‘Hermione is the part of a lifetime’

Actor Richard Dempsey on Propeller’s latest Shakespearean foray

EDWARD HALL’S Propeller Theatre Company has provided Galway Arts Festival audiences with some truly exhilarating play-going experiences in the last few years and their visit this year promises more of the same with the double bill of Henry V and The Winter’s Tale.

Ahead of the company’s Galway visit, actor Richard Dempsey shared an afternoon phone call to talk about the two plays and give an idea of what we can look forward to.

Dempsey was born in Hertfordshire, though both his parents are from Dublin. He made his professional acting debut aged 14 in the BBC TV adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Three years later he made his stage debut in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

Dempsey continued to work steadily in TV but despite the fact his career was assuredly up and running he then decided to go back and study, enrolling in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

“I’d been working in TV and was starting to do a bit of film as well but I was very conscious that I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he explains. “So I felt it was important to go and study and also to be around people my own age in an educational environment without the pressure of being perfect, just being able to go away and make mistakes for a few years. It was really useful and I came away with lots of skills I didn’t have but also a lot of friendships which I think is important.”

Playing Shakespeare

Upon graduating from Guildhall in 1995, Dempsey went straight into the West End premiere of Fame - the Musical and since then he has built an impressive range of stage and television roles.

Dempsey first worked with Propeller in 2009 on its productions of Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Despite being by this time a seasoned pro, he admits he felt some trepidation about joining the company.

“I was terrified to be honest because I was never someone who was very good at Shakespeare at college, though I loved certain productions of Shakespeare,” he says. “But the way Ed works, in the first few days you very much focus on the text and how you speak it.

“He works with an academic called Roger Warren and they are very particular about how the text is spoken so you have a very strong comfort zone about how you approach the work and after that you basically play for six weeks. It’s a fantastically creative environment where you’re being directed but you also feel as if the work is your own.”

As a keen fan of musical theatre - Dempsey has also performed his own solo cabaret show - it goes without saying that the actor relishes the large role music plays in Propeller’s productions.

“Absolutely, yes!” he enthuses. “A lot of Propeller actors are musicians as well, most of them can play two or three instruments, or write music, or dance - one of our actors was British tap-dancing champion in his teens - so you have this environment of a different array of musical talents.

“It’s like a hotpot, you throw in all these different ideas musically and you come out with things like a fantastic ‘Te Deum’ in Henry V to us prancing around singing Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies’ in The Winter’s Tale.”

Dempsey expands on the musical elements in the current double bill.

“Henry V is a mix of religious music and patriotic music; but not necessarily old patriotic music, we have The Clash and these beautiful requiems written by a couple of the actors. The Winter’s Tale is almost like two different plays, you have Bohemia in Act 2 and Sicilia in Act 1. Sicilia is a very formal court environment so we have beautiful Tuscan-style music for that and then in part two it’s like a rock festival, Bohemia is basically like Glastonbury.”

Playing Hermione

In The Winter’s Tale, Dempsey plays the role of Hermione, the virtuous queen wrongly accused of adultery by her jealous husband.

“Hermione is the part of a lifetime,” he states emphatically. “She’s this very strong woman who is married to King Leontes. She then finds herself subjected to complete and utter abuse from her husband who’s practically having a nervous breakdown and accuses her of committing adultery.

“I found a parallel with that lady in Iran, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who was also accused of adultery and threatened with being stoned to death and she had to defend herself in court which is exactly what happens in The Winter’s Tale.

“Hermione is accused of adultery and sentenced to death and has to defend herself in court on her own. It’s a fantastic scene where this woman who is full of honour and dignity has to stand up, having just given birth - in our production literally so, I have blood all over me - and has to develop this very strong sense of herself with compassion, dignity, and honour. It’s fantastic to play, it’s a real challenge, the range of it is particularly challenging, and gratifying - when I get it right!”

Dempsey also features in Henry V.

“I play various roles,” he says. “I mainly play French characters such as the Duke of Burgundy who is almost like a Terry Waite character who comes in at the end and has a beautiful speech about peace and trying to bring England and France together.”

To prepare for this production the Propeller actors were enrolled in a professional army fitness course. Dempsey revelled in the experience.

“It was fantastic!” he says. “You go to various parks in London and you basically get shouted at by a soldier for an hour in the cold while you do hundreds of press-ups and sit-ups and sweat.

“It was a fantastic exercise in bringing the company together and there were also practical things we gained from it from a military point of view such as how to stand properly as a soldier, and how to march, and how you would react in certain situations. It also got us fit which is great and we’ve been trying to keep that up since we’ve been on tour.”

Propeller will present The Winter’s Tale and Henry V at the Black Box Theatre during the week of July 24 to July 28. Details of schedule and performance times can be obtained from www.galwayartsfestival.com

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