Spotlight: Scott Sparrow's West End acting journey to King Lear

October 23, 2018

Zimbabwean born actor, Scott Sparrow, has had a good year on the West End, with his name on the billing for Glengarry Glen Ross (which saw Christian Slater in the lead) and King Lear (with Sir Ian McKellan in the title role). Though now settled in London, Capetonians still like to claim Sparrow as one of our theatre industry’s own, especially those who fondly remember his work with The Mechanicals (Buried Child, Zoo Story, and Decadence), his one-man-show Performers Travel Guide, and most recently his 2016 performance in Clybourne Park at the Fugard Theatre. After seeing the NT Live screening of King Lear  in London —soon to be screened in South Africa from 27 October 2018— we caught up with Sparrow to hear all about his Londontown adventures.


Having seen Sparrow grow and establish himself in Cape Town over the years —with quite a few Fleur du Cap nominations too— we start talking about his adjustment to the London theatre scene. Perhaps sensing the fear that we may be losing him to London, Sparrow confirms that he’ll always regard himself as ‘a little bit Capetonian’.


‘There wasn’t too much agenda in’ making the jump from Cape Town to London, he elaborates, ‘apart from just wanting the experience more theatre’. Listening to him unpack his journey and what informed his decision to move, it’s clear that Sparrow is an actor who believes in learning through experiences and never taking his craft for granted.

‘London’s got a huge theatre world that I wanted to at least be an audience to. Part of me always believed that I would never actually get work here, so I was going, “I’ll try and get work, but that’s probably not going to happen, so let me just go and experience the theatre”. I also had nothing to reference the work that we were doing in South Africa to —not that you have to compare it— and I wanted to experience the different types of theatre that’s being made. But there was never a solid plan that inspired the move from Cape Town to London; it was more a go-and-see-what-happens approach.’


Even with such an open-mind, and no expectation that the West End would welcome and accept him, the very realistic Sparrow admits that his first few years in London were not easy at all.


‘When I first got here it was a bit of a slap in the face. I was very homesick —funny enough, I was homesick for Zimbabwe first. It took almost two years before I got any work. I was completely unknown here, and I had to start again in terms of every single job: every single temp job, bar job, anything I could get my hands on. It really was humbling and there was a part of me that at one stage believed this was it —I was an actor and this is where I stop being an actor— and something just broke.’


Sparrow explains that part of the survival challenge then was coping with the fact that ‘you’ll have lots of periods of, for lack of a better word, despair, where you ask, “How am I going to explain to people that I’m not an actor? How do I explain to myself that I’m not an actor?”, and trying to find a positive reason to just keep going. I never had to question my purpose and identity in Cape Town. That reality can kind of reset the computer a little bit.’


While recalling these overwhelming times, Sparrow’s tone still reveals an ever hopeful spirit, as one would expect from someone who truly loves theatre. Perhaps, even while feeling broken, it’s that inherent hope that kept him going when it looked like his dreams were slipping away.

Commenting on the follow-up statement that this is then perhaps all part of his origin story, as far as his London-based acting career is concerned, Sparrow reflects, ‘Yeah, you fall down a little bit’. ‘I know that sounds a bit self-righteous,’ he qualifies, ‘but I think it’s important for actors to identify themselves as actors, to be able to say, “I am an actor!”, whether or not you are getting work.’


Self-doubt, he says, is one of the demons hounding you when you are struggling to find work. ‘When you go for a long stretch with no work you start to question what does it take to be an actor (without all the thrills and the #ActingLife posts) and you have to try and figure out what it is that you’re doing.’


And what would Sparrow say that defining ‘it’ is?


‘The back to basics stuff’, he breaks it down. ‘You go to an audition and accept that your job is to try and make the text work: You try and get in the writer’s head through the words and behave in the way the writer indicates, and then focus on making other people believe that interpretation.’


Investing in that process, repeatedly, Sparrow believes is the key to being able to say that one is an actor by profession. Accolades are nice, but ultimately it’s about getting to be part of the industry by committing to and working hard at every opportunity and role offered. ‘To keep working on that process is the biggest achievement for any actor: To get work and to be paid to pretend to be someone else. That’s the biggest achievement, because it’s the hardest thing for an actor to do, to make a career out of it.’


Taking this approach and focussing on his own development by fully embracing every opportunity that came his way ultimately paid off, as it got him cast as the understudy to Christian Slater as Ricky Roma in David Mamet’s masterful Glengarry Glen Ross.


