Awards season contender “The Imitation Game” is the latest opportunity for esteemed stage, TV and film thesp Charles Dance to make malevolence look utterly polished and tasteful. The Brit made his proper stage debut 40 years ago with the Royal Shakespeare Company, after sharing music-hall stages with several English vaudeville greats.
In 1976, you were touring America with the Royal Shakespeare Company and went on for Alan Howard in Brooklyn.
I was doing supporting roles in productions such as “Henry IV” and “Henry V” and Ben Kingsley’s “Hamlet” and was the understudy for Alan. I got the call at 4 in the afternoon that Alan had taken ill and I’d be performing (in “Henry V”) in his place. It scared the shit out of me.
How’d that turn out?
I got into the “Once more unto the breach” speech — the one everyone knows — and I went stone dead in the middle of it. My mouth went dry, no saliva, only air and adrenaline. All of the actors around me were trying to help, whispering lines at me and they were all the wrong lines! Eventually I found my way back.
When we asked you about your first time in Variety, you thought we meant the variety shows you once worked on.
In the early 1970s, before the RSC, I had worked in variety, which was our word for vaudeville or music hall.
We did “Toad of Toad Hall” and I played Badger. And I worked with one of the foremost male impersonators of all time, Hetty King, who was about 89. There was Fred Emney, who had a monocle and cigar, and Sandy Powell, who did a drunk ventriloquist act and the dummy’s limbs would fall off. And Leslie Sarony, who sang risque songs and played the ukulele.
And this prepared you for “Henry V”?
No, but I learned a lot at RSC from Ben Kingsley and especially Alan Howard. He had a way of speaking blank verse that really shined a light on every word. He treated each soliloquy as if it were an operatic aria. He had an extraordinary voice and he knew how to push it.
This sounds like that great training we always hear is in the background of great British actors.
It was a great time because — let’s face it — we all deal with the reality of many not so great scripts today. And that was when I learned to love Shakespeare, the greatest writer of all time. I had just begun to see the light of his work. I was on that train and it was taking me along and I had a great seat.