Mark Gatiss: ‘There’s nothing quite like the sheer bloody terror of theatre’
By a strange sort of coincidence, October sees Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton all appearing on the London stage.
No sooner does Gatiss open next Tuesday in The Boys in the Band at the Park Theatre, than the very next night Shearsmith begins previews for a West End revival of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser, and three weeks later Pemberton leads the cast of Dead Funny. The three men were, of couse, all co-founders (with Jeremy Dyson) and stars of The League of Gentlemen, a TV comedy troupe that was born as a stage act (and won the Perrier comedy award at Edinburgh in 1997), before making three TV series between 1999 and 2002 and then a feature film in 2005.
“This is a sort of two-yearly story now, when we all seem to be doing plays at the same time,” says Gatiss, talking in a lunch break from rehearsals a couple of Saturdays before previews begun. “But we’re just working really.”
Today he tells me frankly: “I owe everything to the League – and we’re talking about doing something else now, as it has been 10 years since we worked together and we’d love to again.” Yet it also keeps reappearing in his life anyway: “It goes in cycles of rebirth. People come up to me and say they loved it when they were kids, which makes me feel ancient; but then kids come up to me who’ve just found it, too. It goes round and round.”
During those League years – “we were together for 11 years” – he and the others made a total commitment to it. “We made a pact that we wouldn’t get distracted. We’d seen a few of our contemporaries go off and do other things, but we didn’t want to lose sight of what we were doing, so if we did anything else it would be only short things that we could fit in.”
If the League will forever be a marker for him, another has become Sherlock, the modern version of Sherlock Holmes that he has written with Steven Moffat, and for which they’ve just completed a fourth series of three episodes.
“That takes it to 13 we’ve done in six years. People ask why we don’t do 10 a year, but it’s hard enough doing three every 18 months. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, like bottled lightning; it just came together, the idea of doing a modern version, the writing, the casting and the timing of it. Conan Doyle spent all his life trying to work out why people liked Sherlock Holmes; Steven and I just go, ‘fine’. It’s been astonishing; it sells to more places than there are countries, which is something to do with oil rigs and other territories. And Benedict [Cumberbatch] and Martin [Freeman] have become superstars through it.”
Gatiss is himself far too modest and self-effacing to consider himself a star, though as an actor earlier this year he won his first Olivier award for best actor in a supporting role for his appearance in Three Days in the Country at the National Theatre, and said in a post-award red carpet interview: “I’m over the moon, I really am. It’s a thrill, I’ve always wanted one and I am really pleased.”
He had every reason to be; as Kate Kellaway put it in her review in The Observer: “Mark Gatiss, as the ‘maestro of misdiagnosis’ Shpigelsky, gives a comic tour de force, and his immodest proposal to middle-aged Lizaveta brings the house down. He sinks to his knees to propose, but lumbago prevents him from rising and he crawls, in a most undignified style, across the stage, bottom up. It’s funny, but it is the more subtle aspects of Gatiss’ performance that fascinate most: the way he holds a smile, lets it go beyond its sell-by date: there is Shpigelsky’s vanity and misplaced confidence in it.”
He tells me he never had confidence in that comic routine himself: “Una Stubbs once told me that when she was doing a play at the Donmar Warehouse a friend told her how she loved that thing she was doing with her hands, and she never got a laugh from it again after that. It’s the old saw about a good review being as dangerous as a bad one. With the entire back routine in Three Days in the Country, I couldn’t remember what I had done about three months in; I lived in mortal dread of it going away, but it was also good because it kept it fresh.”
He keeps himself fresh by combining two careers, one as a writer, the other as an actor. “I’ve always done both. In an ideal year, I do half and half. Sherlock takes a long time to write, then four months to film; I then like to spend three months on a play.”
Theatre has become a mainstay for Gatiss. “I usually do a play a year, sometimes two,” with credits that stretch from the National (where as well as Three Days in the Country he also starred in Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings) to the Donmar (The Recruiting Officer, Josie Rourke’s first show at the helm), Hampstead Theatre (Howard Brenton’s 55 Days), and London’s Old Vic (All About My Mother). “I can write while I’m in a play, too, and I like that – it gives structure to the day – but I always forget, like the amnesia of childbirth, how tired I get. When you do a play you shift into a different pattern, and become more of a night owl, although I’m very much a morning person. When you’re in the theatre, you eat late and sleep later so that has an effect on the day.”
