When actor Christopher Ravenscroft last played the leading role of Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, he did it in a rather unusual fashion - on crutches. It just so happened that Ravenscroft had only previously been in the famed Royal Shakespeare Company production of Richard III in which one-time Liverpool Everyman actor Anthony Sher played that leading role on crutches. Sher’s interpretation was a revelation as he stormed around the stage, swinging his body from place to place.
Ravenscroft is quick to point out that his interpretation of Prospero was not a copycat version, just a dire necessity. “I tore a calf muscle just two days before it opened, so I had to play it on crutches,” he reports. “It was rather interesting as it was a physical manifestation of the character’s psychological damage. It also gives you a particular quality being on crutches, and you can move very fast.”
Now Ravenscroft is returning to not only the role but the theatre where he carved out the early part of his career, the Liverpool Playhouse.
The actor, probably still best known for his role as Chief Inspector Wexford’s sidekick Inspector Mike Burden in the long-running Ruth Rendell Mysteries television series, was in the Playhouse’s repertory company in the early 1970s where his wife Caroline Smith was associate director.
He had been born in Hampstead, where he was often the star of the school play. He was, by all accounts, an excellent 17-year-old Macbeth. “Did I pull it off? Well, no one complained.” He had been inspired by a teacher who produced the plays. “I owe him something for his enthusiasm and the chances he gave me. It’s hard to tell at this distance how good the productions were, but I think they were fine.”
He went to London University to study law, where he did some more theatre and soon made the choice that he would rather be an actor than a lawyer. So it was off to Bristol Old Vic School and a life of theatre. He did a bit at Salisbury, worked on the fringe, appeared with the touring company Shared Experience and finally arrived at the Playhouse for his first full season.
“It was an exciting time with the opening of the studio theatre with Alan Bleasdale’s first play, and we were doing plays like She Stoops to Conquer and Faustus. Opportunities were offered to a young actor then of a season, and you could play wonderful parts - not necessarily suited to you - but great to have a crack at. That’s something that does not happen now.”
Later Ravenscroft was to become a familiar television face and no more so than in the Ruth Rendell Mysteries based on the Inspector Wexford books by Ruth Rendell, which ran for many years from 1987 and are currently being repeated on ITV3.
“My character Detective Inspector Mike Burden was uptight but interesting to play because he did develop. He was in the novels, and in the course of the series, his first wife died, and he married again and mellowed. He became a different person, which was interesting for me. All the serialisations were based on the novels, which I read and based my performance on the character she wrote.”
Filming from February until October each year took up an awful lot of his time - the stories would tend to take two or three episodes to complete - but Ravenscroft found the whole experience delightful.
“We were a very happy crowd, all the actors got on very well, and we had a great time together. And it was always interesting with other actors coming along to play criminals and victims.”
He also spent some time with the Royal Shakespeare Company, where appearing in the 8½ hour-long Nicholas Nickleby, in both London and New York, was one of his personal highlights.
“It was an extraordinary experience, particularly when the play went on for a whole day. There was a great sense of community with the audience. It was also a very hot ticket in London and on Broadway. I was just lucky to be in it.”
The Tempest is his first time back on stage. His last Tempest was a minimalist one - the set was a circle of sand with a rope in the middle - but for the new Playhouse production, director Philip Franks has decided to set it on a deserted pier.
When we spoke, Ravenscroft had just been rehearsing the opening scene of the play usually set on an island commanded by the magical Prospero. At the stage we spoke, Ravenscroft was not sure how he would be attired - the director had spoken of the cast wearing clothes rather than costumes - but of one thing he was certain. “I will not be playing it as an old man with a white beard.”
He is, anyway, delighted to be back in the city where his career really began. “It has changed so much is now pedestrianised. But what strikes you still is what a great city this is with so many impressive buildings.”
Some autumn magic is coming our way with the Liverpool Playhouse’s production of The Tempest opening tonight
This was Shakespeare’s last play, and the leading role of Prospero, duke, magician, artist, and father, is attributed to the Bard’s final thoughts as he takes his leave of the theatre.
It carries a load, then, but shouldering it with relish is Christopher Ravenscroft, the veteran actor of stage and screen who will be familiar to many as Inspector Burden, Chief Inspector Wexford’s sidekick in the Ruth Rendell Mysteries, the TV series of the celebrated crime novels.
Now he is the main man, not the deputy, in a role about power play rather than detecting. So how does he see Prospero?
Said Ravenscroft: “He is a powerful magician, but to me, it’s the human side of the character that is the most important, his human dilemma that is the most interesting.”
“This is a very rich, packed play that has so many themes. But it all comes down to facing our innermost selves and making choices. That is what Prospero has to do.”
Shakespeare’s great, last play is set in a magical, beautiful and terrifying world of shipwrecks and storms, sounds and spirits, and the sea. It’s a remarkable study of betrayal, forgiveness and compassion.
On a deserted island, Prospero has lived in exile for 12 years with only his child, a spirit and a monster for company. He dreams of revenge on the men who put him there, and suddenly his opportunity has come.
Said Ravenscroft: “Chance has brought his enemies here to his island and the play is about how he deals with this opportunity to work out the past. Will it be crime and punishment, or crime and forgiveness?”
“Everyone who lands on the island is confronted with their true selves, and they have the chance to change or to go on being a villain. As with all Shakespeare, you personally take from it what you want.”
He describes The Tempest as an expression of many things, a love story, surreal magic, comedy, pathos, and the rawness of very real emotion. And, he adds, that there is the wonderful language.
Ravenscroft has played Prospero before, but 12 years ago, so it’s a distant memory. He comes to the role as new and now with considerable experience, including productions of Macbeth, Richard III and The Merchant of Venice with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He has also done Henry V on film.
Considerable television has taken him into the major soaps as well as Courtroom and Midsomer Murders. Other stage work has included Educating Rita, The Woman in Black and, most recently, the Tom Stoppard play The Invention of Love at Salisbury Playhouse. His role in that was the aged A.E. Houseman, a man blighted in love and repressed. So now he is Prospero, a man wronged and angry. Angst and more angst!
“Yes,” said Ravenscroft, “and I feel there is also something buttoned up about Prospero. He has a magician’s robe, but the production is set in the late 20th century, so I think he might have a suit and tie underneath.”