Roger Rees Performs “What You Will”


Roger Displays His Tony Award Winning Acting Talent

Roger Rees comes out of the theatre to greet Mrs. LanceAround, Number One Son, Number One Daughter and I.

He is the Tony Award winning actor of Nicholas Nickleby.  Most American audiences know him for his role as Lord John Marbury on the TV show West Wing.  I was instructed that he only had a “minute or two” and I am not permitted to take any photographs. How can I possibly get a worthwhile interview with such restrictions? He approaches me and I take a deep breath.

“Roger, I don’t like you very much,” I begin.

Roger gives a “hmmm”. He’s enough of an actor to recognize a set up.

“You see, ever since my wife saw you play Lord John Marbury on West Wing, she’s been rather smitten by you.” Roger, along with the entourage of people around us, breaks into laughter.

“Is this your lovely wife?” He asks, gesturing to Mrs. LanceAround.

“Yes,” I reply, “and this is my Number One Son and Number One Daughter.” The ice has been broken and there are handshakes all around. I’m able to begin the interview and, as I suspected, he generously gives me more than just a minute or two. “Tell me what message you have for my readers,” I ask.

Roger, who appeared tired after his hour and a half one man show, suddenly becomes more animated; his body fills with energy. “Tell them Shakespeare is nothing to be afraid of,” he begins. Visibly passionate, he talks about how he loves to teach high school and college students. “People think Shakespeare is poetry and they are not allowed in,” he laments. His vision is to allow students to “play” in Shakespeare.

Roger and Will

He points to himself as an example. When he was just 17, he was a scenic painter on a set. A director asks him if he would play a part in a play. He says, “I put down the paintbrush and never painted another set again! While the other actors were rehearsing, I was in the library looking up phrases like ‘iambic pentameter’.”

To help fulfill his vision, Roger is currently touring the world with his self created one man show, What You Will. The play is a collection of Shakespearian soliloquies and poems interspersed with personal stories and researched articles about Shakespeare.

It is at once hilarious and touching, educational yet entertaining, and Roger has the audience eating out of his hand. With impeccable timing and precise dramatic gestures he weaves disparate tales and Shakespearean monologues into a memorable evening of theatrical delight. It is not entirely a lovefest for the Bard. Interspersed within the show are numerous tales from those who dislike Shakespeare’s work; along with side splitting snippets of actual schoolwork submitted to teachers, such as the astonishing revelation that “Shakespeare was born on his birthday and wrote in the era in which he lived” and “his plays were not written by himself but by someone else named Shakespeare!”

Roger displays his talent for extemporizing. During his performance, he would often pause to take a swig of water from a bottle. At one point, a woman in the audience has a coughing fit. While continuing to speak his lines, Roger takes his water bottle over to the audience member and hands it to her as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Number One Daughter quips, “she probably won’t drink from it; instead, she’ll sell it on ebay for $200.”

At the conclusion of the performance, the audience rockets to their feet encouraging Roger to do an encore.  Whereupon he proceeds to perform the Hokie Pokie–Shakespearean style. It was hysterical. [Editor’s Note: Yes, I know the proper spelling is “Hokey Pokey”; however, being a lifelong fan of the Virginia Tech Hokies, I am compelled to spell it VT style.]

“O proud left foot, that ventures quick within
Then soon upon a backward journey lithe.
Anon, once more the gesture, then begin:
Command sinistral pedestal to writhe.
Commence thou then the fervid Hokey-Poke,
A mad gyration, hips in wanton swirl.
To spin! A wilde release from Heavens yoke.
Blessed dervish! Surely canst go, girl.
The Hoke, the poke — banish now thy doubt
Verily, I say, ’tis what it’s all about”

He then allows the audience to ask questions. One theatre goer remarks that you can tell his cultural prowess when you realize that he only knows Roger from his role in Mel Brook’s movie Robin Hood Men In Tights.  Upon hearing this, Roger walks through the aisle and gives the man a high five to the laughter of the crowd. He then speaks about working with Mel Brooks whom he refers to as the funniest man on the planet.

Roger Personalizes Their Playbill

Marty Derrow rises to tell Roger that he and his wife, Wendy, went to New York for their 10th anniversary to see his performance in Nicholas Nickleby. This ambitious show from the Royal Shakespeare Company in England is nine and a half hours long. The show was so long, the audience was given several breaks during the performance and presented with a list of nearby restaurants where they could grab a bite to eat before the next act.

Marty and Wendy have just celebrated their 40th anniversary this year. After the performance of What You Will, they wait outside the theatre to meet Roger. They ask him to autograph their original Playbill from Nicholas Nickleby. Roger borrows a pen from Mrs. LanceAround and, in a poignant gesture, insists on personalizing their playbill:

To Wendy & Marty
My dear friends
thank you
Roger Rees

Wendy & Marty Show Off Their Newly Signed Playbill

After my interview with Roger, I spend some time talking with Wendy and Marty. They tell me that Nicholas Nickleby was an astonishing piece of theatre and Roger was fantastic. There were about 25 members in the cast and each one had to perform two, three or even four or more different roles; except for Roger.  He was Nicholas Nickleby throughout the entire show.

I can’t imagine how much energy it takes to perform for over 9 hours on the Broadway stage. However, in a little over a month Roger turns 68. Based on the energy he brought to his performance of What You Will, it’s evident he has what it takes.

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