Interview with Roger Allam, part two: theatre and more

Roger Allam has had a hectic year: starring in two films, a TV series and a play, amongst other things. We caught up with him during the run of his latest play, The Moderate Soprano, to ask him some questions…

What do you look for when you decide to take on a project?

I look for contrast to what I’ve been doing recently and just an interest in playing the role, firstly. That would be the first thing- whether the actual part appeals to me and whether it’s not something I’ve done before or not done recently. And then it’s lots of practicalities like when is it, how much is it paying, how long would I have to do it for, things like that- would I have to be away from home.

When I first heard about this play [The Moderate Soprano] and that it was about Glyndebourne I thought “I don’t want to do a play about Glyndebourne,” but then the story’s really interesting and the character’s completely adorable so I thought brilliant, I’ll do that. I often have to read things aloud to see what it feels like, saying them.

Are there any roles you regret having turned down?

Some things, yes. I’ve been asked several times to play Leontes and I never have, for a variety of reasons. I was once asked to play Coriolanus, I never played Coriolanus. It would be nice to do something like that, in a way- the contrast you’d get, because it’s unremittingly serious. Not many laughs, Coriolanus. Sometimes I’ve been to see something I’ve turned down and thought this is really, really good, but there have always been valid reasons for not doing it.

Have you considered being on the other side and writing or directing?

I very occasionally directed, but I don’t think I’d have the patience for it, really. I used to think that maybe I’d direct, early on, but no, I prefer just doing this. And writing, I don’t think I’d be able to. But when I’m given something, sometimes if I can suggest changes to a line or something like that then I’ll do bits of rewriting. When I was in the pantomime with Ian McKellen, I completely rewrote my part. It just wasn’t very funny, so I rewrote it.

Working on The Thick of It was a different system altogether. What you get is a very good first draft which we all sit around and read,  and then Armando will get us to expand certain bits, maybe improvise around certain bits and situations. Then they’ll go away and rewrite it. Then either we’d have another read through or we’d just start shooting,  and in the process of shooting there’d be more bits improvised and we’d loosen up this bit, or expand that bit on a take. But Armando would always overshoot, so each episode would be at least twice as long as it would have to be for its eventual show.  So each half hour episode was over an hour, and each hour long special was just over two hours. And they’d cut it down and cut it down and cut it down until it was five minutes shorter than it needed to be, and then they’d put back the favourite five minutes that they’d cut.

How do you find the balance between work and rest, and what do you do to relax?

The balance between work and rest is really, really hard. This year has been absolutely frenetic in terms of work and there hasn’t been any rest. Literally going from the Truth Commissioner, the day after I was at a read-through and twenty weeks of TV work. The weekend after finishing that I started The Hippopotamus, the day after I finished that I started rehearsals for this [The Moderate Soprano]. So I’m a bit tired.

So this year, no balance. And what do I do to relax? Well, just time with the family, walks and a bit of reading.

What is your favourite book? Rachel (@rachelvanbora)

I don’t think I have a favourite book.  Something by Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. James M. Cain I love, as well, he writes from the perspective of the criminal. But I don’t have a specific favourite.

What are your favourite theatres to act in and go to?

Thinking about it from my point of view, a number of theatres present great wonders, and also problems. Any space you act in, there’s always compromise, there’s no such thing as a perfect space. One of the best theatres I’ve acted in, the old Other Place at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford was a tin shed. It could only get a village hall license so they could only do five or maybe six performances a week, not eight. But it was fantastic, because it
other placebrought a lot of atmosphere to it. There were various entrances, through the toilets behind the audience, stuff like that. And that kind of compromise- people providing solutions to problems that that represents- makes it exciting and interesting and great. And when they built a new Other Place when they had to, for various reasons, tear down that tin shed and rebuilt something that was a copy of it, and it had to obey fire regulations and stuff like that, it was crap. It was just no good, it didn’t have the same feel to it at all.

That was a favourite place to both see and act in, although sight lines were terrible. But you forgave it, because it was a tin shed. I will always have enormous affection for The Old Vic, because that’s where I first started going to the theatre as a teenager, when Laurence Olivier was running the National there. And it was very, very cheap to go- I could sit on padded benches in the gallery, it cost 15p to sit there. 15p was the price of my Tube fare, it was the price of my programme, it was the price of a saveloy and chips, I think, walking back across Hungerford Bridge, so it was incredibly cheap. And it wasn’t that it was immensely available, but no one was excluded in terms of price and so that was the first place that I went to and I saw some magnificent actors there. Laurence Olivier and Paul Scofield and John Gielgud- amazing, amazing people. Paul Scofield was my particular hero and you could sit on these padded benches, miles away from the stage- and so it’s a different acting technique- but you could hear his voice and, without having to shout or anything like that, it seemed as if it was just next to you, in your ear, and that’s the most magnificent thing. So I have huge affection for The Old Vic, both because of that- because of seeing it, and of performing in it, when I performed in it- but that doesn’t mean to say it’s a perfect theatre. It’s just one’s association.

