Big interview: Dyfan Dwyfor on playing Richard III in York

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Dyfan Dwyfor takes on the role of Richard III at the Rose Theatre in York. Chris Bond talks to him about playing one of Shakespeare’s most iconic and villainous characters.

These are among the most famous lines written by the world’s most famous playwright. They’re uttered, of course, by Richard III in William Shakespeare’s masterful history play of the same name, which makes up part of a big-hitting quartet being performed this summer at the Rose Theatre in York. Over the years, some of the biggest names in the business have felt compelled to play the hunchback king including Sir Ian McKellen, Ralph Fiennes, Sir Kenneth Branagh, Benedict Cumberbatch and, perhaps most famously of all, Laurence Olivier.

Dyfan Dwyfor.

Dyfan Dwyfor.

Now, up-and-coming Welsh star Dyfan Dwyfor is the latest actor to take on this iconic role and he admits it’s something of a daunting prospect. “As an actor, you yearn for these roles, you’re hungry for them, so when the phone call comes in offering you the role you immediately go ‘yes’ and the other half goes ‘no... it’s too much’,” he says.

“There is a lot of expectation because people know the play so well and how it should be done and not be done. So the pressure is unlike anything I’ve ever felt before, and that’s the pressure I put on myself, let alone anyone else.

“I’ve got the Anthony Sher book [Year of the King] on my bedside table just staring at me, tapping on my shoulder everyone now and again,” he adds, chuckling.

Dwyfor is well aware that he’s following in some famous footsteps. “There’s a massive history with the part and you have to be aware of that and even steal a few ideas. At the same time, you have to create some of your own ideas and put your own stamp on it, but it has to come naturally otherwise you lose something of the character.

“Every actor will bring his own thing to the table. Richard III is so malleable that each person can bring a bit of themselves to the character, so you have to do that and trust Shakespeare.”

Richard III is a play that lends itself to modern interpretations and this production follows in that vein. “It’s got a contemporary setting and it’s going to be quite visceral and quite slick and hopefully exciting,” says Dwyfor. “I’m quite young compared to a lot of the actors who normally get the role and that’s going to be reflected in what we do, so he’s going to have my energy.”

Dwyfor moved to London straight after finishing at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in 2007. He comes from a long tradition of great Welsh actors that have played Shakespeare’s headline roles including Richard Burton, Michael Sheen and Anthony Hopkins, who recently portrayed King Lear in an acclaimed BBC production. “These guys are the actors who broke that ground and enabled the rest of us to get there.”

Dwyfor has performed in a trio of Shakespeare’s comedies as well as Hamlet with the RSC, but this time he’s in the cast for both Richard III and Romeo and Juliet (he plays Sampson). This must be a bit tricky, learning lines for two plays? “It is, but it often happens. When you’re with the RSC, or another company, you often have two plays and you’re rehearsing one while you’re performing the other in the evening. But I’ve never rehearsed two plays at the same time with the same director, so it’s new for me. It’s great, though, because it really creates a sense of company.”

It’s the role of Richard that is his biggest challenge. Few, if any, historical figures have been vilified by Shakespeare as much as the last Plantagenet king. History is written by the victors and when Richard was killed the Tudors were quick to paint a grotesque portrait of the Yorkist monarch, which Shakespeare then magnified.

Dwyfor, though, isn’t concerned with Richard as a historical figure. “We’re doing Shakespeare’s play, we’re not doing history, so I have to play the character Shakespeare’s written and he is a megalomaniac villain.”

It’s a role that most great actors worth their salt (even film star Al Pacino has played him) want to tackle at some point in their career. “It’s one of the great parts because you get to play everything,” says Dwyfor. “You have to be charming, you have to be murderous and you have to be able to woe. It’s all the stages of man and it’s great to be able to play this on stage, all that gamut of emotions.

“What’s difficult with Richard is you want to be liked and disliked at the same time. You need to be able to take the audience with you, to make them complicit in this journey of his and then to disgust them by the end. You need to almost manipulate the audience and that’s tricky.”

Then there’s the added dimension of playing him in Europe’s first ever pop-up theatre. “It’s going to be fascinating doing it in this space because we’re so close to the audience which makes it such an immediate relationship,” says Dwyfor.

“I’ve been lucky enough to play at The Globe and that’s quite similar but it doesn’t make you any more relaxed, especially for the first preview. When we step out on that stage we’ll see the whites of everyone’s eyes. I remember having a little soliloquy at The Globe and just seeing someone yawning and then turning round and walking out...”

Not that people are likely to be nodding off during Richard III, given its Machiavellian plot twists.

For Dwyfor, who TV viewers might recognise from the BBC drama Requiem, it’s a chance to shine. “This is my biggest theatre role by a mile. I’ve played Romeo and I’ve played a few other good parts but this comes in the bracket of Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth, it’s huge.”

But what is it about Shakespeare that still makes these roles so alluring to actors? “It’s the fact they’re still relevant and they still tell our stories. They deal with who we are and to be doing that after 450 years is just amazing,” he says. “Richard III is a tyrant and a despot and we’ve seen so much of that and democracies crumbling in places and how easy it is for that to happen.”

And the Bard’s characters still resonate with audiences after all this time. “Some people might be coming to watch Richard III knowing every word and others might be coming at it anew, and either case is just as fascinating,” adds Dwyfor.

“At the end of the day Shakespeare wrote great stories. Richard III is a brilliant thriller. You know what’s going to happen but you go with him and enjoy him, even though you know he’s going to reach too far and come a cropper…”

Four of Shakespeare’s plays – Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet and Richard III – are being performed at Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre from June 25 to September 2. For more details visit www.shakespearerosetheatre.com and to book tickets call 0844 844 0444.

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