We catch up with the legendary actor as he prepares to return to his old stomping ground for a stint at the newly refurbished and expanded Birmingham Repertory Theatre. He tells Shelley Carter about career highlights, hell-raising and how he’s still crippled by opening night nerves
Martin Shaw has the sort of stature that makes one wobble slightly. With four decades of celebrated screen and stage work under his belt, he is an accomplished actor of national treasure proportions, and a sex symbol to boot. Shaw is about to return to his Birmingham home town to star in Reginald Rose’s hard hitting play ‘Twelve Angry Men’ at the Rep, directed by his good friend Bill Kenwright. “I haven’t auditioned for twenty years. Bill is a great friend and a fantastic director. He comes up with something every couple of years and off we go. I’m very lucky,” he says.
At 68, Shaw is in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose which projects to get involved with and for him the quality of the script is everything. “My only criterion is how good the script is. From there I research, read and absorb. It slowly filters into your mind almost by osmosis and the character evolves,” he says. Despite huge success and experience, Shaw admits to suffering from terrible opening night nerves. “On opening night I wake up with stomach ache thinking ‘why do I put myself through this?’ Thankfully it’s only on opening night, or if there’s somebody important in the audience I’d like to impress.” Such as? “Family and friends mainly,” he adds. The nerves aren’t an issue with TV as you can always stop and do it again and while Shaw enjoys both stage and screen he doesn’t have a preference, “except to say when I’m filming I can’t wait to be on stage and when I’m on stage I can’t wait to be filming,” he adds.
Martin was always into drama as a child and had two inspirational teachers at Great Barr School. “I wanted to go to drama school at 16, but my parents made me wait for two years, which was good for me. I worked at a chemical company in Hockley in the Jewellery Quarter and went to drama school at 18,” he remembers.
It didn’t stop him from acting though. Martin joined a strolling theatre group that used to perform in the bombsites of Brum. “In the early ‘60s there were still lots of bombsites in Birmingham. We used to walk through the streets playing instruments inviting people to follow hence the name the ‘Pied Piper Players’. We’d gather on a bombsite and improvise encouraging a lot of audience participation. It was very challenging. Improv forces you to listen very carefully. Having so much audience participation is like inviting the devil into your living room,” he says.
WEAK AT THE KNEES
Shaw’s big break came in 1967 in John Osborne’s ‘Look Back in Anger’ at the Royal Court Theatre, which then transferred to the West End. He has more or less played leading roles in the West End ever since with the odd TV hit thrown in for good measure. A CV most actors dream of.
With such an accomplished career it would be easy to believe the hype and take yourself too seriously, but that couldn’t be further from the truth with Shaw. He’s a bit of a tease, is self-deprecating and has comfortably embraced the unlikely forum of chat shows like Loose Women with charisma and good humour. He makes women of a certain age go weak at the knees, yet he is incredulous about his desirability, “Still? I’m a Grandfather for goodness sake. It’s nice, but I haven’t got a clue why. I live in the country and everybody knows me as me, so I don’t see any of that here,” he says.
When Shaw comes to Birmingham he experiences “an intense sense of nostalgia with a hint of regret. I like seeing things that are the same and dislike seeing things that have changed. I remember the buildings were all black, but now you look at buildings like the Town Hall and they’re gleaming. I recall Snow Hill station with colourful steam engines,” he adds. Now that Shaw’s parents have both passed away Birmingham doesn’t have the same pull as it used to, so he’s pleased to have a reason to visit with Twelve Angry Men. “I used to go to every performance at the Old Rep. I have very fond memories of it,” he recalls.
Shaw enjoys a sort of Good Life existence in the country. He is vegetarian and tee total, but it hasn’t always been that way. With his past partying well-documented what changed? “I had a discussion with a friend in 1971 about how we lived and he spoke a lot of truths. I haven’t had a drink since. It wasn’t difficult. The key was to just stop. If I’d said ‘oh I’m going to try to stop drinking’ I would have failed, but I just said I don’t drink. There’s no confusion or temptation.”
He found becoming vegetarian was more difficult simply because the food was so awful. “There were two vegetarian restaurants in London at the time. One was called Cranks and the other the Nuthouse which gives you some idea of the attitude towards vegetarianism at that time.” he says. Sometimes Shaw claims he’s vegan to avoid confusion over eggs. “For some inexplicable reason people think that eggs are vegetarian. I cannot for the life of me think why. So actually I’m a vegetarian who doesn’t eat eggs, but it’s safer to say vegan,” he says.
Having enjoyed such a varied and fulfilling career is there a dream project he still hankers after? “They say never revisit old triumphs, but if I could bring ‘Man for all Seasons’ to the screen that would be a dream,” he says. Shaw played Thomas More in the Robert Bolt play at the Haymarket Theatre in 2006 to rave reviews. “And just to keep working,” he adds. With a talent like his and a friend like Bill Kenwright that’s surely a given.