Opening night – Doctor Faustus, starring Kit Harington, at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London
As Doctor Faustus opens in the West End, Matthew Hemley met cast members Kit Harington and Jenna Russell, as well as director Jamie Lloyd, to talk about bringing Marlowe’s play to the stage.
Kit Harington – Faustus
Blood, singing, nudity. There’s an awful lot going on on stage…
In all honesty that is one of the things I like about what Jamie does and what this play does. It’s a difficult text and a difficult play, and hopefully he doesn’t let you rest too long before something else comes along and throws up on you.
How did the part come about?
Jamie sets his sights on actors – and I knew he had set his sights on me, which was flattering from a director I really respect. I spoke to friends who have worked with him and they could not have been more encouraging about his process. I love his ethos – I love what he tries to do with theatre and the desire behind it. He’s seriously intelligent and good at what he does.
What it is that makes him special as a director?
He expects you to get up and start playing with it from day one. There is no sitting around a table talking for hours – you come to the rehearsal room off book, which is a feat in itself, and get up and play. And that is how we find out what it is. That is a terrifying but really inspiring way of working. Whatever I do next, it will be difficult to get out of that process.
This is only your third professional production after War Horse and Posh. Were you deliberately looking to get back into theatre after your television work in Game of Thrones?
Definitely. I said to my agents that I have been six years out of doing theatre and it’s my desire, my love. I wanted to be an actor from seeing theatre and trained three years at a drama school that specialised in stage. I felt I was losing grip on that a bit. There was a fear that I had maybe bitten off more than I could chew jumping straight back in with Marlowe and Faustus, but if you are not going to challenge yourself why bother?
How does it feel to be on stage six years after your last role in theatre?
It was terrifying but amazing. I had some success on Game of Thrones but I have only done two professional plays, so I felt a bit like ‘Come on now, who do you think you are?’ But Jamie brings in actors who in turn bring in a new audience – if I can do that through Thrones, and get the chance to play Faustus, then brilliant.
How are the Game of Thrones fans reacting to seeing you in this role?
We have had guys from Sweden, Greece, and Patagonia coming to see this show. Every day there are people outside the theatre who have travelled to see it because of what Thrones has done. I am not suggesting the young crowd who come don’t see theatre anyway, but if you can get a young crowd in who don’t usually see theatre you are constantly igniting a younger generation. Jamie’s theatre is not dull. It’s testing – and they have really enjoyed it. The audiences have been up for it. They are respectful.
Will you do more theatre after this?
Definitely soon, whether straight after I don’t know. But definitely before six years.
Jamie Lloyd – director
Tell us about your vision for the play.
It’s bonkers, it’s insane. It really is about a man trapped in his own head, who thinks he’s travelling all over the universe and visiting Las Vegas and meeting the president and Pope. But we can always see he never leaves his own pretty dismal front room. The idea of the production is that I am deliberately throwing everything at it: all the tricks and illusions, blood and bodily fluid, loud music and smoke. It’s meant to be a bombardment of stuff, until it almost becomes too much. Then you are exposing it for being ridiculous – the theatrical gimmicks become as trivial as the choices he makes. It’s meant to be as artificial as the inane decisions that he makes with his life.
What has it been like working with Kit Harington?
I think he’s one of the nicest men I’ve ever met. He’s incredibly generous. What you want when you do this kind of production is put together a group of people who are a real ensemble, true collaborators. I think I might have steered it a little, but really I gave them a platform to be as imaginative as possible – a lot of the ideas you see on stage came from the company. You want a leading man to be supportive of everyone on stage – for example, he could have had his own dressing room but he really wanted to share. That is a prime example of who he is in terms of being a team player. His face maybe on the front of the theatre but it’s really about everyone on the stage.
And how important is having a celebrity in the cast to selling a show?
For some reason we have taught audiences that event theatre is about celebrity actors. There is a particular energy created when you are about to see some of the finest actors on the stage a few feet away from you – and certainly an incredible buzz when they are famous. But we must not forget there are nine other people doing the most incredible work. Somehow we need to teach audiences that that is also the case – that theatre is not always about famous people. However, if you want to work with famous people you have to work with the best and those up for a challenge. Everyone we have worked with is up for doing something unusual and outside their comfort zone. James McAvoy had never done Shakespeare before working with me, the women in The Maids are doing the most mind-blowing performances in a really hard play – and they are up for that. It would be easy for Kit to do a safe drawing-room comedy – and I am sure he would be good at that – but he wanted a challenge. People working out of their comfort zone means, hopefully, you will get the best results.
Jenna Russell – Mephistopheles
What appealed about doing this role?
I chose it because I was about to be out of work and Jamie asked me to do it. I was working with Sheila Hancock [in Grey Gardens] and told her I’d been offered Doctor Faustus, and asked if there were any good parts for women and she said no. I thought it wasn’t like Jamie to offer me a shit part. She said the only thing they might have done is make Mephistopheles a woman. When the script arrived I saw they had done that. I was keen to work with Jamie again, and I love his ethos of bringing in young people to the theatre. It’s aimed very much at people who might not go or who think theatre is not for them. It’s an immediate production. And it’s been wonderful. Kit is a darling – a sweetheart.
You’re barely off stage. That must be hard work?
Those parts are usually the easier parts to play, bizarrely. It’s harder when you are sat in dressing room with a 20-minute break as your energy starts to dip. I wish people could see actors in dressing rooms. They are either sleeping or trying to keep themselves awake and pumped up. The lovely thing about being on stage all the time is that you do a real–time thing with the part and you don’t have time to slump or be in your dressing room looking at Facebook.
Do you think more productions should play around with gender?
If it suits it. Jamie and I never spoke about it – we just played the part. I have to say I think these days, so many young directors like Jamie and Robert Icke don’t see age, ethnicity or your sex – they just see an actor and it’s so refreshing. Rob is really like that. He just doesn’t think of you as anything but an actor bringing something to it. Jamie’s casts are so diverse and that is important when you are reaching out for a younger audience. It will inspire someone if they see themselves on stage.
How have Kit’s fans behaved in the theatre?
They are really well behaved. When he gets his bum out they “Ooh” and I am sure I will get death threats as I get to kiss him a lot. I have not experienced that excitement from an audience since doing Guys and Dolls with Ewan McGregor, when the crowds came to see him. It’s lovely for Kit – you don’t get to meet your fans when you do TV but every night they are here at the theatre.