BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

28 October 2014

BBC Homepage

Contact Us

Robert Powell


Robert Powell currently plays nurse Mark Williams in Holby City. Over a long career, he's appeared in films such as The Italian Job and Tommy, and TV shows including Doomwatch and The Detectives. He's also played Jesus Christ in Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 miniseries, for which he received two Best Actor awards.

On top of all that, he's managed to fit in quite a bit of stage work, including Shakespeare. He spoke to us about performing, mutinous minions and how acting can protect your heart.

Why is acting something people should do?

It is hugely enjoyable to explore, legitimately, facets of your own personality that sometimes would be frowned upon. If you have a roguish streak inside you, or an angry streak, you can use it beautifully in your acting, and probably defuse it.

Most young people are still trying to find out who they are and get rather frustrated by the fact that there seem to be gaps. Well, you can use acting to try to fill them in. So if you are a very shy person who can't talk to girls, you can on stage become an extremely confident person who girls fall over themselves to try and get to know. You can pretend to be someone you're not, and in doing so you can find out who you actually are.

It's an extremely awkward age, from about twelve to sixteen or so, and acting can smooth that way wonderfully. You can get rid of a lot of frustration.

If you enjoy yourself, then the audience will enjoy themselves. It's not a punishment, it's a gloriously liberating experience, being on stage.
More about acting »

Robert PowellWhy is Shakespeare worth doing?

Young people obviously baulk at Shakespeare, and quite rightly too, it's bloody difficult. But most of the really interesting things in life are difficult. The harder something is to do, the more interesting it is to succeed in doing it, and the more exciting it is when you do succeed in doing it.

I think that Shakespeare is one of the most supremely glorious challenges for any young actor. It's so rewarding to go through the tunnel of discovery and come out of the other side and share your enlightenment with people who are listening to you.

It's real. Shakespeare is real, it is couched in a language that's not familiar to us, but that doesn't mean that you can't deliver it in exactly the same way that you'd deliver a speech from Coronation Street. You can do it in the same accent as Coronation Street, for goodness sake. Shakespeare is well worth the effort.
More about why Shakespeare's worthwhile »

What are your top acting tips?

If you're short sighted, don't wear your glasses! Don't look at the audience!

No, try and relax. Enjoy it. If you make a mistake, don't worry about it. The audience are almost as nervous as you are. They want you to succeed, they want you to be terrific. So if you panic, they panic with you.

If a mistake happens, if you drop something, if you forget your lines, as long as you don't mind, they won't mind. You let them off the hook by not minding that you've made a mistake.
More top tips »

What's your advice for getting over stage-fright?

I've been doing it professionally for over forty years, and on first nights I still want to be sick. There is absolutely nothing you can do about that, I'm afraid.

Just bite the bullet and do it. Use the adrenalin. The adrenalin has been worked out as equivalent to driving a car at a brick wall at 60 miles an hour deliberately - a Liverpool University study that said that. This is why actors live quite a long time, because they use adrenalin to open up their arteries - their hearts are very strong.
More about stage fright »

Robert PowellWhat's the one thing you should never do when on stage?

Don't laugh on stage. It's not funny to those who are watching.

Never ever disrespect your audience. You may be performing in a play for the 150th time, but the audience are seeing it for the first time, and that's what you have to remember. Every single time you go out on stage you have to try and do your utmost.
More things you should never do »

How do you get into a role?

Essentially what you do, and this is why most actors are so self-aware, is use elements of yourself. You take them and you just turn them through a few degrees - it's just another version of yourself.

We can all put on funny voices, and limps and wigs and false noses and so on. But at the end of the day, if it isn't you, it isn't believable. It's very interesting that a lot of the very technical actors, who are very good at disguising themselves, are not very successful on screen. You can admire the technique, but it doesn't actually involve you in whatever issue it is as an actor they're going through.

Somebody who is using far less technique, but is actually being the role, and using elements of themselves, will probably have greater access to emotion, and are more likely to move an audience.
More about taking on roles »

Robert PowellWhat advice can you give about performing Shakespeare?

The first thing I would say to anybody who's coming to Shakespeare not used to it, and is trying to make head or tail of it, is that I've been doing it all my life, and when I'm looking at a sonnet or a play or a speech, I don't understand it either. I really don't.

I have to go through it many times to work out exactly what it means. I have to look up words in the dictionary, I have to refer to the notes in the back for the scholars, and this takes time. It's tough - no professional actor will say that they see Shakespeare and it leaps off the page immediately in fire and meaning. It just doesn't.

But you do eventually work out exactly what it means. Then, when you start to speak it out loud, in the knowledge that you know what the meaning of the words is, it becomes a revelation. It all falls into place; the rhythm, the iambic pentameter, means that the way of speaking it becomes completely obvious.

Once you understand it and start to speak it as if you mean it, then you have to take those words say them to somebody who is hearing them for the very first time, and they have to understand immediately what they mean. As you are standing there on stage, they need an instant mental picture of the story that you're telling.
More about performing Shakespeare »

What have been your best and worst Shakespeare experiences?

Probably the worst experience was when I was doing Hamlet many years ago, on a huge stage. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were on a ramp up at the back of the stage, and I was delivering a fairly long and complicated speech, and had wandered down with them behind me, to the front of the stage.

One night I thought, "The audience aren't listening." Then it happened again the following night. I thought, "Why is it they're not listening to me?" I turned round, and found and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern larking around at the back of the stage.

So, and you can do this if you're playing a prince or a king, I ran, still speaking, up this circular ramp up to the back of the stage. I got hold of these two actors by the scruff of their necks and squeezed very hard, and delivered the rest of my speech holding onto their necks. And of course, as they were minions and I was the prince, they couldn't do anything about it. But they didn't fool around again!

The best of times is when you're delivering a soliloquy and you know that you have the audience in the palm of your hand. 11,000 people are all completely silent and waiting with bated breath for the next line to come. It's a tremendous power thing, being on stage, it really is. Much more than film.
More best and worst Shakespeare moments »

Robert PowellWhat's your favourite play and your favourite character?

I enjoy odd plays, I enjoy Midsummer Night's Dream, it's a beautiful play. King Lear is an extraordinary glorious play, and a very taxing story to have to live through.

I would like to play Prospero very much. I find something sad and lonely about him, and it's interesting to explore. Then, Iago is a wonderful part, where you can use all the things about your own personality that you don't like.
More actors' favourites »



Increase your naughty word power with our bardic insult generator
Find out more »


Video Nation - short films from schools involved in One Night of Shakespeare.
  • Birmingham
  • Newcastle
  • Gloucester

  • Cast Workshops

  • Director Workshops

  • Why Shakespeare?


    BBC New Talent BBC New Talent is delighted to support One Night of Shakespeare - sharing our expertise in running national auditions and workshops.

    We're about finding raw talent - not looking for formal qualifications.

    Whatever your passion , BBC New Talent is your chance to shine. Find out more »

    Related Links

    About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy