Interview: James Swanton
Tom Powell talks to James Swanton about his theatrical choices during his time in Cambridge and his future projects
by Tom Powell
Friday 22nd June 2012, 03:31 BST
During his time at Cambridge, James Swanton has played Quasimodo in a one-man production, been one half of Scrooge & Marley’s retelling of a Christmas Carol, and acted in the Marlowe Showcase and the Panto, amongst other things.
You’ve done several one man shows (including Sikes and Nancy which is running 20th -22nd at 4pm at the Corpus playroom); what draws you to them? Is there something specific about the challenge you relish?
It’s not a challenge so much as a pleasure. It’s a physical drain, certainly, but the engagement with an audience is energising. And you relax into it surprisingly quickly – I’ve never been less panicked on a stage than in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I also use the one-man show as a platform for a more heightened performance style – a mixture of Victorian melodrama, thirties horror films and Sir Donald Wolfit. The non-naturalistic is what theatre does best. So perhaps my one-man shows are a low-key political protest!
What was your happiest moment in Cambridge theatre?
The first night of Scrooge & Marley, when it somehow came together after a marathon spell in the ADC. Also everything involving Will Seaward. And last term was a lovely summation to my time in Cambridge theatre – interviewing my hero Simon Callow, working with Max Stafford-Clark and playing Quasimodo.
How do you approach a role?
Following the example of Boris Karloff: everything depends on context. I’ll approach a role with gleeful artistic pretension if the context calls for it. But most projects really aren’t like that. It would be no good if I treated the characters in a frivolous musical as I did Quasimodo. Both are valid theatrical creations – but they call, by necessity, for different attacks. The vital thing is integrity – believing in your character at the moment of performance, no matter how bizarre the situation.
What do you hope to do in the future?
I’ll first be returning to The York Dungeon to terrorise the tourists. From that base, I’m hoping to write and perform one-man versions of Frankenstein and Dracula. In the long term, to simply work consistently in this insane profession would strike me as an achievement.
You’ve taken on a fair few roles that could be described as outcasts or grotesques. Is this intentional, and if so, what’s the attraction?
My grotesques work on two levels. My performances as Drugger in The Alchemist or Verges in Much Ado About Nothing were grotesque, but ridiculously so. There’s a lack of characterisation in the text, so it falls to the actor to flesh it out. Style becomes substance. My more serious grotesques – Quasimodo especially, but also Jacob Marley – are quite different. Love is central to it. The ways in which humans sour, corrupt and destroy love of all kinds is a bottomless pool of inspiration. Because it’s also the universal pain, and simply has its most potent expression in the grotesque. Then again, perhaps this is all to do with my face...
What’s been your most testing experience throughout it all?
Probably Michaelmas of 2010. I was performing my first one-man show and the Footlights panto back-to-back, which meant three solid weeks of theatrical entrapment. Everything went wrong – my director fell ill, I lost my voice (I never lose my voice), my degree withered away. But I’d do it again.
What advice would you give yourself if you could speak to your first-term, fresher self?
Don’t be intimidated by those in the years above; they’re entirely human and (usually) entirely friendly. Recognise how easy and fulfilling it is to put your own shows on. Don’t read reviews while you’re performing in a show. Most importantly, have more fun.
Any advice to aspiring actors, either?
Hang on to that which makes you unique. Those elements unique to your person, but also your working methods. Really good actors all reach the same level – but how they get there varies wildly. Trust your instinct and find the method that suits you. At the same time, don’t get too comfortable. Relax into the freefall of happily knowing nothing and discovering as you go.
Are there are any other ideas, or memories you’d like to leave us with?
Going with George Potts to every ADC audition at the end of our first Michaelmas – and both of us being turned down for everything. Student theatre is a classic example of the maniacs running the asylum. The longer you’re here, the more you realise that almost none of us have any idea what we’re doing. Enjoy the ride, I say!