Accrington-born Jonathan Slinger on playing Hamlet for the RSC
- Credit: Keith Pattison
Lancashire actor Jonathan Slinger hated school but he is using the experience to help his portrayal of Hamlet, as Paul Mackenzie reports.
There will be a special face in the audience one night this month for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet. Jean Willis was the speech and drama teacher for Accrington-born Jonathan Slinger, who will be appearing in the title role.
Jean, who has taught in Great Harwood for more than 40 years, gave Jonathan his first lesson when he was just three-years-old.
‘His two older sisters used to come to me,’ Jean said. ‘Jonathan would say “It’s not fair, why can they go and I can’t?” but his mum told him he was too young. His reply was that he was very sensible and should be allowed to go.
‘And he was an absolute angel. He adored it from the moment he came in the room. He did the exams each year and it was obviously something that came very easily to him. I remember some incidents when he had difficulty with a certain thing and he would strive so hard to get it right and to pursue excellence. It is such a reward for me to see him where he is now. I am so very proud of him, but then I’m proud of all the people I have taught over the years.’
Jonathan has clear and fond memories of his time with Jean. ‘She became known as Auntie Jean,’ he said. ‘We’re still very much in touch and she is a firm family friend.’
His family – dad Thomas, mum Judith and his two older sisters (his brother came along later) – moved from Accrington to Great Harwood as a very young child and his earliest stage performances were with the Accrington Amateurs who specialised in musicals. He also joined the Oswaldtwistle Players, a breakaway group who put on plays and where Jonathan won a NODA for his role in The Importance of Being Earnest.
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‘My dad was president of the Accy Amateurs for more than 30 years,’ Jonathan said. ‘I used to perform there and I remember seeing him on stage. I think we were in a show together once too. I’ve loved musicals ever since those days.’
He has made his name, though, in straight theatre and added: ‘As soon as I started I got seriously interested and I have never considered doing anything else but in spite of that, the possibility that I could do it full time came later. I suppose maybe it was a confidence thing.
‘A lot of my contemporaries wanted to emulate the big name screen actors but I was always drawn to classical theatre. I love theatre. I don’t think I will ever lose that love. There’s nothing that compares with the buzz of doing something live. My parents were always very theatre minded and I loved going to the Royal Exchange in Manchester. It was very avante garde and powerful and I found it very exciting. Those experiences for me were seminal.’
Jonathan attended Blackburn’s Queen Elizabeth Grammar School but said: ‘I hated school. At that time it was very much a sport and science school and if you were good at those things then it was a place that chimed with you, but I wasn’t. I loved doing the plays that came up though.
‘After school I wanted to just go to drama school but my parents were a bit scared of that and they said I should get a degree and have something to fall back on. I let them convince me and I did have a place at university but I didn’t get the grades.
‘I didn’t set out to wilfully fail but I always had a sense that a lot of what I was being taught I wouldn’t need. There was always a little glimmer of hope within me that I would be able to do what I knew I wanted to do without any of this stuff I found difficult.
‘My parents agreed that I would take a year off and that during that time I could apply to drama schools. I did all sorts of jobs – I was working in my dad’s meat factory, humping boxes of frozen meat around, when I got the call to say I’d got in to Rada.
‘It was announced over the Tannoy that I’d got a call from my mum and all the other lads were teasing me. She told me I’d got the place at Rada and I was aware of the way two worlds were colliding. I had actually got in to everywhere I applied to and Rada were the last to offer me a place.’
Since leaving Rada Jonathan has appeared in films and in television and radio dramas but most notably on the stage. He has become a key figure at the Royal Shakespeare Company where he has played Richard II and Richard III, Macbeth, Prospero and Molvolio. But surely Hamlet is a different prospect?
‘I approach every character in the same way: by trying to find something about them that I relate to. Hamlet is the ultimate outsider and I can relate to that because I felt an outsider at school.
‘The challenge with Hamlet, I think, is trying to deliver everything that people expect – to show as many different sides of Hamlet as I can, and to make it hard for people to pigeon hole this portrayal as one kind of Hamlet or another. That’s not something I think I have achieved yet, but the joy of having a long run is that it can be refined. Hamlet is infinitely mineable.’
* Hamlet runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford until September 28 and Jonathan will also appear in All’s Well That Ends Well which runs from July 19-September 26. For tickets go to www.rsc.org.uk or call 0844 800 1110.