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The Big Interview: Henry Goodman

Henry Goodman in rehearsals for Volpone at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Manuel Harlan Henry Goodman in rehearsals for Volpone at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Manuel Harlan

“Good morning to the day; and next, my gold!” Henry Goodman is about to deliver one of the best opening lines in world drama. But, halfway through rehearsals in Stratford-upon-Avon for Trevor Nunn’s revival of Ben Jonson’s satirical masterpiece Volpone, he’s taking it easy on a late afternoon break with a cup of coffee on the rooftop terrace of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

Henry Goodman cvIt’s a sunny day. The scullers and swans drift lazily by on the river below, dogs scamper in the fields, tourists amble along the towpath, canal boats bob gently on their moorings. Goodman, who turned 65 on Shakespeare’s birthday, is glad to be back with the company where he made his breakthrough. He’s relaxed and affable.

As he surveys the scene, he recalls how he appeared in the production of Volpone starring Richard Griffiths 36 years ago, playing Voltore (the vulture), the devious advocate. And three years after that, in 1986, in the opening season in the Swan, he played the jealous hypochondriac Thomas Kiteley in Jonson’s city comedy Everyman in His Humour, one of Edmund Kean’s great roles and one he transformed into a more complicated comic cousin of Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Goodman specialises in dangerous lunacy – his stunning display as Brecht’s Arturo Ui at Chichester and in the West End three years ago was the best and funniest since Leonard Rossiter’s – and, in Jonson’s work, that manic gleam is a trademark bonus. His Kiteley not only went over the top, having re-imagined his own house as a chaotic tavern, but then went into the audience to embrace them as connivers in his own mental topsy- turvydom. William Hazlitt said more than he knew in his verdict that Everyman “acts better than it reads”.

“I’m a great admirer of Ben Jonson, partly because I’m an East End boy,” says Goodman. “He was a bricklayer’s son so, just as a man, I’m with him. Unlike me, he was a brilliant scholar and a great linguist, but still had to duck and dive in Elizabeth’s court. There’s something pugilistic, dynamic, overt in everything about him, and he writes ‘poetry with a purpose’, as he himself said.

“But although he is fascinated by people lumbered with a ‘humour,’ or a default position, I’ve been excited by the discovery of a through-drive of humanity in Volpone. Of course, there are the great set pieces where he pretends to be a mountebank, a lover, an officer at the court; but in this love of disguise, there’s an enormous zest for life. The critic Harold Bloom talked of Shakespeare inventing humanity. I think Jonson’s been given a bum deal in that respect.”

Naomi Frederick and Henry Goodman in The Winslow Boy at the Old Vic in 2013. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Naomi Frederick and Henry Goodman in The Winslow Boy at the Old Vic in 2013. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Goodman last worked with Trevor Nunn 15 years ago on his award-winning Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at the National Theatre, which upgraded easily from the Cottesloe (now the Dorfman) to the Olivier.

“This taught me that if the work you’ve done is the right work, you can transpose intimacy to a larger space – you can turn the flame up or down again. It helped that Hildegard Bechtler’s design was extremely fluid. And as Tom Stoppard once said to me, nobody reveals a text like Trevor. He really nails us with the shaping and the making of language coming to life.”

I remember the show as almost cinematic in the way it was ‘shot’ in pools of light. The one thing Goodman had said to Nunn about Shylock before rehearsals was that his home, his place of repose with his daughter, was his solace from the world. This grew into a remarkable contrast between the blazing, rhetorical righteousness on the street and the gentle speaking of German and Yiddish in the home, the singing of Hebrew songs even.

“Trevor has a remarkable way of suggesting an era without pinning it down,” adds Goodman. Some reviewers settled on Europe in the 1920s. Others said the 1930s. Either way, there were storm clouds over Belmont.

Similarly, on Volpone, Goodman has hinted to Nunn that he thinks of the old fox as a sensualist, even a voluptuary, in his appetites.

“And he’s picked up on that in the whole shaping of the play. I do have an enjoyment of the research and the intimate understanding of contexts. As with Jonson, learning about Terence Rattigan’s life when I played Arthur Winslow in The Winslow Boy [at the Old Vic in 2013] transformed being on the stage. I find that information breeds instinct. It’s a private thing, and if it came across as a display of knowledge that would be, for me, a failure.”

Intriguingly, Goodman avoided the obvious role in the Rattigan play, that of the extravagant lawyer, Sir Robert Morton, who takes the case for the defence after reducing the accused young thief to a gibbering jelly. Instead, he played the boy’s father, fraught with anxiety and concern over his son’s predicament and the possible outcome.

