: No, as I said, it’s really a play about two people locked in a long and not always happy marriage. Jealousy, resentment, betrayal, laughter and madness! – it’s all there. The comedy and the tragedy. That’s why Shakespeare is so modern, so timeless. People who love Shakespeare can enjoy spotting the quotes but some of them are quite well disguised. There are also some hidden allusions to other writers as well, but you will have to come and see the play if you want to spot them.

CM: You are well known for your TV and film work. How does it compare to live performance?
PW: I love film and TV work, but if I’m honest my best times have been in theatre. Theatre is family, whereas TV is like staying with friends.

CM: Have you performed at the Fringe before? How are you finding it this time?
PW: The last time I was on the Fringe was 1987! I came up to do a Joe Orton play. We lost all our money but had a great time. I’m loving being up here this time with my own play but it’s hard work. There is such competition. I think I might be too old for all this!

‘Shakespeare, His Wife And The Dog’ was performed at Summerhall at Edinburgh Festival 2014.