Actor Robert Powell on bringing Rudyard Kipling to Dorset
PUBLISHED: 10:14 06 October 2014 | UPDATED: 14:29 25 March 2015
Robert Powell talks to Jeremy Miles about playing a literary legend who is not without his controversial traits
Actor Robert Powell has played everyone from Jesus Christ to Mahler. He knows a thing or two about getting inside a character. So touring a one-man show about Rudyard Kipling is proving an absolute pleasure, even though the writer and poet is seen by some as a jingoist, snob and racist.
As he prepared to bring Just So: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Rudyard Kipling to Regent Centre in Christchurch later this month (26 October), 70-year-old Powell told me he feels Kipling may have been judged too harshly.
“Like most good writers he drew on personal experience. Kipling wrote about the world he knew. I don’t think he was necessarily condoning imperialism. He was observing it.”
The actor believes that historic facts can become skewed by the prevailing tendency to view things from a modern perspective.
“By all means make comparisons, but you mustn’t make judgements because those judgements will invariably be incorrect. History should be taken in context.” The context in Kipling’s case was the late Victorian and Edwardian era and a life that took him from India at the height of Empire to the horrors of the First World War and beyond.
It was the 100th anniversary of the the Great War that inspired Powell to ask musician and writer Christine Croshaw to devise a show that explored the life and times of the great writer.
“It seemed like the time to do it because his is a marvellous story and for many reasons I believe his work is not fully understood.”
As Britain entered the war to end all wars Rudyard Kipling was one of the prime chroniclers of the era. As a writer he was regarded as a major innovator in the art of the short story. His children’s stories Kim, The Jungle Book and of course the Just So Stories were already becoming enduring classics. He was an accomplished novelist and his poetry offered extraordinary insight into an age dominated by a sense of imperial destiny.
He was also seen as the great spokesman for the age, a world and way of life that was soon to be destroyed forever. Kipling’s war was a tragic one. His son Jack was initially rejected by the military because of bad eyesight but was eventually commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Irish Guards after Kipling pulled strings with the Army’s top brass. Imagine his pain when he learnt that Jack, just 18-years old, had died on the Western Front. The young officer who had been so desperate to enlist was last seen by his men during the Battle of Loos dying in agony, horribly wounded by a shell blast. His body was never formally identified. In his grief Kipling wrote the poem My Boy Jack. This would later inspire the play of the same name which in 2007 was adapted for a television film starring Daniel Radcliffe as Jack Kipling.
“People need to understand about Rudyard Kipling’s life. they need know what happened to his son,” says Powell. The touring show which finds him reading Kipling’s works accompanied by music from Crowshaw on piano and Clive Conway on flute, is proving a big success.
“We’ve been getting a fantastic reaction, but then it’s a good show,” says the actor. “The words are good, the poetry’s good, the story’s good and the music’s good so the whole thing combines to make a rather fine piece of entertainment.”
One of the great joys of being an actor, says Powell, is the opportunity to dive into other people’s lives and see life, albeit briefly, from their point of view. “It’s the only way to really get into a character. You have to see their actions from their viewpoint, then you leave it to the audience to decide whether they approve or not.”
Robert Powell has had plenty of practice. Appearances in countless screen and stage dramas have seen him playing everything from classics to comedy. His many biographical roles have included Jesus Christ for Franco Zeffirelli and Gustav Mahler for the late, lamented Hampshire-based film director Ken Russell (below). He also played Rolls Royce co-founder Charles Rolls for a BBC-2 TV drama. Ironically Rolls, who became the first man to fly across the English Channel both ways non-stop, was killed in 1910 while taking part in an air display at Bournemouth.
Meanwhile among the fictional characters played by Powell some are so familiar that they have almost become real people in their own right, like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.
Powell relishes the chance to get under their skin. He says he’s also looking forward to visiting Dorset, home of one of his favourite writers.
“I’m a huge fan of Thomas Hardy. He was a wonderful writer,” says Powell who recalls happy memories of playing the title role in the definitive 1971 BBC mini series Jude the Obscure.
Kipling too had a soft spot for this part of the world immortalising Hampshire’s New Forest in the poem The Way Through The Woods. Written at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries it tells of a lost road, a hidden past long overgrown by nature. Curiously the poem enjoyed a new lease of life recently when it was set to music by The Pet Shop Boys. Another sign of Kipling’s enduring influence on popular culture. Even stranger perhaps is the fact that Kipling’s name was given to a newly discovered species of prehistoric crocodile discovered at Swanage in 2009.
The Jurassic Coast World Heritage team registered the 130 million year old specimen as Goniopholis Kiplingi, in tribute to Kipling’s enthusiasm for the natural sciences.
Just So: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Rudyard Kipling is at the Regent Centre in Christchurch on 26 October. www.regentcentre.co.uk