It’s the day before the last day of term at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and at tea-time, things are getting busy. One of the academy’s regular Thursday night concerts is playing tonight, and the snack bar area is a hub of enthusiastic pre-show activity. Chatter is at a premium, with voices getting ever louder to offset the live classical music being played on one side of the room, while the constant flow of drinks add to the convivial atmosphere.
In the midst of all this activity, nineteen year old Ruby Richardson cuts an incongruous figure. Clad in sloppy jumper, jeans and trainers, the first year drama student sits alone at a table as she takes some time out from a hard day working on Romeo and Juliet. It’s not been a traditional look at Shakespeare’s classic tale of star-crossed lovers, mind. It was an altogether more physical experience than what Richardson expected, and has left her both exhausted and elated.
“It was quite ritualistic,” Richardson says, peppering her conversation with girlish laughter. “There was chanting and gymnastics, standing on each other’s shoulders, learning how to do hand stands and that sort of thing which you wouldn’t think had anything to do with Romeo and Juliet. We’ve been singing Hungarian songs as well. It’s all about working off each other’s impulses, and is quite animalistic, which is cool, because we’ve not really done anything like that here yet.”
Such activities probably weren’t entirely unexpected for Richardson, however. As the grand-daughter of Edinburgh-born acting legend Ian Richardson, who died in 2007 aged seventy-two, she could be said to be following a family tradition. Yet while she may have attended musical theatre classes on Saturday mornings aged only six en route to attending the same drama school as her grand-father, Richardson wasn’t pushed into taking up his mantle.
“That was just to get me out of the house,” Richardson laughs of her early dalliance with stage musicals. “I wouldn’t say I had a stage family pushing me to do it, and if they did push me then I reckon I might not have wanted to do it, but they’ve always kept an eye out on me in case I might continue in the family tradition. They know it’s what I want to, and it’s kind of nice as well doing something that your family do, because they can give you so much advice. My granny has read every play under the Sun, and I can talk to her about everything. She’s like an encyclopedia.”
Richardson’s grand-father too was an understandably towering presence in her life, as you imagine a man considered one of the finest Shakespearian stage actors of his generation would be. Despite consummate work with the Royal Shakespeare Company and an appearance in Peter Brook’s legendary 1964 production of Marat/Sade, Richardson senior only latterly entered mainstream public consciousness when he played Machiavellian Conservative politician Francis Urquhart in the BBC’s House of Cards trilogy.
“I probably didn’t know how famous he was until he died,” Richardson admits. “Once he was gone I started looking more into his work, and because he wasn’t there, it was nice seeing him on the screen. He had such a powerful voice as well, that you’d be watching something and hear a voiceover, and I’d recognise that it was my grand-dad.
“He probably influenced me as a person, because he was so funny and so witty. He and my grand-mother had their house in Devon, and whenever you went there’d be something new like a tree-house, and there’d be this spark between them, because they loved each other so much.
“I saw a lot of plays and things on TV which my grand-father appeared in, but I wouldn’t say he was the reason I decided to act. He was such a wonderful and magical person, and actually told me not to act. He said it was such a difficult profession, and pointed out all the pitfalls of the industry, but he also said that if I felt that was what I had to do, then I should just do it. I think he was right, because I find that if I’m not acting over a long period of time, then I’m really not sure what to do with myself.”
Richardson found herself drawn to more serious drama via a stint with the National Youth Theatre before finally applying for drama school. At her RSAMD audition, the panelists asked her why she’d applied to the same college as her grand-father.
“I just told them it was because I wanted to act,” she says, deadly serious.
As is the case with all first year drama students at RSAMD, Richardson has yet to make her public debut on the New Athenaeum stage. She has, however, appeared in two classroom only shows. In the first, Richardson played teenager Anya in The Cherry Orchard. As rewarding as this was for Richardson, you sense it was her second role as
faded movie star Princess Kosmonopolis in Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth that really left its mark.
“I’m quite used to playing the young girl,” Richardson says, “but this is the first time I’ve had a chance to play a feisty, sexual older woman. That took a lot of doing, to have to be more flamboyant and physical, but I think it really benefited me and brought me out of my shell a fair bit. Because she’s an actress as well, that allowed me to act quite over the top, and almost have to act acting badly, which was really exciting and fun to do. It was brilliant, because I’m never going to get a chance to play that part again until I’m about forty.”
By that time, if all goes well, Richardson may well have confirmed one of her RSAMD lecturer’s observation of her as one of the most courageous actors they’ve ever seen. This is praise indeed for an actress who has yet to work professionally, and talent spotters should keep an eye out for Richardson when she returns to her studies after the summer.
At the moment, though, Richardson is just like any other student. Since her time in Glasgow she’s been checking out the local theatre scene, and singles out the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Peter Pan and Neil LaBute’s compendium of car-based plays, Autobahn, with particular praise.
For inspiration Richardson looks to elder stateswomen such as Emma Thompson and Judi Dench for guidance. The only difference is that Richardson is more likely to become starstruck at close quarters, as she did when Helen Mirren attended her grandfather’s memorial. In 2006, Mirren had dedicated her Best Actress BAFTA Award for her title role in the film, The Queen, to Richardson, thanking him for support early in her career. The depth of his influence on his grand-daughter too becomes clearer the more she talks.
“He told me not to bad-mouth anybody’s work,” she says, “and to take pride in my own work. He also told me to be confident, because I was quite quiet when I was young, and he said I should take every opportunity that comes my way.
“I’d like to think some kind of talent has been passed down,” Richardson jokes, possibly with another stab at Princess Kosmonopolis in her long-term sights, “but I can’t see myself playing an old villain the way he did. Not for a long time, anyway.”
The Herald, July 13th 2010