“The Bard is completely timeless”: An interview with Shakespeare in Quarantine podcast hosts Jimmy Walters and Alexandra Evans
An inspiring and entertaining online book club covering the famous dramatist’s most compelling works, Shakespeare in Quarantine is hosted by Jimmy Walters and Alex Evans. Featuring one play a week, the podcast includes interviews with leading artists – such as Paul Tinto (1917) and Phoebe Sparrow (Downton Abbey) – who have performed in it. A new episode of Shakespeare in Quarantine airs every week and can be downloaded on most podcast apps or via the podcast’s website.
Walters is an acclaimed theatre director with an extensive list of credits, including Billy Bishop Goes to War and The Dog Beneath the Skin at Jermyn Street Theatre, Mrs Orwell at Southwark Playhouse, and The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus at Finborough Theatre. He is the co-founder of the theatre company Proud Haddock.
Known for, among others, Redistributors, Crown for Christmas, and Silent Witness, Evans is a notable film and TV actor and director.
The Upcoming’s Catherine Sedgwick caught up with Walters and Evans to discuss the podcast.
Hello Jimmy, Alex, thanks for chatting with us.
Jimmy – your Shakespeare in Quarantine podcasts are super fun and enlightening and include some fascinating guests. What motivated you to create a Shakespeare virtual book club? Is the Bard a favourite of yours?
Jimmy Walters: Thanks so much. What motivated me? Boredom really. I was lying in bed staring at the ceiling thinking, how the hell am I going to get through this lockdown? And I set myself the task of reading a Shakespeare play a week. I then thought, why not go one stage further and share that experience with an audience? The Bard is definitely a favourite of mine. I find his stories inspirational and his characters are completely timeless. Complex, not binary and neither perfect nor imperfect.
Why did you choose Macbeth (I should say “The Scottish Play”) and The Taming of the Shrew as your first two podcasts? They are fantastic plays, and possibly rather controversial in their portrayal of women by today’s standards.
JW: Well, the “Scottish Play” is very associated with schools and GCSEs, so we thought it would be a good place to start, being a familiar play for many. The Taming of the Shrew was one we picked because it’s not known quite so well and sits on the fringe of the big five. Additionally, it does, as you say, hold some very controversial themes to it. The debate about how Shakespeare writes women is an interesting one. It’s easy to see these plays as degrading to women, as our immediate instinct can be to see them painted as vulnerable or unpleasant in these stories. However, after we spoke to the guests, I saw them in a slightly different light. You can find out what I mean by that by giving them a listen.
Describe your previous experience directing Hamlet and Julius Caesar. How is working with Shakespeare unique?
JW: I was very lucky in that my first directing job was Hamlet for the Bedouin Shakespeare Company. I was 24, very green to the industry and probably thought I knew a lot more than I actually did. It was great fun but everything was very new, so I was learning by default as it were. I was lucky enough after that to be taken on as Assistant Director for the Young Shakespeare Company and that taught me a huge amount as well, so I was then prepared and ready to start Proud Haddock and direct Julius Caesar. That was a great experience because I had been really excited to start telling the story and I wanted to stage a timely interpretation by putting it in the world of modern-day political Westminster. Shakespeare is unique in the way that the language and the rhythm very much dictate and guide the performance. As a director, I don’t need to impose my own “thing” on it too much, whatever that is. Shakespeare originally used to write for his actors and there wouldn’t even be a director in the room, which meant that the clues were all in the text on how the lines should be delivered and where the actors should stand and when they should cross the stage etc. If you follow that logic of using the text as guidelines then it becomes a magical experience. Almost like looking for treasure.
The material you have directed includes some classics as well as narratives about war. Is there an underlying theme to your choice of plays? What draws you to a dramatic piece?
JW: It’s anything that’s enticing and a good story really. I love great characters. Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I love meeting larger than life characters. If the script holds those elements, then that will play a very big part in whether or not I’m going to decide to take it on. There’s not an underlying continual theme really, just anything that feels relevant and I think will excite people in a unique way. I always think when people want to learn more after the curtain falls then that’s always a good thing.
Is there a particular work you have always wanted to direct?
