The Shakespeare Institute Library is extremely fortunate to have amongst its actors’ script archive Samuel West’s scripts. His collection covers his work as both actor and director of Shakespeare and other work. It is wonderful to be able to promote the research possibilities of this script collection. This exhibition features just some of Samuel’s treasured material.
Samuel West was born in London on June 19, 1966, the son of the actors Prunella Scales and Timothy West. It was perhaps inevitable that he would follow them on to the stage, since both his parents have had successful acting careers and even his grandparents Lockwood West and Olive Carleton-Crowe were also actors.
Though Sam West claims that he and his parents do not constitute a ‘family firm’ of actors, the three have appeared together on several occasions. West’s portrayal of Prince Hal in 1996 was opposite his father, Timothy, as Falstaff; they played the same character at different ages in the film Iris, and all the family took part in a reading of Pinter’s play Family Voices. He records that when he told his parents that he wanted to be an actor, they replied ‘Be a plumber.’
West ignored the advice and went on to win a number of awards, act and direct in every medium, and is now one of our most highly regarded Shakespearean actors.
He made his London stage debut in 1989 playing Michael in Cocteau’s Les Parents Terribles which drew positive critical comment. Early Shakespearean roles included Prince Hal for the English Touring Theatre’s production of both parts of Henry IV, and Octavius Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre.
In the first of his two seasons with the RSC he undertook the title role in Richard II in Steven Pimlott’s production of 2000. West’s account of planning the production describes how the company saw the play as a chronicle but also a fable, not so much about a king holding on to power as an individual trying to come to terms with mortality. The play was designed with minimal set and props, blue and white lighting that contrasted with darkness, and costumes which evoked the shadows cast on the set.
West has written about the “ammo box” which began life as the base of his throne, became the mirror Richard “crack’d in a hundred shivers” and finally ended as Richard’s coffin.
Reviews were enthusiastic; “A Richard to remember” wrote the critic Dominic Cavendish. In a bold stroke, the soliloquy at Pomfret – “I have been studying how I may compare/ This prison where I live unto the world”- was repeated by Richard’s rival and his queen: the king’s loss of identity a universal condition, not an individual insight. The rehearsal discussions had clearly born fruit.
In 2001, again directed by Pimlott, West played Hamlet. He appeared at first as the typical young student, dressed in jeans and leather jacket, but was soon revealed as clever, able to see through other people’s rhetoric, yet aware of his own powerlessness. West’s performance was set in a highly political world where individual conscience is stifled by power without morality and was generally described as “brilliant.”
Whilst working on Hamlet, West produced three notebooks and one very heavily annotated script. The notebooks cover his initial thoughts and ‘homework’ on the play; his rehearsal process; and fine-tuning of his performance in previews. Evidently a cerebral actor, West’s rehearsal notebook goes into great detail on Hamlet’s relationships with other characters as well as discussing major themes in the play. His ‘reading list’ includes sources as diverse as The Spanish Tragedy, Festen, Fight Club and Batman.
The production featured many memorable bits of staging which are not referred to in the original script, for example in the Ghost scene the phantom held his son close to him in their shared distress, and before Hamlet is sent to England he kissed Claudius squarely on the lips.
Combined with the notebooks, West’s script is a revelation as to how this actor deciphered one of Shakespeare’s most challenging roles.
From 2005–7 West was artistic director of Sheffield Crucible Theatre. As a passionately political man with strong left-wing beliefs, he believed that theatre was a strong vehicle for airing vital issues and making people think. Accordingly, he revived and directed the controversial The Romans in Britain and also directed As You Like It.
West’s As You Like It, which was also performed on the Swan stage in Stratford in 2007, played with ideas of the fluidity of identity with a collection of hats sprouting from the stage to be tried on by the company. The cast included Eve Best, Lisa Dillon and Sam Troughton. Reviews praised Best for “showing all the symptoms of a sparkling wit with a gnawing need inside” and for her “radiant emotional intelligence”.
Starting the play with ‘All the world’s a stage’ as a framing device was “subtly magical” but while Michael Billington called it “an eye-opening As You Like It” others thought it “laboured” and “too earnest” and Charles Spencer thought the approach “a load of old bollocks”.
There was praise for West’s leadership of the Sheffield Theatres – both for his choice of plays and his ability to attract actors to the venue and this, his farewell production, “makes one wish he were staying longer.”
West has also appeared in a variety of films including Notting Hill, Hyde Park on Hudson and Darkest Hour but was in the role of Leonard Bast in E.M. Forster’s Howards End in 1991 that he made his name. Bast signals the arrival of the urban white-collar worker in British society, a role that could have been tailor-made for the politically aware West. He plays him as a tragic hero whose dreams of a higher form of existence are in contrast to the spiritual inertia of an office job. He received a nomination for the role at the 1993 BAFTA Film Awards. West was also cast as the colourless and emotionally sterile St. John Rivers in Zeffirelli’s 1996 Jane Eyre, and was praised for his portrayal of the character in an otherwise not highly rated production.
On television, West has had leading roles including Anthony Blunt in Cambridge Spies, a BBC drama about Kim Philby and his associates. In ITV’s 2011 Eternal Law he played Zak Gist, one of two angels who have fallen to earth in order to serve Humankind. The mix of fantasy and legal satire appeared initially to be an intriguing and promising, but critics found it too absurd to take seriously, particularly when West and his colleague appeared with huge white wings sprouting from their backs. Appearances in long-running series, such as Midsomer Murders, Poirot, Mr Selfridge and Grantchester, made West a familiar face on-screen and his prolific work on radio and as a voice artist for audiobooks and documentary narrations make his an instantly recognizable voice.
He is a long-time collaborator with the Shakespeare Institute and has a personal connection to the place. One of West’s earliest Shakespearean roles was Florizel in a 1985 Oxford Playhouse production of The Winter’s Tale in which Michael Dobson, our current Director, played Time ( …and claims to have upstaged him).
In 2016, as part of the birthday celebrations also marking 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Samuel West, as Garrick, narrated the actor-manager-playwright’s 1769 Jubilee Ode at Holy Trinity Church giving it its first full-scale performance since the eighteenth century.
Samuel West generously donated his script collection to the Shakespeare Institute Library in 2012 and our students have already mined the scripts for course work, theses and dissertations. 2014 saw West receive an honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Birmingham.