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Living the dream alongside Royal Shakespeare Company

ON STAGE: Peter Cockerill, as Bottom, is enchanted by Titania, played by Ayesha Dharker, of the Royal Shakespeare Company

A year in the planning, a group of actors from the Castle Players took to the stage as part of an RSC production. Reporter Martin Paul was invited along to the final rehearsals

YOU don’t need acting skills to show excitement and awe when you are over the moon, but being euphoric can, perhaps, improve your acting skills.
This might have been the case for a group of amateurs from the Castle Players as they prepared to appear alongside alongside the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Newcastle University’s Northern Stage on Wednesday last week.
The Barnard Castle group were in splendid form during the technical rehearsal before an audience of journalists and television cameramen.
The opportunity began about a year ago when they were invited to audition, alongside hundreds of others, as part of the RSC’s plan to work with amateur groups to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the bard’s death.
Leading up to last week, the group, which includes director Jill Cole and actors Graham Fewell, Ben Pearson, Harry French, Andrew Stainthorpe, Ian Kirkbride and Peter Cockerill, had been rehearsing three nights a week, often with a live link to the RSC.
The Players are taking on the roles of the mechanicals: Bottom the weaver, Flute the bellows mender, Quince the carpenter, Starveling the tailor, Snout the tinker and Snug the joiner.
Sadly, Mr Fewell broke his leg only days before the performance and Ben Goffe, of the RSC, has filled in.
For the others, however, the combination of excitement, nerves and adrenalin was palpable.
Ms Cole was positively in her element.
She said: “The project is so pioneering, not just in the professionals linking up with amateurs, but with the technology too.
“This is off the scale for us, Shakespeare is what the Castle Players do and the gods of Shakespeare are the RSC.”
She explained how they have been able to work with professional voice and movement coaches and the incredible level of access they have been given. They were also fortunate to meet the whole RSC crew ahead of doing their own rehearsals.
Ms Cole said: “We got a little glimpse early on which gave us the impetus and knowledge to go on ourselves.”
More importantly, she said, working with the best has given them reassurance that the Castle Players are on the right track. She sees it as a kind of validation.
Pointing to the painstaking process of the technical rehearsal Ms Cole added: “Actually we are not far off the mark which makes us feel that we are doing things right.”
For the players, the run up to their performances included an intense, but worthwhile, 12 to 13 hours of work each day.
Mr Stainthorpe, who plays the part of Flute, said working on a production of this scale is an amazing experience and he is looking forward to June when they will be performing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, in Stratford Upon Avon.
He said: “That will be a fantastic thrill. I don’t think I have ever been on such a large, thrust stage before. It has been a very long journey, It seemed like there were many months and it is hard to imagine it is here.”
He echoes the other Players’ comments about how they have been welcomed into the RSC ranks and treated as equals to the other professionals.
But RSC deputy artistic director Erica Whyman says sees them as just that, professional.
“I love them, honestly,” she added. “They are such nice people, so dedicated. Every time I have been to see them they have been so welcoming, but they want to get on with it.  What has been impressive is how professional they are and their understanding of the process. I really pushed them and they took it in their stride. I’ve been impressed by how calm they are.”
Ms Cole suggested the Players, perhaps, under-estimated themselves and explained that while Peter Cockerill wasn’t sure of his audition, he certainly wasn’t considering the role of Bottom.
“It was the RSC that spotted the potential,” she revealed. “Peter is a bit of a Bottom, he is so capable.”
She added that the word from Ms Whyman has been for the actors to bring more of themselves into their roles and get in touch with their playful sides.
Mr Cockerill said: “I think it is typical of any actor to have self-doubt. Bottom is so self confident, a larger than life character.”
He described the nerves before a performance as being a “knife edge,” where the adrenalin can boost an actor to give a powerful performance, but, conversely it could also lead to paralysis.
There are additional challenges to being part of the RSC performance and a prominent one is having to prepare for the Players’ annual summer production of Henry V at The Bowes Museum while still performing with the RSC.
Mr Cockerill, who will be playing the part of the King of France, said: “I get to have two plays in my head but I have always fancied being a king. Someone once said it is good to play a king in Shakespeare because you get to sit down, all the other parts are done standing up.”
A great part of the RSC experience, the Barnard Castle troupe agreed, is that they will be able to bring their new knowledge, experience and skills back to the Castle Players, perhaps raising the bar of their already high standard.
But spare a thought for Mr Fewell, who took “break-a-leg” all too literally.
He said: “I was really disappointed on a personal note to be missing the opening night, but excited and nervous for my fellow Mechanicals.
“I hope to be out of hospital in time to see the show before it moves to Glasgow.”


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