Henry Goodman and David Haig in Yes, Prime Minister at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2010
Henry Goodman and David Haig in Yes, Prime Minister at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2010. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Whereas on television, or film, Goodman once said in a memorable phrase, “the culture needs me to be a cliched Jew”, he can both subvert the stereotype and escape it completely on the stage. His 2009 performance as the psychiatrist Dr Feldman in a revival of Tom Kempinski’s Duet for One, with Juliet Stevenson as the troubled musician, was a case in point. There was nothing effusively obvious or ‘Jewish’ about the performance; he sat and listened most of the time, as in Winnie the Pooh’s “Sometime I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits”.

But I also treasure two performances where he had no qualms at all about going for broke with ‘Jewishness’ on the stage: as a mesmerising, glad-handing fake Goldman in Lindsay Posner’s 2005 revival of Pinter’s The Birthday Party; and as an impassioned but never sentimental Tevye in the same director’s Fiddler on the Roof at Sheffield Crucible in the following year, and then the Savoy. Goldman refused to milk the songs any more than he milked his cows, quite the opposite of the legendary Chaim Topol.

He’s been there, done the East End Jewish schtick in countless plays and television programmes and with Steven Berkoff in the award-winning comedy Kvetch (1987) – he was taught at RADA by Berkoff – and developed more internationally as the coruscating homophobic (but dying of Aids-related diseases), anti-Semitic (but Jewish) lawyer Roy Cohn in the world premiere of Angels in America (1992) at the National, and as Sigmund Freud in the premiere of Terry Johnson’s hilarious Hysteria (1993) at the Royal Court.

Goodman’s twin brother is a teacher. The two of them – youngest in a family of six children – were cast aged 10 in the Ralph Thomas film Conspiracy of Hearts (with Sylvia Syms, Lilli Palmer and David Kossoff) as children smuggled out of an internment camp near a convent. Their father was a violent, mentally disturbed tailor (he was, says Goodman, “taken away” when Goodman was 12) and his mother a seamstress. His grandparents, emigrants from the Ukraine, kept a goat in the back garden in Cable Street.

“I learned everything about life, or a lot, at least, in the East End, selling watches on Sunday mornings in Petticoat Lane, finding so much encouragement, and Stanislavsky, at Toynbee Hall,” he says.

So, as a teenager, he started out as an assistant stage manager, electrician and actor in rep at Deal and Dover, and at the Mermaid with legendary designer Sean Kenny (on Gulliver’s Travels in 1968). “I had a real grounding,” he says. “I even used to put down the chairman’s table for Leonard Sachs on the variety bill in the Players’ Theatre. And I was crazy for Shakespeare. I was blessed with an idea that entertainment, and theatre, could transform society. I wanted to change the world.”

Henry Goodman in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Duchess Theatre in 2013. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Henry Goodman in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Duchess Theatre in 2013. Photo: Tristram Kenton

After RADA, this passion led him into the early 1970s fringe maelstrom of street theatre with Ed Berman’s Fun Art Bus, “travelling up and down Oxford Street handing out poems and raising money to stop them moving Eros; teaching community workshops; and doing shows for people in Kentish Town to get rid of rats in blocks of flats”; and Dogg’s Troupe Theatre, also run by Berman at the Almost Free in Rupert Street, with the likes of Patrick Barlow (author of the long-running The 39 Steps) and Paola Dionisotti.

Dogg’s Troupe went to the fateful Munich Olympics of 1972 when 11 Israeli athletes were killed by a Palestinian group called Black September.

“When the day of mourning was over, we and other specialists in outdoor theatre were asked to entertain the thousands of people who were sitting on the hillside; there were no games for them to watch. We performed a piece called Bonkers, in many languages, about greed and corruption,” Goodman says.

He had already planned to go on to Switzerland to study dance. Despite the upsetting experience of Munich, he did, and there met his wife of 40 years, Sue Parker – a choreographer and dance director who was born in England but grew up and lived in South Africa. Goodman joined her there (after a short spell playing the ukulele and walking the trapeze in a show at Lancaster) and stayed for nine years.

He was a junior lecturer at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, taught practical skills at the University of Cape Town and was artistic director at the Space Theatre when Athol Fugard, who founded it, went off around the world with his great, poetic, anti-apartheid hit Sizwe Banzi is Dead, arriving at the Royal Court just as Goodman took over at its theatre of origin.

“I learned that I’m not an administrator, but I did direct many young and interesting companies, raised money from the Ford Foundation, played Shylock and Tartuffe. So when I came back to England – I worked briefly in Ryman in Chancery Lane, stacking shelves – I was trained, honed and hungry. I got an audition with the RSC and Howard Davies cast me in William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life with Daniel Massey and Zoe Wanamaker.”

