The New Sun Newspaper

An Interview with Michael York

The New Sun: Do you have a favorite play or film that you've done that's been a special experience or memory? I know it's sometimes hard to chose.

Michael York: Yes, because one has a double standard. Sometimes there are ones that were a great commercial, artistic success but were horrible to do, or unmemorable. Others that died by the wayside were huge, life-enhancing experiences because you went somewhere interesting or you met someone wonderful. Having been at it now for quite a long time, it's very pleasing when film like Cabaret, which is a quarter of a century old, is still being shown.

NS: It was just on the other day.

MY: I know. A lot of people said they watched it and I think, "Oh, that's wonderful. That's what film can do. It's around." For me, looking at a film is like watching a little lifetime because they take a couple of months to do and a lot happens. It's like a visual diary.

NS: How do you overcome obstacles?

MY: I honestly think that's the nature of life, that you're constantly tested and it's not simply all straightforward. And I don't think it's good that it should be. Riding on the crest of the wave would get totally boring after a time. There are sort of checks and balances.

Actually I had a book out in the early 90s from Simon and Shuster. They asked me to do a biography and I called it Accidentally on Purpose. I thought it was an attention-grabbing headline, but also behind it was this rather philosophical inquiry. Whether, in an active life, which is just a mass of different jobs, there was a thread of destiny that went through it. Whether it was all just happenstance or whether it was all leading to something.

But I'm very optimistic. I know that we've just gone through the most horrible century on record, but I think that because we have the ability to wreak so much havoc and destruction on each other -- we have that ability to end it all -- it sort of puts us in our place.

NS: In your new book, The Shakespearean Actor Prepares, there's a quote that says Shakespeare's plays "abound with wells of energy which, when tapped, will galvanize an actor's fantasy and liberate his talent." Could you elaborate on that?

MY: The book presupposes that Shakespeare, whoever he was -- a Yorkshire local or an Elizabethan nobleman -- was writing these texts for actors to interpret. Not for academics to dissect. They are working text. He was such a consummate man of the theater that within them are the keys as how he wants them formed. You sense this. Before you get to the whole thing of the actor and his interpretation, you look at what the words are saying: why they're in that order, why certain metaphors and images are used, why verse and not pros. Because the words are the scenes and the scenes are the words. It's inseparable.

In other words, it's usually that the actor brings something to the written material. We're concerned here with what the written material is bringing to the actor.

The theory being that the more you rely on Shakespeare, the better you act. He's doing three quarters of the work for you.

There's been this interference, as it were, over the last 400 years. The editors have gone in and cleaned up the text. If you look at the early text, the folios, you can see that these are for actors. He invented this enormous vocabulary, this amazing fertility of language. He's doing amazing things with words: turning them on their heads; verbs are nouns. It's an incredible kind of freedom and, it's his.

The language is key. He invented sort of a verbal jazz.

I wrote the book with Adrian Brine. We fought over the title. I like The Shakespearean Actor Prepares but I said it's going to put some people off. They'll think it's just for actors, where it's really for anyone who has a love of Shakespeare and, God, there are a lot of people out there.

Adrian points out that with Shakespeare the actor is the psychologist and the role is his patient. That's not to suggest that Shakespeare's not full of enormous subtleties. I think basically, the key to it, is that Shakespeare invites you in as a partner. He wants you to fill out the role. He'll give you the situations and these pretty fantastic words but he doesn't completely circumscribe the role. In other words, you don't have to do what the author intended. Like in Hamlet, Ophelia goes mad, but she doesn't tell you why she does because maybe somebody in your company has a better idea. So in doing a Shakespeare play, you enter into this partnership and that's why it's always fresh and never definitive. It has its own uncanny ability to reflect the time and also the place and the era in which it's done. And that's why he lives.

Also the book examines the Elizabethan theater, the playhouse for which these plays were intended. It's interesting because they just rebuilt the Globe theater in London, and I've been involved in that. There's been a lot of getting back to basics. We've gone through a whole year where the scenery design sort of took over. Maybe it's because we live in a cinematic age where we need to fill the eyes with things. You don't really need it in Shakespeare because he's doing it for you.

NS: The words have that power.

MY: Exactly, the language is providing the scenery. Everything is there.

I think because we are in such a visual age we've lost the ability to listen a great deal. Elizabethans said, "Let's hear a play."

NS: So this is good. It brings back listening and the power of words.

MY: Yeah. The French are very good at that. They still have a very audible tradition, you know, listening, whereas we got used to...

NS: I don't think Americans are the best listeners in the whole world.

MY: I think our attention spans are much less too. Although I must say that Shakespeare should be played very fast. He knew that. It moves like a movie. It cuts from scene to scene -- or it should. In the book we mentioned the work of Harvey Granville Barker, one of the great reformers, who said that Shakespeare was like a relay race. You never dropped the baton. George Bernard Shaw recognized this too; that there shouldn't be these pauses. You shouldn't have a lot of acting and then a pause, and then some more acting. It's all contained within the framework of the verse.

NS: Tell me about your work with the California Youth Theater.

MY: It's an organization that is based on the same principles as the British National Youth Theater. When I was a kid of 16 that had just started. It's now a very established organization, the idea being to take kids from all over, put them all together, and put them through a performing arts program. Not to turn out little artists, but better citizens. In other words, to give them all the enthusiasm, the teamwork, the discipline, and self-discovery that they would have on the sports field in the theater. It works, it's very cost-effective. I've been associated it with it 15 years here in California. We work a lot with youth at risk too, because it's been found to be very effective.

NS: So it's in England and California, and anywhere else in the U.S.?

MY: There are lots of youth theaters in America, but I got involved with this because we wanted to do an exchange between the British Youth Theater and the California one. To bring them over here, and to send our California kids to London as part of the life enhancement program. That hasn't happened. It might happen this year, actually, because we got a theater last year. Some old ex-strip joint, which is now the Hollywood Youth Arts Center. It's up and running.

NS: How do you relax?

MY: I walk every morning. That's my thing. It's great here. To walk up in the hills, the city's coming awake, and because of the hill you get sort of a workout. I find that you get a lot of thoughts. It's like the end of the day in the bath. I try and swim as much as I can. We have a great gym culture here and I've tried to keep that at arm's length. I'm enjoying being at home. It's a rare pleasure because I spent a lot of time on the road last year. My wife is a photographer and she's been having an exhibition that's been going 'round the world, and it's been a lot of fun to go with her. Places like the Kremlin in Moscow.

NS: Do you have advice for upcoming actors?

MY: Yes. It's not going to be easy. It's going to be challenging and you're going to be rejected and you'll be dealing with people who don't know what they're talking about. This is the stuff of human life. So you have to believe in your abilities to succeed absolutely. It will happen. It may not happen immediately but you've got to have the patience to know that it will happen.

As Hamlet said, "The readiness is all."