Rhys’ piece

Rhys’ piece

Much of the attention that Anonymous has drawn before its release has come from literary scholars aghast at the film’s contention that William Shakespeare didn’t actually write the plays attributed to him.

And certainly, there’s plenty to quibble with in the scholarship of Anonymous, which treats a thoroughly controversial theory as gospel, and then inflates Shakespeare’s plays into political propaganda crucial to a plot to seize the throne of England. (Even in an Elizabethan-era drama about the theatre, director Roland Emmerich, the auteur of destruction best known for the likes of Independence Day and 2012, likes his stakes to be high.)

But the complaints about history aside, Anonymous is also tremendous good fun, a crackling story well told by a director who’s stopped blowing stuff up long enough to be provocative and entertaining.

And as the Earl of Oxford, a nobleman whose desire to write is stifled by his position in the aristocracy, actor Rhys Ifans is a revelation. The Welsh actor — probably best known as Hugh Grant’s dopey exhibitionist roommate in Notting Hill — is subtly tortured and marvellously understated, and just about unrecognisable from any of his previous roles.

There was never a moment watching Anonymous when we could associate the person we were seeing onscreen with what we’d seen of you in any other movie. To you, did it feel dramatically different from anything else you’d done?

It did. It’ll probably take me a few interviews to discover how to talk about it, but really, in terms of transformation, I don’t think I’ve ever done anything so all-consuming. And I guess that’s a combination of many factors.

For instance?

Of course the period and the costume and all these things came into play, but it was also largely that I was given an opportunity by Roland to play a part that I would not necessarily have been cast in. And as a result, it was all-consuming.

Was it daunting to tackle something so different?

No, it wasn’t daunting. It was a relief. When I went to meet Roland at his beautiful house in London, he asked me which part I would like to play. And I suggested to him that the natural casting for me would be Shakespeare. That would have been a walk in the park. But I was cheeky enough and brave enough to suggest to Roland that maybe I’d like to play the Earl himself. And, thankfully, it worked out.

Why did you want to play Oxford?

I just connected with him. There’s a pathos to Oxford that I really connected with, and a loneliness, and a poetry which kind of sang to me.

Did you have to sell Roland on the prospect?

No. (pause) Well, yes, I did. I read for him in London, and we did a screen test in Berlin a few weeks later.

For much of the film, your voice barely rises above a whisper. Why?

I think I just connected with a man who had a lot to say, but could never be heard. (sighs) This is very difficult to explain. The whisper, I think, arrived from a man being in a climate of secrecy, which the Elizabethan court was. I always imagined that court to be a place of whispers and secrecy and of danger. And I think the timbre of my voice reflects those vast, echoey spaces.

Did you make any attempt to be accurate to the real Edward DeVere?

No, no. I just wore the costume and it kind of took care of itself. Those costumes do give you a different sense of spatial awareness, all those cloaks and those ruffs. You move differently. It’s a physical effect, as opposed to an intellectual one. The whole movie, for me, felt like a dance.

Those costumes are certainly a different look for somebody who’s best known for answering the door in his underwear in Notting Hill.

Yeah, a huge difference. Huge. It was just nice to be fully clothed, for once.

Going into this film, did you have an opinion as to the authorship of Shakespeare’s works?

Yes, I did. I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare onstage, and I’m not convinced that the Earl of Oxford was the author of all those works, but I am convinced that the Stratfordian William Shakespeare was not. My feeling is that it was an amalgamation of many writers, in the same way that most films are a collaborative endeavour. And I think the plays certainly were that. I think the film is important, or the question the film raises is important, because it puts the plays in a very specific historical context. And it just opens a healthy can of worms. As I describe it, it puts a spanner in the Complete Works.

What were your early experiences with Shakespeare like?

I went to the Guildford School of Music and Drama, which was affiliated with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was lucky enough to be taught by a beautiful, wonderful teacher called Patsy Rodenburg, who works a lot with the Royal Shakespeare Company as a voice coach and technician. And I remember a mome

nt in drama school where I was working on a speech from Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York; / And all the clouds have low’r’d upon our house / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”

When I was taught Shakespeare in school, it was such an alien, sanitised puzzle, it made no sense. And suddenly, just in this one session, I spoke the words, and it moved me so deeply and opened me up so much as an actor. The sense of how words can liberate the body. That might sound highfalutin, but it really did. I remember that moment very clearly. And what moves me about this part is a man’s intimate relationship with words, and how words and language can keep you company. That’s what I think I found in Oxford. Reuters

Playing it: Rafe

Rafe Spall tells us what it was like to become Shakespeare

For young Englishman Rafe Spall, Anonymous offers the role of a lifetime. Not only does the 28-year-old London-born actor get to tackle the role of the most famous playwright of all time, William Shakespeare, he also gets to infuse the character with a sense of moral dubiousness, and a wild audacity.

“In our story, William Shakespeare is a young actor who ends up taking on the canon of work and taking all the glory and credit for it without actually writing it,” begins Spall. “The fame really goes to his head and he goes off the rails somewhat.”

Discussions have long raged over the authorship of the work attributed to William Shakespeare and Anonymous, directed by Roland Emmerich, employs as its backdrop the ‘Oxfordian theory’, which ascribes the work to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, played by Rhys Ifans.

“At the time, it was a low profession to be a playwright so you couldn’t be a lord and write plays,” explains Spall, “so, through a series of circumstances, it falls to my character — a womanising, swaggering young actor — to claim authorship.

“It’s an awesome part,” he continues. “Our version of Shakespeare is a chancer and he wins the lottery because he becomes rich and famous, which is what all young actors want!”

In fact, Spall’s bid to win the part of the famous Bard saw him commit his own words to paper. “I found out that the part possibly wasn’t going to go my way so I wrote a letter to Roland Emmerich. It paid off and he gave me a chance.”

Spall has harboured ambitions of acting ever since he can remember, and he grew up watching his father, Timothy Spall (who appeared in The King’s Speech and six of the eight Harry Potter films), on television. “As long as I knew I was going to do anything in life it was being an actor,” he says. “It took me a long time to admit it, though, because I was a bit embarrassed about admitting it to my dad.”

He has since gone on to feature in a number of West End stage productions (including Michael Grandage’s production of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman) and TV shows (including Hugo Blick’s The Shadow Line and Channel 4’s Pete Versus Life), and has appeared in films including Hot Fuzz, A Good Year and Green Street. Earlier this year he appeared in One Day (alongside Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess) and is currently working on Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (set for release in 2012).

He says that his experience on Anonymous, however, tops them all. “Making this film was one of the best experiences of my life. It was my first really big-budget film and you could feel it – they built The Globe Theatre in Berlin and burned it down, and we were doing scenes with 800 extras, which I’ve never done before. It was extraordinary.”

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