In March 1971, on its first visit to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Royal Shakespeare Company presented Peter Brook's historic "white-box" production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Among the bright-eyed young actors in that company were future Academy Award-winner Ben Kingsley as Demetrius and, as Helena, the acclaimed Frances de la Tour, whose most recent credits include last year's London premiere of Edward Albee's The Play About the Baby. Playing Snout was one Patrick Stewart, 15 years before Star Trek: The Next Generation made him a household name.
Skipping ahead 29 years to May 2000, the RSC is back at BAM for its seventh visit, and A Midsummer Night's Dream (directed by Michael Boyd) is one of three shows on display, along with Don Carlos--Friedrich Schiller's 18th-century, revolutionary potboiler--and The Family Reunion, a 20th-century verse drama by T.S. Eliot. Although the casts of the three shows include established performers like John Woodvine (Nicholas Nickleby) and Tony winner Margaret Tyzack (Lettice and Lovage), much attention is being lavished on their current crop of up-and-coming co-stars, perhaps with an eye to discover the Gandhis and Captain Picards of tomorrow.
Twenty-nine-year-old Rupert Penry-Jones, who stars as the brooding and passionate Don Carlos, is often touted as the new Jude Law or Ralph Fiennes, both of whom are RSC alums. Don Carlos director Gale Edwards (currently represented on Broadway with Jesus Christ Superstar) has said of her star, "I promise you, he's the next one." Does Penry-Jones feel any pressure over such talk? "Not really, no," he says. "To be honest with you, I find it hard to believe, so I'm not thinking of it as a real possibility. I'm just taking each job as it comes." Movie fans will recognize the actor from 1998's Hilary and Jackie, in which he played the brother of the two title characters. In 1995, the actor made his U.S. stage debut understudying Hamlet--a part many critics have compared to his current one--and playing Fortinbras to Fiennes' Tony-winning Dane. "I learned a lot from him," he says, recalling how Fiennes would give a startling, new performance every night. "When I finally came to play a part like Don Carlos, I used some of that. I had watched [Fiennes] quite carefully every night."
Born in London to two prominent actors, Angela Thorne and Peter Penry-Jones, the young performer has a history of absorbing great acting from the wings. "When my mom was in shows, I'd sit with the stage manager and press buttons that made the curtains go up," he says. "Instead of having babysitters, I'd sleep in the dressing rooms. I suppose I was 'born in the trunk.' " One of his early memories is being tucked away, hidden in the set of The Mousetrap, while his father performed in that long-running West End hit. "I could fit behind the fireplace and watch through the coals," he recalls.
He also fondly remembers the day he was taken to see Wind in the Willows and, after the show, went to meet the actor who played Toad of Toad Hall. "He put some makeup on my hand and I didn't wash it for about two weeks," says the actor now. "Magic toad makeup. When you're a little kid going backstage, it's like walking into a magic show. I really can't remember wanting to be much else apart from an actor; I didn't even think about it. My parents weren't keen on the idea, but they came to see me play Dr. Faustus in school when I was 17 or 18, and after that they told me they'd back me all the way."
Had she, like Penry-Jones, always assumed she'd go into theater? "Well, I wanted to be a baker until I was about seven," she says, chuckling. "I was rather fond of cake and quite fancied working at a baker shop. But then I decided I wanted to be an actor. The first Shakespeare I did was when I was 15. I played Titania [in Midsummer]--very badly, I think. I absolutely crucified it. But I had a ball!"
One of Waites' fellow class-of-'96 chums is Aidan McArdle, now starring as Puck in Boyd's Midsummer. "We were really great mates when we were at RADA," she says. "We did loads of shows together." Their latest shared bill was Othello, in which McArdle played the hapless Roderigo. The busy Dublin native was also at the RSC last year in Antony and Cleopatra. "I got whipped by Alan Bates for being a bit cheeky and kissing Frances de la Tour's hand," he says of that production. "Actually, in all the parts I'm doing this season, I'm always getting beaten around the place. Roderigo gets killed by Iago, you know. I guess I have some sort of ephemeral quality that people pick up on and go, 'Well, I think he's going to get hit.' "
McArdle considers Puck to be a breakthrough role. He still gets thrown around a bit, but he also gets to play a major role that's not what he calls the usual "Irish stuff." "It's nice to be able to break out of that," he says. "[In Midsummer] I'm not necessarily being considered an Irish actor but, instead, somebody who's just doing a show. I am sometimes Irish as Puck but I don't use a very strong accent Irish accent because I'm afraid of getting lumped into being a leprechaun."
In his native land, McArdle has a distinguished history with the Druid and Abbey theaters. "I owe quite a lot to Garry Hynes," he says of the Tony-winning director of The Beauty Queen of Leenane. McArdle played the part of Ray in Beauty Queen after Tom Murphy left the original Dublin production, but didn't come to New York with it. (As with Waites, this month's tour is his U.S. debut.) "It's much easier for someone from the original cast to get permission from Actors' Equity to be able to perform in America, so Tom sloughed back into it" for the transfer to New York. (Lucky for Murphy, who went on to win a Tony Award for the part.) "I can't begrudge him that," says McArdle. "I don't think I was as good as him. [And] if I'd been allowed to do it here, I don't think I would have won."
But big things await. Over the next year, the RSC is presenting Shakespeare's two major history-play cycles, from Richard II to Richard III, and it is McArdle who will be taking on the daunting role of the Crookback.
"It's terrifying," says the actor. "You know that old saying, 'Be careful of what you wish for.' When it was offered, there was a part of me saying, 'Ooh, I don't really want you to do that.' But you just have to. You can always say, 'Oh yeah, if I was doing that...' But now, of course, the head is above the parapet so we'll just have to see if I can handle it."