Likewise, The Globe, which I’d always trashed until I got to perform in it when it’s great. But I was lucky, because I played Falstaff there, and Falstaff never stops talking to the audience and it’s the perfect place to talk to the audience because you can see them, and everyone always forgets that it wasn’t until the late 1870s that the whole idea of the lights going down in the auditorium and being more brightly lit on stage first happened because of electricity. So even though theatre moved indoors before then, that carried on for a long time, the whole room being lit so it was a very different relationship between actor and audience.

My favourite theatres are always the ones where you have a really good relationship with the audience and a lot of the time in certain theatres- the Olivier and the Lyttleton at the National– are tricky, from our point of view, they’re really, really hard. I think in terms of the audience, you have a comfy seat and you can see everything, and that’s good, but in terms of the feeling from the stage of being able to reach everyone, it’s hard. The Olivier seats only 1200 people, but you walk onto that stage and it feels like it seats 3000 people and so that means there’s a lot of empty air to fill and that makes a huge difference to us and so sometimes when you walk onto the stage in one of those old wood and plaster theatres, many of them built by the great theatre architect Frank Matcham, they’re just human.

And also, like the Other Place, which was sort of a temporary space, and it was human- you know? And those are the best.

Is there something of that humanity lost then, in our more modern theatre etiquette, or is that useful?

There is for certain plays. That form of theatre was invented for certain purposes. It was invented by theatre managers who wanted to make it more respectable, or expensive. The Old Vic, when it was first built, sat 4000 people, it now has 1000 people. That’s partly because that big horseshoe of the stalls was crammed with benches on which people sat, so it was more like a big music hall in which the working classes would sit in the stalls where the groundlings used to stand, and the rich people would be in the ‘dress circle’, because you had to dress.

So the class differentiations were clear, but it also meant that, potentially, all the classes could be in the same room, which is a good thing. An interesting thing.

How does it feel to be on stage, and does the feeling differ in different theatres? Joanna (@JoJoRuth2712)

It feels very natural to me, I feel very relaxed, generally, on stage. Life often isn’t terribly well organised and it’s messy or difficult, whereas if you’re on stage in a play, it’s a bit of life that has a beginning, a middle and an end and when you’ve been doing it a while you can get better at it because you can repeat it and it’s this bit of the day when you do something that you know what’s going to happen in, you know how it’s going to work out and you can do it well. So I find that great, I enjoy that.

Has it always been like that?

Well funnily enough, two old school friends were here a week or so ago. I’d played Edgar, and they were Lear and Gloucester in a school production of King Lear and one of them said to me “I read an interview in which you said you’d started acting at school but you didn’t know if you were any good,” and he said “I thought you were good.” You don’t know, do you, you have no idea. But he said “you always seemed very relaxed.” And if I look back, I suppose I have been. I get excited, but I don’t get nervous in the same way because I like being there. Whereas the two of them said “we were incredibly nervous.” Maybe because it’s like being a child and everybody’s looking at you- as infantile as that. But it’s also nice because you’ve got something to do, you’ve got something definite to do and you can do it.

Façade was very difficult, though, because there wasn’t very much rehearsal and although I could do it, it was very difficult to hear the music and speak and so I got behind. That did make me a bit nervous, really. It was technically very difficult. I was probably better in rehearsal than I was on the night- something about being able to hear it. We were meant to do it in the open air and then we couldn’t because of the weather and so we did it in a different place and that might have changed the acoustic. I don’t know. It was hard, anyway, and that was unexpected because whenever I’ve done things with musicians it’s been easy to hear, certainly most musicals aren’t as difficult as that.

If the audience don’t react in the way you expect, does that get disconcerting?

Yes, it can do. If you say something funny and the audience don’t laugh- and generally speaking they do laugh- you can feel downcast. You can think “what’s the matter with them, or is it me? What am I doing?” Like last night, they were really, really quiet, they barely laughed at all and yet they were really appreciative at the end. It’s a mystery, all that, a real mystery- it could drive you mad.

If you get a big party in, that can make a difference. If you get a sponsors’ night in, that’s generally awful. Doing a school’s matinee, that’s generally awful. But it’s not their fault, it’s just whether they really want to be there. If they really want to be there then they pay attention, but if they’re a school’s party or sponsors they’re there for another reason.

