Jonathan Guy Lewis: ‘Soldiers and actors are similar – both dress up and put on a show’
Discharged from the army at 22, Jonathan Guy Lewis embarked on a stage career. The actor and writer tells Nick Smurthwaite how the army still features in his work and why his latest play addresses the UK school system
It has been a hectic year so far for actor, director and playwright Jonathan Guy Lewis. His show Soldier On, about military post-traumatic stress disorder, has just come to the end of a six-week UK tour, and this week he opens a new play, The Be All and the End All, at York Theatre Royal, playing opposite his partner Imogen Stubbs.
Lewis is best known for his award-winning 1993 play Our Boys, which was based on his own experience of spending time in a military hospital after being invalided out of the army.
In his formative years, the army and theatre were parallel interests for the 54-year-old. “They were the only two things I excelled in at school. I ran the Combined Cadet Force at St Dunstan’s and I loved acting in school plays. The two are not unconnected. Both involve dressing up and putting on a show.”
After university, he started officer training at Sandhurst, but was invalided out with a rare back injury within days. Instead of being fast-tracked up the military hierarchy, he ended up in a soldiers’ hospital in Woolwich for a month, giving him a unique insight into the mindset of the young veterans around him.
Discharged from the army at 22, he implemented plan B – become an actor – so he took himself off to drama school.
The two disciplines – military and dramatic – continued to coalesce when he landed a leading role in the television series Soldier Soldier, and more recently in his work with RADA in Business, teaching communication skills to top military brass.
“It’s not about standing around pretending to be trees,” he says. “It’s about self-awareness, how you connect with people, being very clear about what you’re saying and how you say it, how to lead in a non-command and control environment.”
Ever since Our Boys, Lewis has been deeply engaged with the dilemma of soldiers returning from active duty with physical and psychological scars.
He is actively involved with the Soldiers’ Arts Academy, a veterans group that meets once a week in a community centre in Fulham. “It’s a chance for those attending to play and let go, to experiment and explore. Some of the veterans have become actors.”
The company of Soldier On was half soldiers, half actors. “We created a tight little community, more akin to being on location with a film. It was important for me, as the director, to build trust and provide wrap-around care for the company.”
A rave review of Soldier On in the Sunday Times suggested it should transfer to the West End, and the show’s producer, Amanda Faber, who also runs the Soldiers’ Arts Academy, is looking for a suitable central London venue for the autumn, perhaps to coincide with events to commemorate the centenary of the 1918 Armistice.
Q&A: Jonathan Guy Lewis
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working as a temp for Swiss Reinsurance in Sevenoaks.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Appearing at Leeds Playhouse in 1988 in Jean Binnie’s Colours – Jean Barry Esq and Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
My housemaster and drama teacher at St Dunstan’s College, Martin Preston.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That there is more to life.
If you hadn’t been an actor and playwright, what would you have been?
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Don’t appear to need it when you walk in the room because directors can smell it. As an actor, the best auditions I’ve ever done have been when I didn’t care.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
To help me concentrate and focus, I always smother myself in rosemary oil before I go on. As Shakespeare once said, rosemary for remembrance.
Meanwhile, Lewis is preoccupied with his latest play. The Be All and End All has just opened at York Theatre Royal, the second part of his trilogy about the failings of the UK’s education system. The three plays look at secondary education from the perspective of the pupil, the parent and the teacher.
Schools are now businesses and we’ve lost sight of the curiosity needed for an all-round education
“It is loosely based on my own experience of my son’s education,” he says. “After GCSEs, it all became about league tables, ticking boxes and the school’s reputation. In my view, the whole notion of standardised testing has got out of hand. Schools are now businesses, processing our kids, and we’ve lost sight of the curiosity needed for an all-round education.”
The first play, A Level Playing Field, produced in 2015, explored the pressure put on high-achieving teens as they strived for places at the top universities. In The Be All and End All, a politician’s marriage is torn apart by their conflicting ideas about what is best for their son. The final play will look at educational pressures from the teacher’s point of view.
One of the inspirations for Lewis’ critique was Ken Robinson’s TED talks about the urgent need for more creativity in education. His 2017 talk Do Schools Kill Creativity? is the most watched TED talk to date.
For the past nine years, Lewis has been on something of a creative journey himself, in the stage adaptation of Jasper Rees’ autobiographical book I Found My Horn. The solo show is about a middle-aged man dealing with his midlife crisis by rediscovering his love of the French horn.
Coincidentally Lewis, like Rees, is a lapsed French horn player and says that coming back to the instrument in middle age has been “cathartic”. The play finishes with the lead character attempting to play a Mozart horn concerto at the annual concert of the British Horn Society.
“I once played the Mozart Horn Concerto when I was about 15 and I pretended to faint halfway through because it was going so badly,” says Lewis. “It was my first acting experience and my cue to give up playing the French horn.”
Clearly this is not a man who lets the grass grow under his feet. “I’ve always been proactive in making things happen,” says the actor, whose TV acting credits include two series of Soldier Soldier, three series of London’s Burning and a long-running part in Holby City.
“I’m not knocked back by people turning me down for things, but I’ve never liked the idea of sitting around waiting for the work to be put in front of me.”
CV: Jonathan Guy Lewis
Born: 1963, Woolwich, London
Training: University of Exeter; Guildhall School of Music and Drama (1985-88)
• An Inspector Calls, Aldwych Theatre (1994)
• Our Boys, Donmar Warehouse (1995)
• Speaking in Tongues, Hampstead Theatre (2002)
• A Few Good Men, Theatre Royal Haymarket (2003)
• I Found My Horn, various venues (2009)
• A View from the Bridge, UK tour (2015)
• A Level Playing Field, Jermyn Street Theatre (2015)
• Soldier On, UK tour (2018)
• Soldier Soldier, ITV (1996-97)
• London’s Burning, ITV (1998-2000)
Agent: Artists’ Partnership
The Be All and End All is at York Theatre Royal from May 4 until May 19, then at Mercury, Colchester May 22-26 and Windsor Theatre Royal from May 28-June2