An Actor's Life: Stephen Boxer

An Actor's Life: Stephen Boxer

Friday, 3 October 2014

Stephen Boxer talks about the similarities between himself and Dr. Rivers as well as some of the more memorable moments of touring during his extensive career. 

How do you approach playing a character that was a real-life person? What research did you do?

Primarily, the books. Pat Barker's research was so extensive, and Rivers' character in all it's contradictions (I'm always looking for these - they are the key to 'real-life people') so vividly drawn, they gave me a rich source from which to draw.

Then there are his written works, for example 'The Repression of War Experience' written at the time of the play in 1917 which gives you an insight into his ideas on psychiatry. Then a lecture by a current Cambridge psychologist Paul Whittle, reviving his memory for 21st Century practitioners who may have forgotten him. And the testimony of a nurse who worked with him at the time who described him as both angry and compassionate (contradiction once more).

These background stories don't necessarily find their way into the play, but they can inform the manner and the confidence with which you tell the story of the play, which is, after all, what we're here for.

How difficult is it playing a character with a stammer? Does it make getting into the role easier or was it a hindrance?

I discovered in research that he stammered chiefly on 'f's and 'm's. I realised I'd have to ration the amount of stammering (or the play would go on till midnight!) so I selected a few possibilities in each scene. Having done that it was very difficult at first implementing the stammer whilst trying to remember the lines, because it would break your train of thought. However once the lines were embedded, it became possible to occasionally change where I stammered, which now keeps it fresh and alive.

What has been the most rewarding part of playing Dr Rivers?

Part of the fun of acting is playing people more dangerous, more disturbed, more daring, or, in this case, wiser and more effective in the world than you are! And if a few more people know about him than before, then I'll have made a small contribution to the store of the world's knowledge.



You are an established Shakespearean actor with the RSC, what is your pre-show warm up routine to get you through the big speeches?

I look at my body and voice as an instrument - of communication - physical and emotional. It's important to be articulate, quick-thinking and responsive. So I do a number of physical exercises, some rooted in yoga, some in Laban (a dance form), some in P.E. Then I get my lungs going with breathing exercises. Breath is what's pushing the words out that are telling the story, and also giving oxygen to the brain so that you can be 'in the moment' as much as possible. And finally, articulation exercises to make the tongue and lips and jaw as flexible as possible. I use tongue twisters (like 'Red lorry, yellow lorry' etc.) and favourite speeches that I've collected from plays I've been in over the last 50 (my God is it that long?) years. Then I feel I'm a clean sheet of paper on which I can write the play anew each night.

Edinburgh is the home of Craiglockhart, how do you feel about visiting the original building whilst playing at the King’s theatre?

I really look forward to visiting Craiglockhart. During our rehearsal, we all drew speculative ground maps of what we thought it might be like. It will be interesting to see who was closest!

Do you have any special memories of Scotland?

I spent a lot of time in Scotland in the 70's with Paines Plough Theatre Company of which I was  founder member. Playing Philip Heseltine in Music to Murder by in Ard Fern on the West Coast with a temperature of 104 sustained by hot toddies is one memory. Playing the Festival in a basement in the Lothian Road, or a weird night club in Market St at 10 in the morning, or the wonderful Traverse in Grassmarket are all etched on my memory. Trying to find somewhere to get a drink on Sunday was another great pastime.

If you were on a stuck on a desert island, which Regeneration cast member would you take with you and why?!

What an appallingly divisive question! I'd take Lindy's dog Cheetah. She could go and catch a rabbit or two for me for supper.

Where are you most looking forward to playing at during the Regeneration tour?

Edinburgh's on the list - I've got some good old friends here. Richmond I can go home every night so that's good too. And when I'm in Cheltenham I'll stay with my oldest friend in Tewkesbury. One of the advantages of touring is it's is a good way to catch up with friends outside London.

How similar are you to Dr Rivers? 

Only in my dreams. He was by all accounts an extraordinary man. It's a privilege to access his intelligence and compassion, but sadly, I shall never own them in their entirety!

Why do you think people should come and see Regeneration?

All the best plays speak outside their time. War is always with us. Dealing with the trauma of war will likewise always be with us. I particularly like the subtextual thesis in this play which propounds the curative and eternal power of words and poetry.


Regeneration premiered on 2 September 2014 (previews from 29 August) at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, where it continues until 20 September 2014. It then tours to York, Edinburgh, Bradford, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Richmond, Wolverhampton, Darlington and Blackpool where it concludes on 29 November.