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Interview with Clive Rowe

London Calling asks London’s best Dame Clive Rowe about his new role in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Hackney Empire.

Clive Rowe is the only actor to be nominated for an Olivier Award for playing a pantomime dame. This Christmas he is taking up the frock once more in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Hackney Empire. London Calling asked him some questions about panto and theatre.

London Calling: You went to drama school in London. How would you describe your relationship with the city?

Clive Rowe: Wow, that’s a big question. I love London. I know it’s an old saying but there’s always something to do, so much so that when you live here you end up not actually doing much! But the great thing about London is the little pockets of culture, like Hackney, which has its panto and its great community. Of course there’s also the West End with its brilliant theatres and thriving tourism but to also have areas like Hackney which are so community based but not exclusive, that remind you that those surrounding you are the most important, is what makes London what it is.

LC: This is your third Jack and the Beanstalk for Susie McKenna at the Hackney Empire. Have they been different every time?

CR: They are different every time. One thing about Susie’s work is it always stays current in a traditional setting. This time, without giving too much away, the giant is a mad inventor and it’s all quite mechanical. Susie has also focused on ideas against bullying this year. When we first did Jack and the Beanstalk, there was this character Silly Billy, he was slightly less quick witted than the rest of the people on stage. This time however, this character is called Clumsy Colin and he’s incredibly gifted in different ways. We all have our own areas where we are gifted or where we struggle and that’s at the heart of everyone’s journey.

LC: What is your favourite panto memory?

CR: That’s really difficult because there are so many! If I was to go for the obvious one, I would have to say when I was nominated for the Olivier award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre for Mother Goose in 2009. Being nominated for the role of a dame was wonderful, not just about me being nominated which obviously was great, but the idea that a Panto Dame had been noted by the Olivier’s - which was brilliant and how it should always be and not just once in a blue moon.

LC: Pantomimes always have a topical element - what targets can we expect this time round?

CR: As I said previously, ideas about bullying. Also, Susie writes for the age of 5 to 105 and her target is to create a production that gets the whole family together, which is rare in theatre at the moment. What Susie and the Hackney Empire create is a family experience that stays with them for the rest of their lives so they come back again and again. For a mother to say to her 13 year old, who last went to the panto when they were 7, Do you want to come? And for them to say yes, rather than spending their time on their I-pad or phone - for them to want to spend the evening with family, is essentially what Susie and Hackney Empire is trying to achieve.

LC: As well as the explicit references to current events, what do you think the story of Jack and the Beanstalk tells us about ourselves?

CR: I’m probably not the best person to answer this - haha! I believe it tells us to never truly to grow up! And not to shy away from hard tasks, not to take the easy option, as although it may be the easiest, it’s not always the best.

LC: Do you think there are a lot of pretentious attitudes around theatre?

CR: There are a lot of pretentious attitudes in life and who am I to stay what is being pretentious? There is a feeling in some people, and by that I certainly don’t mean everyone, that panto is a secondary form.  It’s not for everyone. Everyone has their own taste: some like theatre, some don’t, some like opera, some don’t, some like pantomimes, and some don’t. The idea with theatre is to come to an environment that you enjoy. All theatre has truth, from Theatre in Education to panto to Shakespeare, and Susie creates that truth on stage with each pantomime.

LC: In a National Theatre Platform a couple of years ago you stated a preference for ‘transcending what is real’ rather than ‘portraying what is real’. What is the most transcendent experience you have had as an actor?

CR: I suppose if I had to choose anything, it would be performing The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus by Tony Harrison in Delphi Stadium in Greece. The production was fragments of plays by Sophocles that Tony Harrison put together. It was later performed at the National Theatre. On the first technical rehearsal, there was a massive wind that blew the set down and we couldn’t rehearse. This meant that the first time the play had been performed in front of the Greeks was the first time we had performed it ourselves.

LC: Is there a dark side to panto?

CR: There is of course a dark side to panto because there are always baddies and you can’t have a baddie without a dark side. But most of the time the baddies become good. Goodness transcends badness.

LC: Pantos are unusual in that they are always rewritten and yet they are always the same. Does this mean we don’t need brand new pantomimes?

CR: We always need to create and re-create but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. People love the traditional pantomimes and I don’t think we need to disregard that tradition. If someone came up with a new idea for a pantomime that worked, then that would be great but we shouldn’t step away from Jack and the Beanstalk, Aladdin or Mother Goose. You wouldn’t get rid of the Mona Lisa just because someone painted another picture of a woman smiling?

Jack and the Beanstalk opens at the Hackney Empire on Saturday 21 November 2015. For more information and to book tickets, see website.