TWO years ago William Belchambers was working at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon where he grew up. He was playing both Lord Longaville and Conrade in the RSC’s two productions, Love’s Labours Lost and Much Ado About Nothing respectively.
Now more than 24 months later following successful runs at Stratford and latterly in Manchester and Chichester, he and the cast and crew are bringing the shows to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, just over the river from where he now lives in New Cross Gate.
It has, William tells me, been a journey in more ways than one but one that he is clearly enjoying.
And despite having to learn lines for not one but two plays, the 35-year-old says it was a no brainer to be part of the team, not least because it was a chance for him to work again with its director Christopher Luscombe.
“I’ve worked with Christopher for a number of years now and have a great working relationship with him,” he says.
“It’s always fun to be part of his projects so when he asked if I’d like to be part of these two shows I jumped at the chance.
“I also love the RSC and to get to play not one but two great roles is fantastic.
“The characters I play are both very different - Longaville is one of three friends to the King of Navarre. He’s a good guy, studious, geeky and wants the best for his friends. He is also loyal and faithful to his friends, has a strong moral compass and wants to do the right thing.
“Conrade by comparison is the polar opposite and very much the bad guy! He’s come back from fighting in the war and has clearly had some really bad experiences. He’s a slightly embittered and twisted man and doesn’t have much happiness in his life - he’s not a nice guy at all.
“To play two such contrasting characters has been a lot of fun and a fantastic challenge for me,” he adds warmly. “I love playing Longaville. He’s a lovely guy and Love’s Labours Lost is a great story - it is fast paced, a lot of fun and a bit of a juggernaut in that it’s a laugh a minute and once you get going with it it doesn’t stop.
“However, being Conrade has been a challenge in that it has really stretched me because he’s so far removed from who I am - but it’s always great fun playing a baddie!” he adds chuckling.
The other draw for William was that not only was it an RSC production, starting out in his home town of Stratford, but Christopher set it in Charlecote, just outside Stratford, an area William also knows very well.
“I loved the idea that Chris set it in Charlecote,” says William. “It was a conscious decision because he wanted it to be set in a recognisable stately home so those who saw it when it was first on in Stratford would know it.
“He’s also set the plays either side of the First World War which cleverly ties them both together and in so doing makes the ending of Love’s Labours Lost less ambiguous.
“If you get the chance to see both you see how well they work being staged together, back to back, and how in many ways the story in Much Ado follows on from that of Love’s Labours Lost.”
Much Ado, one of Shakespeare’s best known and much loved plays, features the bickering couple, Beatrice and Benedick who are weary of love and resistant to each other. However, they are pushed together by their friends Hero and Claudio who in turn fall for one another - although the course of their love is equally rocky.
Love’s Labours Lost concerns the King of Navarre and his three friends who abstain from having fun or taking part in any guilty pleasures for three years. Things seem to be going well until the Princess of France turns up with her three friends. They all fall in love and much hilarity ensues.
Of course it wouldn’t be Shakespeare without a comic sub plot, in this case it involves a crazy Spaniard, Don Adriano de Armado who’s in love with country wench, Jaquenetta.
William admits Love’s Labours Lost is perhaps the least well known of the two, not to mention one of the most frustrating given its ending with the lovers all parting company - perhaps a reason for it being less frequently performed.
However he maintains it’s a “fantastic and funny” play and audiences should give it a go.
“When you look at Love’s Labours Lost you realise Shakespeare is exploring all the different facets as a writer with a bit of prose, sonnets, humour, wit and sorrow - he’s ticking all the boxes and showing off in a ‘look what I can do’ way.
“But the ending is ambiguous. Four men and four women going their separate ways but promising to come back to one another - it is a poignant and touching ending but doesn’t really make sense.
“That’s why I think what Chris has done by setting it just before the war is genius - most of those who went away to fight thought they would be home for Christmas, so promising to come back was normal.
“However that of course didn’t happen - it was a brutal four years of conflict and when those who did survive came back, they were war weary and shell shocked. The idyllic world they left behind was also gone.
“And you see this very much in Much Ado - the men coming back from fighting, absolutely shattered.”
William’s obvious enthusiasm and passion for Shakespeare is clear and says he believes the great man would have liked the versions they are staging.
“He was so forward looking and such a radical that I think he would definitely approve of what we have done,” he says.
“He was incredible really when you think about it - he wrote 36 plays and they are all really clever with some of the best speeches ever written. It’s a joy to be speaking his words.”
In fact William began his career with Shakespeare. Whilst at Warwick School he joined a local drama group and before long was offered a role in the RSC’s The Beggar’s Opera at the Swan Theatre in Stratford.
He then took on the role of Prince Edward in Richard III and by the time he was 13 he had done three shows for the RSC. So he says it was no surprise that he pursued the idea of being an actor as a career.
“By the time I was 16 that train was already running much to my parents’ annoyance!” he laughs. “I left school, went to drama school and have been acting ever since.
“I have done a lot of theatre and would love to do more film work - I have a huge passion for European film and would love to do more of that - but I love the variety of the job and fortunately it’s a career that has treated me kindly.”
And for now he tells me that he couldn’t be happier to be back in London and bringing the productions to the Haymarket for the four-month run.
“I’m so flattered that we’ve had the success we have had with these two plays,” he says warmly. “We’ve all had a lovely time so to be able to bring it to London and keep the journey going is fantastic.
“I live in New Cross Gate, an area I love so it’s also great for me to be back home. Since moving to London I’ve always been south of the river. I trained at Rose Bruford in Deptford and have lived in and around the Peckham, Deptford and New Cross area ever since.
“It’s such a great place, I love Telegraph Hill, the Brockley Market, the cafes and the green open spaces. I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else so I daren’t leave!”
That said, he does admit to having an adventurous streak and a yearning to do some travelling - and tells me a road trip to Portugal could be in the offing once the run at the Haymarket has finished.
“I’ve never been but have always fancied going to Lisbon,” he laughs. “So my idea is to go on a motorbike to Portugal via as many other European countries as possible and find my way back to London - and then maybe make a documentary about it.
“That would really be fun!”
Love’s Labours Lost and Much Ado About Nothing are on at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until Mach 18. Tickets from £15. Visit www.rschaymarket.com or call the box office on 020 7930 8800 for full listings.