Standing in a Capitol Hill bakery, they could have been a pair of European travelers, not quite blending in with the hustling Washington crowd getting scones and lattes in the afternoon rush. But the willowy blonde with striking features and the gentleman with tousled salt and pepper hair were islands of calm in the busy café.
Rachel Pickup and Richard Sheridan Willis met their guest warmly, taking seats along Pennsylvania Avenue, hours before their next performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the Folger Theatre.
In the romantic comedy, the woman at the table plays Olivia, an eligible lady of Illyria, mourning the loss of her brother, who has left their family property to her. Willis is Malvolio, her family steward and the object of much ridicule among the other member’s of Olivia’s household.
Pickup and Willis are natives of Great Britain, although both now work primarily in America. Another common bond is their theatrical family background. Willis’ father was a director and his mother was an actress. Richard has a claim to fame that few actors can boast. “My grandmother had a cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon and my parents went there on purpose to have me born in Shakespeare’s hometown.”
For many years, his parents ran a summer theatre in the Channel Islands, which is where Willis made his debut at the ripe old age of six during Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary year, 1964. “It was ‘The Scottish Play’ and I was Young Macduff and my mother was Lady Macduff.”
Richard auditioned for a role in a West End musical a few years later and got the role. As a teenager, “I was pretty much an actor, for about ten years.”
Pickup also has a theatre pedigree: her mother, Lans Traverse, is a playwright now, but years ago she was an actress. Her father is the distinguished British actor Ronald Pickup, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Rachel’s parents shielded their children from the business as much as possible. Her first play was a Moliére piece. “It was at my school when I was 8 or 9. And because I was taller than the other children, I played a man.”
The theatre life really took hold when at age 16 Rachel participated in the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain. “That was my first real thing.”
After their youthful connections to the actor’s life began, both Willis and Pickup earned spots at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), the oldest and one of the most prestigious drama schools in the United Kingdom. “My parents both went there,” said Pickup. “By the time I got there, I knew there was no going back really.” Richard recalls his time at RADA as “a life-changing golden time,” where he was trained alongside future actors Ralph Fiennes, Sean Bean, Kenneth Branagh, Joely Richardson, and Alex Kingston.
Like Willis, after three years of intensive study at RADA, Rachel began her career in London. Separate of each other, Willis and Pickup both have extensive credits in London’s West End and throughout England, in both classical and modern pieces.
And also separate from each other, their careers lead them to the colonies.
Willis is now based in Toronto and splits his time between the U.K., Canada and the United States. For about a decade, he was associated with the New York-based Aquila Theatre Company.
Rachel’s journey to America is more recent. “I worked in London my whole professional career until two years ago. It seemed like something was bringing me here, almost intangible. It was also partly because my mother is American and I wanted to experience that side of me.”
Her first stateside acting job was in Washington at the Shakespeare Theatre Company two seasons ago where she appeared as Lady Chiltern in An Ideal Husband. “You go where exciting work is,” said Rachel.
For now, their work consists of inhabiting the world ruled by love in Twelfth Night. “It is a dream world, really,” Richard explained.
For Pickup, Twelfth Night is her first Shakespeare production with a largely American cast. “It’s wonderful, but it is different than the Royal Shakespeare Company or working with Sir Peter Hall.”
“Oh, yes, Peter is militant” about what he wants, added Sheridan.
Director Robert Richmond gives the actors a lot of leeway to begin their work on the play, even those who are new to his style, like Rachel. . “On the first day, Robert said, ’I’m not going to lay down any laws. As we get nearer to the time, I might try to pin things down.’ The atmosphere was just to experiment and play.”
Several members of the Twelfth Night cast are used to Richmond’s approach. Willis and Louis Buttelli – who plays Feste, the fool – have both worked extensively with the director through Aquila Theatre. They both also appeared in the critically acclaimed Henry V at Folger this season.
Working so closely with Richmond has helped to create an ease of working, according to Willis. “When you’ve traveled backwards and forwards across the states for nine months for many years, it creates a certain bond and a shorthand. We know how Robert works.”
“During Henry V and Twelfth Night, people got the idea very quickly how his mind works by the way we were reacting to him. He gives you an idea, and you say yes and just go with it, wherever it takes you.”
Willis explained Richmond’s approach is a combination of strong physical theatre and a focus on the text. “He will suggest but he won’t impose.”
And the work was active, said Pickup. “What was wonderful was that it happened on our feet. It’s actually much better to be able to just jump in, rather than take the time to sit around and do – quote unquote – table work, which is what they do at the RSC.”
Richard countered, “Table work is boring as hell. That’s what actors should do at home, digging in and asking questions.”
They both agreed the on-their-feet approach with the other actors in the same room was ideal for the three and a half week rehearsal period for Twelfth Night.
During the playful rehearsal period, Willis took his character to the edge and back. “What I did with Malvolio is to push him to the outer limits, until they might say, should he go that far? You don’t want to stand out, you want to be part of the world.”
Within the early 20th century, romantic world of Olivia’s household and ebb and flow of the relationships, Richard said, “We knew it was an extraordinary dream world and there were flights of fancy we could do.”
Rachel’s approach to Olivia was to see her as “being true to herself and following her heart.” “Olivia has been left with this house, and a serious steward, a fool, a not always particularly helpful maid and a drunken uncle. But she doesn’t just do what’s expected of her, she’s quirky, I think. She is not run of the mill.”
Pickup continued: “Robert helped us created a world governed by love. Olivia wants true love, not organized love, and it happens to her. He’s this much younger boy, the last thing she was expecting, and she goes with it.”
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“I have twisted in the idea that Malvolio wants to be Olivia. He deliberately takes things, like the fan and her compact. When he gets the letters and puts himself to the trick of singularity – “just be extraordinary” – I was very particular that I wanted women’s stockings for the revealing scene. I thought, how interesting would it be to give Malvolio this other layer” like Eddie Izzard – a straight man who also wears women’s clothing?”
The audience is probably not aware of Malvolio’s deep seated idiosyncrasies. “It has ended up as more of a suggestion, but that was the idea behind it.”
Like all characters in the play, both Olivia and Malvolio have a journey. Rachel Pickup and Richard Willis say they try to keep things honest, while honoring the text and being true to some of Shakespeare’s most memorable comic characters.
Thinking about how Malvolio ends up, resigning from his position and leaving in shame, Willis and Pickup think his journey is the most rocky among the characters. “In the end, all the deception by Maria and Sir Toby destroys him,” explained Willis.
“It’s sad because he is so innocent,” added Pickup. “Innocent but deluded. And innocent people are vulnerable.”
Twelfth Night By William Shakespeare . Directed by Robert Richmond . Produced by Folger Shakespeare Theatre . Interview by Jeffrey Walker.