‘Since I’ve come to London 2018 has been my best run,’ Sparrow agrees. ‘Just before Glengarry Glen Ross I didn’t have any work, I wasn’t sure what to do, and it just came at the right time. It’s been nice for the first time to simply focus on acting and not have to do other kinds of stuff in between’.


Apart from loving the job, Sparrow says he also loves engaging with wordy plays and the challenges that come with that. The theatre fates seem to have picked up on this aspect of his thespian character, because wordier than a Mamet is hard to find, even as an understudy.


‘I was making sure that I knew every detail of that script, because if you have to go on all of a sudden; you’re not necessarily going to be able to pull up words quickly, unless you know them like the back of your hand. So, I wanted to know where every single comma was, even where and why Mamet used italics. I was going through the text every night while the main cast was onstage to get to know it almost like a musical score, so that if I got lost I could easily, and instinctively, pull back to where I needed to be. It would have been interesting had I done King Lear first, because I think the way that Shakespeare asks you to perform his lines makes you so aware of how important it is to ask what the author is suggesting a character’s actions should be.’

Coming back to King Lear —to be screened in South Africa as part of the NT Live offerings while it is still onstage on the West End— we start talking about how this staging retains a traditional Shakespearean character in verse and rhyme, while still remaining current-day pleasing to the ear. 


Having had the privilege of seeing this Jonathan Munby directed version twice now, I can attest that it kept me spellbound. Here and there, you’ll find a modernisation in the clothing design, choice of weapons, fight scenes, and even hearing a car-horn, but none of that detracts from the feeling that you are watching a King Lear the Bard himself would approve of. This production completely draws you in and captivates, because it is clear that the creative team and cast have laboured over every word, image, and nuance. They've taken nothing for granted, so you don’t have to fear any of the performers ever phoning it in in this play.


Sparrow shares that a big part of why the cast connects with the audience so well is that they immersed themselves in the text from the beginning —both out of respect for Shakespeare’s vision and the audience to whom they relate it. 


‘The main cast members were very much all about the words [in rehearsals]. Contemplating what it all means. Going back and going through the text with a fine-tooth comb. Asking questions like, “Why is Lear saying that?", "What is Shakespeare trying to say?", "How would you say this in your own English? Ok, now we make even more sense of it…”. It’s good old fashioned drudgery, over and over again, until you know what you’re saying.’

That commitment to the text translates perfectly to the stage in what has, very deservedly, been hailed a five star production of King Lear. The Evening Standard applauded Munby’s vision as ‘clear-sighted rather than radical’ in using ‘uncomfortably visceral ways to embody the play’s imagery of a society plunged into chaos’, while the Telegragh calls McKellan’s Lear performance a ‘triumph’.


Sparrow agrees that McKellan has put heart and soul into his Lear, truly engaging with the text, because he wants to translate the enjoyment of the performance without making the audience see any of the effort behind it —a true theatre legend.


‘What Ian [McKellan] pointed out when he spoke to the audience that one day [when he did a Q&A],’ Sparrow elaborates, ‘is that the audience are primarily receiving audio —the audience as in audio— so, for them to hear the words first is what brings them into the play. For him the words are always very important. The main cast members are constantly going back to make sure that they know the words, that they know what they’re saying, and trying to figure out fresh ways to keep it alive.’

By the sounds of it, this King Lear cast never really regard themselves as done with rehearsals, and that enhances the performance experience as offered to the audience. That commitment to keeping it fresh, along with the fantastic direction by Munby and Paul Will’s exquisite design, has made the play a West End hit. There is all-round dedication by all involved to make every aspect of this production brilliant —nothing, no movement nor line, is executed without clear consideration and understanding of intent.


So, has Sparrow’s move to London (with all the hardships, self-doubt, and emotional resets) been worth it, seeing that he is now standing onstage next to actors of the calibre of Sir Ian McKellan?

‘I can’t attach a moral thing to it, whether it’s good or not,’ he humbly comments on his journey to date. ‘I think everything that came before 2018 definitely shook things up, and it’s so nice once you’ve thought that you’ve completely missed the boat and failed to then be given a chance to jump on things again. It makes me focus on just trying to do the best that I can with every opportunity I get, just in case I stop being an actor after this again.’


You can see Sparrow as Albany’s Man in the Jonathan Munby directed King Lear (with Sir Ian McKellan in the title role) at Cinema Nouveau (V&A Waterfront) from 27 October 2018 for a limited four screenings until 1 November. Book online through Ster-Kinekor to see this contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s tender, violent, moving and shocking play.






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