PAUL French first performed in a Shakespeare play in his York Shakespeare Project debut in All’s Well That Ends Well in 2014.
By 2016, he was playing Lear in King Lear and now is the lead once more, cast as Prospero in The Tempest, in YSP’s climax to performing all 37 Shakespeare plays in 20 years, concluding at York Theatre Royal tonight.
“I’d never done any Shakespeare until 2014, so it was an amazing development for me,” he says. “I didn’t start acting until my early forties, then I moved up here, and I had no idea I would like doing Shakespeare until I did it.
“I had a family and job but now I’ve retired, though it’s been a slow process with doing theatre, after doing a job that gave me the flexibility to do the York Mystery Plays [in York Minster] in 2016, and it just so happened that Ben Prusiner, from that production, was directing Lear, and then I did Volpone with Ben’s own company [Re:Verse Theatre].
“It’s all been pretty fortuitous. None of it was planned. My wife is now asking, ‘is this going to be your last Shakespeare?’, and I say, ‘I don’t know’, because I didn’t know I’d ever do one, but I love it, especially the rehearsals.”
Over the past few years, Paul has attended acting classes to develop his skills further and done films to diversify his craft too. Everything helps towards playing such a demanding role as Prospero.
“I remember when I did All’s Well That Ends Well, playing the king, which is not a huge part, saying to a fellow actor, ‘I’d love to do Lear and I’d love to do Prospero’, and you think, ‘how will that work out, with all the people who can do it?’, and yet here we are now, with all these blessed words to get out of my head!” says Paul.
He has enjoyed that experience. “It’s been very interesting to develop Prospero from having first read the play and having ideas of what he’s about and then exploring it. It’s a pleasure working with the other actors, starting with the huge scene with Miranda [Effie Warboys], setting up the story,” he says.
“It’s fascinating how it all develops, and I now think Prospero is more like me than I first thought he was.”
Director Philip Parr chips in: “That’s sort of how it should work. The part should become greater than the actor by an alchemical process.”
Assessing the art of acting, Paul goes on to say: “Acting is reacting; acting is listening; acting is being in the moment.” Philip chips in again: “Acting is not acting!”
“I think it won’t happen with this cast, but with actors who are not experienced, there’s a tendency to not know how to react if the performance is suddenly different on one night,” says Paul. “But here, for The Tempest, we want it to be different, to just see what happens!”
York Shakespeare Project in The Tempest, York Theatre Royal, tonight (1/10/2022), 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.