Eminent Shakespearean actor Jonathan Slinger has taken on some of the playwright’s weightiest roles, from Hamlet to Richard III. He talks to Tom Wicker about making the leap from Shakespeare to musicals and playing ‘an arch manipulator’ in the West End revival of City of Angels
Jonathan Slinger has played some of Shakespeare’s weightiest roles. He’s won acclaim as Richard II, Richard III, Macbeth, Prospero and Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and has performed at the National Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe in London.
But even with such a strong body of work, putting a new show in front of an audience for the first time never gets less nerve-racking. “Not in the slightest,” he laughs. “I was talking to Vanessa Williams about this the other day and we agreed: you’d think it gets easier, but it doesn’t.”
The new West End show he is starring in, alongside US performer Williams, is a reprise of the Donmar Warehouse’s musical City of Angels, directed by Josie Rourke. Despite several significant musical credits under his belt, Slinger reveals he still feels “like a bit of an interloper” in a musical theatre rehearsal room.
City of Angels, which won the Olivier for best musical revival in 2015, has opened at the Garrick with an ensemble that includes Theo James – best known for the sci-fi Divergent film trilogy – and returning cast members (and musical theatre luminaries) Hadley Fraser and Rosalie Craig.
The show, which first opened on Broadway in 1989, is scored by Cy Coleman and David Zippel, with a book by Larry Gelbart. It’s a funny and imaginative tribute to 1940s film noir, combining the reality of a writer contending with Hollywood’s horrors as he tries to write a screenplay and the fictional screen world he’s creating.
Like much of the cast, Slinger is playing dual roles: Buddy, the ruthless producer who makes life miserable for the writer (played by Fraser) and Hollywood big-shot Irwin in the noir-soaked fictional world. “Though, I get off fairly lightly,” he says. “Irwin is only in one scene. They’re also quite similar. In fact, Buddy comments that my other character is his favourite in the film.”
Slinger calls Buddy “an arch manipulator”, but recognising that he’s a villain was only the start. “What interested me was that people like that have constructed a world where they’re not ‘the bad guy’.” Finding out what makes someone like that tick has been Slinger’s focus. “He’s a successful director and producer. He has a formula that works. He has strong opinions on how things should be done,” he says. “He’ll go out of his way to make sure that’s what happens. If other people are subsumed by that vision, he’ll go: ‘Oh, well.’ ”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Driving a minicab in north London.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Yepikhodov in The Cherry Orchard in 1994.
What’s your next job?
I have no idea. Watch this space.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Be physically fit. When I started out, I wasn’t particularly. Then, when I started doing these bigger classical roles, I suddenly realised you needed to be fit to play those sorts of parts.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My auntie Jean, who taught me drama when I was a kid.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be as prepared as you can be and have at least one good idea about how you think the role should be played.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
It’s always been performance, but, otherwise, I think maybe a career in food.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I like to warm up in the theatre itself. I don’t like warming up somewhere away from the auditorium. I like to say hello to the space before I go on stage for the actual performance.
Since the 2014 staging of City of Angels, the Me Too and Times Up campaigns have turned a long-overdue spotlight on those powerful men in film and theatre who have horrendously abused their position and privilege. “We’ve talked a lot about how timely this revival is,” Slinger says. “It’ll be interesting to see what impact that has on what audiences take away from it.”
However, when he asked Rourke if she would be approaching the show differently this time around, she said: “I’ve lived my entire life as a woman in this business. My whole career has been through the lens of what can happen.”
Slinger continues: “As Josie quite rightly points out, this isn’t new in the past couple of years. It’s only really straight men who are now viewing the world through that lens.”
Buddy isn’t the first monstrous film producer Slinger has portrayed on stage. He’s played several, most notably the despicable Maurice Hussey in National Theatre’s 2018 production of Rodney Ackland’s Absolute Hell. “They’re interesting and complex roles,” he says. “They combine a menace and darkness with the charm and wit to persuade people to buy their products, and the force to run these huge organisations.”
He believes people started casting him in these complex roles after his turn as the titular king in Michael Boyd’s acclaimed 2007 staging of Richard III at the RSC. He’s had “a lot of interest for that sort of role” ever since. “People feel drawn to me as that type of character, someone who combines a menacing side and a humorous side.”
Slinger made his name with Shakespeare. Critics praised his ability to make familiar lines sound spontaneous. In part this stems from an epiphany he had at Shakespeare’s Globe in 1997. As he waited backstage to go on as Florizel in The Winter’s Tale, he listened to Mark Lewis Jones as Leontes play call and response with the audience in the scene where he decides whether to let his wife’s baby live. “He turned to the house and 1,500 people just screamed: ‘Yes’.”
That gave Slinger “hairs on the back of my neck”, he says. “It changed me.” It made him look differently at Shakespeare’s writing. “So much of his text stopped being soliloquy. It stopped being reflective. These are direct questions that a character is asking the audience: ‘what do you think I should do?’ And some of the most electrifying moments I’ve had on stage have been where I’ve perceived that I’ve got a response.”
I’ve had a lot of interest for complex roles – people feel drawn to me as that type of character
Getting under the skin of Shakespeare’s characters also proved to be an extremely intense experience. “It makes technical demands, physically and vocally,” he says. “Especially as I was fortunate enough to play those really meaty roles. You get to explore a huge emotional range – to the point of exhaustion sometimes.” In particular, doing Hamlet in David Farr’s 2013 production “was a rollercoaster every night – I was on my knees by the end, but in the most rewarding way”.
But once Hamlet was over, an exhausted Slinger was prompted by Hannah Miller, head of casting at the RSC, to try something completely different. But he says: “At that stage I didn’t have any real idea what that might be.” Then, director Jamie Lloyd asked him to audition for the role of Officer Lockstock in the UK debut of Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis’ satirical musical Urinetown. “I thought, well, it doesn’t get much more different.”
Having initially auditioned thinking it would just be an interesting experience, Slinger was cast and ended up having “such a good time in it”. One of the things he enjoyed most was getting better at singing. He says he could hold a tune before, but adds: “You can feel and hear the improvements in your voice quite quickly. It’s incredibly satisfying because acting is a more nebulous thing. I found that really insightful.”
After Urinetown, he played Willy Wonka in David Greig, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s musical adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the West End. “I went from having a few lines to sing in Urinetown, to having four entire songs to myself,” he says. “That was a leap but hugely enjoyable.”
While Slinger says that “the feeling of being by far the least-experienced singer in the room hasn’t gone away”, his approach to his role in a musical like City of Angels is the same for Shakespeare or any other play. “I try to get to the truth of the character in every moment,” he says. “If I really focused on how amazing everybody else was at singing, I’d probably stay at home. I just get inspired by them and see what I can do, to the best of my ability.”
Born: Accrington, Lancashire, 1972
Training: Acting diploma at RADA (1994)
• Richard II, Royal Shakespeare Company (2007)
• Richard III, RSC (2008)
• Macbeth, RSC (2011)
• Hamlet, RSC (2013)
• Urinetown, St James Theatre (now the Other Palace), London (2014)
• Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London (2015)
• Olivier award for best company performance for The Histories (2009)
Agent: Sarah MacCormick, Curtis Brown
City of Angels was running at London’s Garrick Theatre where programming has been suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak. Details: garricktheatre.org