Which was your favourite role to play? (@VonBlade)

I don’t know whether I’ve got a favourite, really. There’ve been a number of ones where I’ve really liked the play and I felt that I’d done reasonably well with it. I absolutely loved doing Uncle Vanya, because I thought that I was a little too old and I didn’t think I’d ever get the chance to play it, it had never been offered to me. And actually, that came about because Jonathan Church was talking to me about doing something about doing something in Chichester and that they were thinking of doing a Michael Frayn translation of a Chekov play- Platonov, I think it was, Wild Honey. And I read it and it’s brilliant- absolutely brilliant- but he’s meant to be sort of twenty-eight.

Dervla Kirwan and Roger Allam in Uncle Vanya © Johan PerssonI said I was really drawn to it, I’d never played Uncle Vanya and it would be a way of playing Uncle Vanya without actually being in Uncle Vanya, but I can’t, because he’s twenty-eight. And so, in the end, Jonathan thought why not do Uncle Vanya in Michael Frayn’s translation. So that’s how it happened. But I loved that part, I suppose because I didn’t think I’d get a chance to do it whereas with something like Prospero you think “alright, I could have done it some time ago, but I’m still a reasonable age for Prospero.” So I loved doing that, as well, but it felt as though I just grabbed the last chance to do Uncle Vanya.

And it’s sometimes when roles just seem to fit and sit on you in a different way, it just comes very naturally. But I wouldn’t say that it was necessarily my favourite because there’s some I look back on- Terri Dennis in Privates on Parade, that was just glorious, the most enormous fun. Not to mention Cage Aux Folles, they were both lovely to do. And stupid things like Abannazar in the pantomime, that was just great.

Which character you’ve played would you most like to go out for a pint with? (@BrightOnKath)

Maybe Uncle Vanya to get him to cheer up! I think it might need a bit more than a pint. A pint of vodka.

Which Shakespearean role would you like to play next? Britnie (@CorumDeo5461)

I’d have loved to have played Iago, but I think I’m too old now. And there’s Lear, which was the first part I ever wanted to play. I don’t know if I really want to play it, now, but if I was offered it I think I’d probably have to play it. I just think it’s bloody difficult. You need a fantastic cast, because there’s so many good parts in it. And it’s a hard part- Hamlet talks to us all the time so we know what’s going on in his head, we know he’s telling us the truth, he’s not lying to us when he talks to us. Lear doesn’t talk to us at all, Lear is someone to whom stuff happens. But yes, there’s Lear.

Now, I would have liked to have played Hamlet when I was the right age, but I never really understood Hamlet until later. And I suppose something like Titus Andronicus, that would be fun.

 Are there any non-Shakespearian characters or real people you’d like to play?

No, you never think “I’d like to play you in a play,” what happens is a play is written about someone who actually lived and there’s a different way of going about things. One of the attractions of John Christie is that it requires a certain amount of changing one’s appearance, which has always appealed to me. There aren’t many people around who knew John Christie, especially not in the ‘30s or ‘50s very well, so it’s not like playing a living person, but there is still a certain amount of research.

So there’s that way of going about it, you’re finding out about a real person which I’ve done a fair amount, I suppose: Adolf Hitler, Willy Brandt, Max Reinhardt.

What is your process before playing a role?               

If it’s a fictional character, then you do invent backstories. That can often be part of the rehearsal process, there’s a certain amount you can do on your own. If it’s a historical play set in a different period, you’ll research the period. With Uncle Vanya we researched the period, we researched Russia, so I’m fairly familiar with that, having done several Chekovs and a Gorky. You kind of remind yourself of that terrain. So yeah, I use research, but there comes a time when you sort of forget the research, because you’re doing a play, you’re not doing research, but it’s useful to have some solid ground to stand on.

Playing real people, you’ve just got different things to go on. Playing John Christie- he looks like that, and so you have to go some way towards achieving that. I also listened to recordings of his voice, so you have to go some way towards that particular voice, that particular kind of voice. Doing something like Hitler, there’s loads of material to look at so in terms of the character’s physicality you can look at real pictures and real film of them and hear their voice, that sort of thing, and take from that what you can so that when you come on stage people go “oh yes, yes that is him.”

How about when you play recurring characters? Are you given more backstory then?

For Fred Thursday, I had a long series of exchanges with Russell Lewis the writer [of Endeavour], about Thursday’s war background, for instance, and then I found some books on that which were just very useful. I wouldn’t say I have an exhaustive knowledge of the Italian campaign or the North Africa campaign but I did find some stuff that was very, very useful about just what it was like.

How does originating a character differ from taking on a role from someone else as you did in La Cage?