That debut was at The Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon (transferring to the Pit in the Barbican) in March 1983 and I noted an “unforgettable” performance in the role of Harry, the happy hoofer who can’t tell a joke, in a 1939 Depression era play that was still full of optimism. Goodman’s first two RSC seasons included, as well as the Jonson Everyman, a clownish Dromio in a circus-style Comedy of Errors, Stalin in Charles Wood’s Red Star and Thomas Cranmer in Henry VIII (with Griffiths as the king).

Henry Goodman as Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 2003. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Henry Goodman as Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 2003. Photo: Manuel Harlan

This 1980s RSC company included not only Griffiths and Wanamaker, but also brilliant, eccentric actors such as Pete Postlethwaite, Bruce Alexander and David Haig; in 2010, at Chichester and in the West End, Goodman would play Sir Humphrey Appleby, the smooth civil servant, to Haig’s flustered prime minister Jim Hacker in the stage version of the classic 1980s political sitcom, Yes, Prime Minister.

Did it, in retrospect, feel like a golden era? (And I don’t even have to mention the performances in the same period of Antony Sher or Kenneth Branagh). “I look back on it with pride and respect. But I’m wary of what happens as we get older. We look back through lenses that make us less able to cherish the gold that’s out there now. I do think such wonderful things are happening now, but it worries me that there are seams of gold being crushed all around us as we speak.” Arts council cuts? “Partly that.”

Goodman is enigmatic, I now decide, slightly unfathomable. He returned to the RSC to play Richard III – an obvious role for him – in 2003, but the life was squeezed out of the performance by the concept of “play within a play,” Crookback as an Edwardian impresario. Sean Holmes’s production was too clever and conceptual. I resist suggesting to Goodman that he channelled his abortive Richard into his historic successor Arturo Ui.

Although he delights in telling me that he doesn’t read music – “I love musicality in all things” – it’s in musical theatre he has scored some of his biggest successes. He cakewalked hilariously to the gallows in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, Sam Mendes’ opener at the new Donmar Warehouse in 1993.

And he was simply sensational (opposite Imelda Staunton as Miss Adelaide) as Nathan Detroit when Richard Eyre revived his 1982 National production of Guys and Dolls in 1996, following up in 1997 as Billy Flynn, the grubby defence lawyer poking out from a shell of pink ostrich feathers, in the West End premiere of the relaunched Chicago – “so smooth you could ski down him,” said John Nathan in the Jewish Chronicle.

But then, in 2002, disaster struck. He was cast, then sacked before opening night, as Max Bialystock, replacing Nathan Lane, in Mel Brooks’s The Producers on Broadway. The producers alleged he was doing something too different and not getting laughs. The truth is, there was an inevitable dip in bookings the minute Lane left the cast; there was no time allowed for Goodman to prove his worth.

Henry Goodman on...Long after the heartbreak and depression, he’s philosophical. “Nothing’s completely over, ever. You move on and learn from it. If it doesn’t make you, it breaks you. I walked out of the theatre and saw guys ripping my name down. How does that make you feel? The management for whom I’d done Chicago in the West End immediately asked me to come and do the same show in the theatre opposite The Producers. But a clause in my Producers contract said that if I accepted work elsewhere I could not be paid for the rest of my non-run. I always say to young actors: look at your contract very, very carefully.”

He recovered on Broadway with an acclaimed performance of Tartuffe in the next season. “The only way to survive in this profession is to have an honest dialogue with yourself and develop a vocabulary of aspiration. It’s not about the roles I want to play – though I do think about Leontes, Prospero, Lear; they’ve all been done too often, too recently – but a private set of values; the mastery of certain things, when not to use certain things you could easily do, selectivity, serving a text, working better with colleagues.”

In his quiet, modest way, Goodman’s an inordinately proud man. And he’s proud of his wife, Parker, artistic director of Step into Dance at the Royal Academy of Dance; their son Ilan Goodman, an actor most recently seen in Bad Jews at the Arts; and their daughter, Carla Goodman, a designer lately responsible for a show built from shipping containers on Greenwich Pier.

How is he enjoying his summer in Stratford? “I live like a monk. I rehearse and read all day, go to bed, get up and do some exercises.” He has rented a cottage by Holy Trinity church, where Shakespeare was baptised and buried.

His film work is scant, though he’s always better than good: as a concierge at the Ritz in Roger Michell’s Notting Hill (1999); as a motel owner in the Catskills in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock (2009); as a Jewish uncle (what else?) in Simon Curtis’s Woman in Gold (2015); and soon to be Trotsky and Henry Kissinger.

“I’m not complaining, but in modern life there are many Jews who are sophisticated, subtle, unaccented. If I did all the scripts I get sent – a bar mitzvah, a wedding, all that – they simply don’t reflect the world I know is out there. When did you last see a TV series about a Jewish sewage inspector? Why is it always a lawyer, consultant or a doctor?”

Search me, Henry. But I think you have a point.

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