Theatre has also always been in his blood, ever since he first attended a drama club at school and an after-hours youth theatre, before going to study at Bretton Hall in Yorkshire, where he first met the other Leaguers and they formed The League of Gentlemen. “It’s such a different experience to sitting in a caravan waiting to film something. There’s nothing quite like the sheer bloody terror of theatre – and the smell of a freshly painted set is exactly the same wet paint smell I remember from drama club at school. It gives me the same tingle of anticipation and nerves and excitement.”
Being in a play is like a holiday romance – it’s very intense, then it dissipates
Of course, one of the joys of working in the theatre is that it is much more social than the solitary act of writing. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve been chained to a desk for months, so there’s nothing nicer than joining a new group of friends and everything that comes with it. It’s like a holiday romance – it’s very intense, then it dissipates.”
There’s no room for holiday romances, or ‘showmances’ as I’ve heard them dubbed, though: for the first time, he is working on stage with his actor husband Ian Hallard, whom he married seven years ago. “We’ll be like Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray now,” he quips. The ceremony was held at Middle Temple, the ancient Inn of Court in central London, and he can’t resist telling me: “The ceremony took place beneath the portrait of Edward Carson, the man who prosecuted Oscar Wilde. Who’d have thought? He’d be turning in his grave.”
Doing The Boys in the Band, Mart Crowley’s 1960s play about a group of gay men, together now was prompted partly by Hallard’s involvement in a rehearsed reading of the play four years ago, which Gatiss saw and tells me how much it resonated.
“One line that stood out was: ‘If we could only not hate ourselves quite so much.’ I thought it was brilliant. And then [producers] Tom O’Connell and James Seabright got a production together and the Park Theatre said yes, and I had a gap, so I joined, too. Ian was doing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Theatr Clwyd in the first three months of the year, and then I went straight off to do four months of Sherlock, so this is a good way of seeing each other now.”
There are other perks, too: “Jack Derges is utterly delightful – being kissed by him every day is all right. But Ian gets kissed by him first,” he hastens to add. The Park is also local to them – they live in nearby Islington – and he says: “I love this theatre. It has an indie feeling to it, and has a really loyal, local audience. But I’ve also wanted to play this part since I saw the film when I was 12 or 13. It’s an important play – it’s fascinating to see where we were, where we’ve got to, and between that, where we think things have changed or not at all. You know that a play is good when you stage it at different times and it means something different each time.”
Q&A: Mark Gatiss
What was your first non-theatre job? I worked as a gardener in a hospital across the road from where my dad worked.
What was your first professional theatre job? Working at Darlington Arts Centre, now sadly gone, which in its day was second only to the Barbican in terms of size. I was a deputy stage manager.
What is your next job? I’ve got a lot of things to write, most of them secret at the moment.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Who or what was your biggest influence? My greatest inspiration is Alan Bennett – I’ve never worked with him, but he is it. My acting hero is James Mason, who as a screen actor was unsurpassable; on stage, it is Mark Rylance – his Richard II was a life-changing experience for me, it was breathtaking.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Don’t go, leave them to me! But apart from that, whenever I’m involved in producing things, I try to get actor friends to come in and read in for those auditioning. It’s very unusual for actors to sit on the other side of the table, and they always find it revelatory. At the end of the day, they realise it is very rarely about not being good, but about the fit, and that’s reassuring to know. So my advice would be that if you can, try to get to sit on the other side of the table sometime – it will make you feel so much better when you don’t get a job.
If you hadn’t been an actor and writer, what would you have been? I’m very blessed to do this as I can’t do anything else. The only other thing I really wanted to was be a pantologist, but I didn’t have Latin.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I try not to as I’m quite a rational person, but in the face of the terror, I can’t tell you how many times I find myself whistling in the dressing room and having to go out in the corridor and turn around three times and blow a raspberry, hoping no one notices.
He goes on: “There is a lot of stuff in this play about self-loathing that is very relevant. The idea that that has gone away is a fallacy. The levels of mental illness and suicide in young gay men particularly is awful. I was talking to a friend recently who told me about a friend of his who struggled to come out. We imagine, living in our metropolitan bubble, that it is easy, but he had gone through hell – it sounded like something from the 1950s, but was to do with what was going on in his own head.”