With La Cage we got to re-rehearse it, and it was interesting because I was with Philip Quast who’d played that part originally at the Chocolate Factory and so obviously there was a pattern- the choreography was the same- but certain things can change. With a show like Les Mis, it’s a much bigger show and so people playing Javert will have to find out, way back, what we did, though it’ll no doubt have changed.

Have there been any costumes you’ve particularly liked or disliked?

I didn’t like at all the costume I had as Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it was a kind of tube thing made of silk and it wasn’t very flattering. I loved my costume as the Duke from Measure for Measure because it had a very nice hat, when he wasn’t the friar. The Javert costume was very nice, that great big coat.  I love my Fred Thursday costume. The suits and the hat and that particular coat.

I can’t remember any I really, really disliked because generally a costume, if it works, is one of the ways of getting the character, or I find anyway. I played Angelo when I was at the Contact Theatre in Manchester and that was a horrible costume, made out of furnishing fabric- the stuff you do sofas in. They’d often use that because it had texture and stuff like that, if they didn’t have a lot of money.

As Falstaff there was a horrible, horrible shirt. The first shirt he wears in part one was made of this very, very heavy linen that felt like wearing a sack- that wasn’t very nice. But I liked the costume. I sort of wish that the armour was bigger- the armour I wore was probably a bit small and it pushed the fat-suit in and made me look a bit thinner.

When you were starting out, how did you deal with the instability inherent in a creative life? Is it easier in the UK than the US? Mary (@MMWrites)

Starting out I got a job with Monstrous Regiment and I was with them for two and a half years, doing their first four shows and involved in everything because it was a collective theatre company: helping with the financial books, doing bits of lighting, humping the set around, writing the odd song, doing a bit of re-writing- stuff like that. So it wasn’t inherently unstable. I haven’t had a very unstable time as an actor in terms of employment, I guess because I did that- it was easy to sign on then, far, far easier then- so between gigs if you had a four week gap you could go down, sign on and you’d get enough money to tide you over until the next job. When I left Monstrous Regiment I went to Birmingham Rep. A lot of the time I did what actors now would consider quite long jobs. I did three plays at Birmingham Rep, I did a whole year at Contact Theatre. And then when I was still in my twenties I joined the RSC and was with them for ten, eleven years. So that wasn’t unstable.

I think it’s possibly easier in the UK but it’s much more unstable now, younger actors wouldn’t do that now, their agents wouldn’t want them to, I don’t think you’d get taken on by places, certainly not in regional theatre, for a year, you’d get taken on for a play, so that has changed. It will be a more unstable life now in the UK- I don’t know whether it’s more unstable than the US. I suspect that the more difficult thing with the US is that it’s a much, much bigger country and the industry is more spread out. That is changing, they make television all over, but it is concentrated- film and television- in Los Angeles and everyone considers New York to be the theatre capital, no one goes to the theatre in LA. Chicago is also great for theatre. So that would be the problem for me in the US, I wouldn’t know how to cope with all that, whereas I’ve always lived in London- except when I’ve been working away- and there’s a lot of different stuff that you can do.

Radio, I do a fair amount of radio drama; voiceover work, just to give you money, really. Doing voiceover work means that one can afford to do something like this play, for instance. I don’t know how available that is in the States- that being able to do a bit of everything.

Aside from the cost, which you’ve discussed at some length before, how do you think British Theatre has changed over the past 40 years? (@danteskygod)

Well, there’s the cost, of course, the price of the tickets. It feels to me like there’s more, there’s more theatre, and it feels to me like runs don’t last as long as they used to in commercial theatre or in the National Theatre. So I’d say there are ways in which it’s improved and ways it’s changed which might not be as good.

I think it used to be more possible forty years ago to have a career in the theatre and I think it’s less possible to do that now and young actors just starting out or a bit later on try to do everything and have a side-line to make money so I think it’s harder to sustain a career now than it was then.

There’s so much theatre now, but it’s on for much less time- this is only on for about five weeks. When I joined the RSC, you’d be taken on for a period of two years. They still do that a bit, but there are far more things that go in that are just brief runs. So the whole idea of building up a company, the dream or the fantastic of the twentieth century theatre, is hardly there now.

Most actors now would be shocked if you suggested they do six months in the West End in a play, or even six months at the National when you’re not doing it eight times a week. And I think there are some losses there in that in the old days at the National, when there was a proper company there when Olivier was running it, they would bring things back. They’d revive things. There might be a few cast changes, but something would be in the repertoire of that theatre for a long time. It feels to me as if that’s kind of gone.

Thank you to everyone who entered the #AskAllam question competition and congratulations to those who were in the top ten. We hope you enjoyed the answers!

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