JW: I’d love to direct a Pinter. That opportunity would be a true privilege.
As mentioned in the podcast, there are countless film and theatrical versions and adaptations of Shakespeare. Is the Bard timeless? What can contemporary society learn from his classics?
JW: He is timeless for sure. I think we learn that the choices we make as human beings are not chronological but repetitive (for better or for worse). The rash impulsive decisions we see from leaders such as Richard II and Henry V when calling the shots about whether or not to go to war are not wholly unfamiliar in the 21st century. He is completely timeless.
Can you give us a clue what is coming up in future Shakespeare in Quarantine podcasts?
JW: We’ve talked about it….
Alex – why a Shakespeare book club? What drew you to the project?
Alexandra Evans: To be totally honest, it started out as a way to keep busy. Jimmy and I both like having something to do, and the idea of lockdown lasting weeks on end was quite scary. It gave me a routine again and the fact that people might want to listen along with us is a lovely bonus!
Regarding The Taming of the Shrew, you describe Bianca as “avocado on toast”, by comparison with her feisty, supposedly unmarriageable sister. How do you think they would fare if alive in today’s world?
AE: It depends where they were born in the world of course. Let say they were British, I think Bianca would still definitely take pictures of her avocado on toast, Starbucks and post-gym selfies and be perfectly happy. I imagine Katherina would follow accounts like “feminist” and “byefelipe” on Instagram and go to the Women’s March and aggressively hate Trump. Both women are cool with me as long as no one is trying to control them or maintain their virginity.
A good wife in Shakespeare’s day was, as you say, “a pretty, demure, quiet, violin-playing virgin”. Certainly, contemporary women are much less restricted. Are 21st-century societies relatively free of rigid gender-based expectations in your view?
AE: Absolutely not. In Britain, for the majority of women, yes, I’d say we are less restricted by things like our parents and their expectations – depending on who you ask. For the rest of the world? I still think we have a long way to go. We have child marriage, FGM and honour killings still, so no, I wouldn’t say that by any means are we living in a more relaxed time. We are just lucky to live in a more relaxed country.
As an actress, what Shakespearean character would you most want to play and why?
AE: I’d love to play Viola in Twelfth Night. She’s incredibly intelligent and uses a nightmare situation to her advantage to create some independence. By pretending to be a man she doesn’t need to be accompanied by a male companion, can find herself a job in the court and move freely in society.
In your first podcast you cite the Porter as your favourite personality in Macbeth. He provides comic relief but is also more complex. What kinds of characters are you drawn to in terms of acting parts?
AE: As an actor I’ll be honest I’m drawn to any part that will have me – within reason. I’m not at a stage in my career to be fussy or snobby. If there’s a role going and I think I can do a good job and someone wants to hire me out of the 20, 30, 40, 50 other women they’ve auditioned then I count myself lucky. I really love comedy – but have never been given the chance to play any yet. I write sketches with my friends and short films to try and create the parts I’d like to play if I can’t get the roles.
Is there a role as a performer or director you would love to take on?
AE: There are so many things I’d love to do. A Western would be amazing, I’d love to spend months filming and getting to go horse riding every day, or anything Wes Anderson, a really great British comedy – Richard Curtis-style – or playing a complete sociopath – pretty much anything that isn’t my reality.
Besides your career, what inspires you?
AE: I’m obsessed with nature. I bore my husband talking about this tree and that mushroom – what time of year we can go foraging for wild garlic (now, in case you fancy some). I grow all my own veggies in our tiny garden and make new hotels and bird boxes all year round.
Shakespeare wrote Macbeth and King Lear in quarantine. Does lockdown ignite your creativity? Do you have plans for new ventures you would like to share?
AE: I think there is a lot of pressure on people to be creative at the moment and that seems quite unfair. It’s a stressful time and people aren’t sure when/if the next paycheck is coming, or if they or their friends and family are going to be healthy in the following months. I think cut yourself some slack if you’re not doing anything – I wouldn’t have done this podcast if it wasn’t for Jimmy. Just take care of yourself and well done if you’ve managed to shower once a week.
Alex, Jimmy, thanks so much again.
For further information about Shakespeare in Quarantine or to listen visit the podcast’s website here.