The play premiered in 1968, a year ahead of Stonewall and the new age of gay liberation that ushered in, but it was a landmark play for portraying gay lives on a mainstream stage so unashamedly, and maybe critically. Some activists have resisted its portrait of these gay lives as too hostile and unhappy; but as Gatiss points out: “I hate the notion of things having to wear the weight of everything on their shoulders. This is actually a particular view of nine particular men, written from a very autobiographical standpoint by Mart Crowley. I feel very like I’m on a soapbox about this, but why should this play have to shoulder everyone’s stories? Obviously it was different when there were very few gay plays, but it’s not like that now that there’s a multiplicity of them, so we can look at it in its context.”
That context is also, of course, pre-Aids – though it’s a sad fact of that disease that it claimed no fewer than four of the play’s original New York cast. During the 1980s, the play duly fell off the gay theatre syllabus entirely; as Gatiss puts it: “There was a period when clearly this was the wrong thing to put on, when we were absolutely under siege. But the last time it was done in New York, Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times that it was apparently all right to like Boys in the Band again. As time passes and things shift, it is not just ripe for revival, but also still relevant. It’s a false assumption that all battles have been won. There’s a massive debate in the gay community about masculinity, for instance. And what really interests me is the notion how, in any community or cause, when you start to achieve victories, the things that give you common cause start to fray and then you start to turn in on yourself. It’s a bit like the Labour Party is doing now. But so much has been achieved.”
Yet the gay community is facing new challenges now, such as the disturbing rise in chemical drug addictions. “A friend has a really interesting theory about the perhaps subconscious feeling among gay people that we are somehow ‘other’. There’s that wonderful line in Inherit the Wind that you invent the telephone but lose the charm of distance; so for everything you gain, you lose something, too. And maybe the rise of chem-sex is a way for men to say, ‘Yes, I can marry and adopt children now, but I’m still not like you.’ And that’s really interesting.” Addictions are a way to try to cure, or at least temporarily relieve, pain, “whether it’s drugs or sex or booze, which this play is about. And from the outside, all looks fine now – you have Craig Revel Horwood and Bruno [Tonioli] on the TV, and Ian and I were on Graham Norton [on BBC Radio 2] this morning, so visibility is not an issue. Obviously huge steps have been made, but it’s folly to think that everything is rosy now.”
Mark Gatiss’ top tip for an aspiring writer and actor
• As Churchill said, keep buggering on, that’s the only thing you can do. For writing, there’s no such thing as a would-be writer. You do it or you don’t, so just get on with it. People are scared, they think they’ll be judged – but the only person doing that is yourself.
Some may still resist the portrait of these bitching, unhappy gay men all over again, but Gatiss is ready with his answer to them: “If someone says that’s not me, it’s not supposed to be. I find repellent the closing down and over-policing of things; it suffocates debate.” That’s a debate he wants to have. And apart from working with his husband, the play has an added resonance for him, too: in it, he plays Harold, whose birthday party provides the setting for the story, and he tells me, “I’ll turn 50 during the run, though we don’t have a show that night.”
After the run finishes, he plans to take a holiday at last: “I’m going to try to have an actual month off, to see if I can do it. People ask me if I’m a workaholic – I don’t think I am, but I love to work. Noel Coward once said work is more fun than fun, and I finished a script the other day and gave myself a day off work and I went off for a massage. But I was quite bored by the end of the day.”
CV: Mark Gatiss
Born: 1966, Sedgefield, County Durham
Training: Bretton Hall College
Landmark productions: All About My Mother, Old Vic, London (2007), Season’s Greetings, National Theatre (2010), The Recruiting Officer, Donmar Warehouse, London (2012), 55 Days, Hampstead Theatre, London (2012), Coriolanus, Donmar Warehouse, London, with Tom Hiddleston (2013), Three Days in the Country, National Theatre (2015)
Awards: Perrier award for comedy for The League of Gentlemen at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (1997), BAFTA for The League of Gentlemen TV series (2000), Royal Television Society award for The League of Gentlemen TV series (2000), Golden Rose of Montreux for The League of Gentlemen TV series (1999), Writers Guild award for best short-form TV drama for Sherlock (2012), Olivier award for best supporting actor for Three Days in the Country (2016).
Agents: Sarah Spear/Grace Clissold at Curtis Brown
The Boys in the Band runs at the Park Theatre, London, until October 30