After starring in TV epics such as Strike, The Musketeers and War and Peace, many would expect Tom Burke’s return to stage to be a big West End role. But, he tells Eleanor Ross, a love of regional theatre has led him in another direction
Even before taking a seat, Tom Burke has launched animatedly into a subject close to his heart – regional theatres. “They are running on passion and anger,” he says. “There’s just no money there at all.”
Burke is perhaps most famous for a role on television. He stars as Cormoran Strike, a war veteran turned private detective, in the BBC series based on the novels JK Rowling wrote under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
Yet the actor is steeped in theatre and is returning to the stage this month. Not to the West End, like many colleagues who have built a big following on TV, but to three venues outside central London – first Exeter Northcott Theatre, followed by Nuffield Southampton, and finally the Rose Theatre Kingston.
Burke is even-spoken, but he becomes fiery when talking about regional theatres and the vital role they play in the UK’s cultural life. “There are absolutely amazing people running regional theatres, and amazing regional companies,” he says. “Regional theatres don’t patronise their audiences, and they’re not afraid to do big, bold things. You only have to look at Manchester’s Royal Exchange or Home to understand the huge energy outside London – there’s enough talent around the country to have a Donmar and National in every city. It just comes down to money.”
Regional theatre faces huge challenges, however. Local authority funding for the arts has dropped by a third since 2008, and the impact is keenly felt in live performance around the UK. “People working in regional theatres are essentially supplementing the arts in the sacrifices they’re making to keep these buildings open,” Burke says.
Buoyed by his desire to create strong theatre for regional audiences, Burke founded Ara Theatre Company in collaboration with prolific Israeli director Gadi Roll. The name, he has previously said, “was my grandmother’s sort of nickname”. Its first production is Friedrich Schiller’s 1787 play Don Carlos, and Burke is to take on the role of Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa.
The play, which the New York Times once described as “Schiller’s answer to Hamlet”, was written two years before the French Revolution at a time of great European instability. “It’s an absolutely extraordinary text, and with it, we want to push the boundaries of what theatre can do,” Burke says. “As an actor it certainly pushes you to the edge of any talent or technique. It will also be technically demanding.”
Don Carlos tackles themes of freedom of expression, religious bigotry and state persecution, which makes the play relevant to today’s audiences. “Philip of Spain is a ruler who has forgotten that a ruler is there to serve the people,” the actor says. “We see similar things happening around the world today.”
His character, Posa, wants to save the world. For people such as that, there “has to be a bit of megalomania”, says Burke. “It’s fascinatingly nuanced about the way it deals with relationships in a political marriage, involving two people with absolutely opposing ideals.”
Burke says he favours “highly speculative” stories in theatre. Much of Shakespeare is speculative, he explains, as his plays are based on hypothetical situations. “Take King Lear, for example. It’s just a nuclear explosion after a series of overreactions… a series of what-ifs.” Not all theatre can operate in this way, and Burke acknowledges that there’s a place for work that also covers the minutiae of everyday life. But, he says, “TV is certainly good at doing that too.”
Q&A: Tom Burke
What do you wish you had known when starting out?
Nothing. I tend to look back fondly on career disasters.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
The Wrestling School.
Do you have any advice for auditions?
Read the script and make decisions.
If you hadn’t been an actor what would you have done?
Probably joined a cult.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I spend about 20 minutes to an hour convincing myself the universe is going to stop us doing the show. It’s nerves. Eventually I resign myself to my fate and feel better.
It’s probably mad timing to return to theatre from television, Burke grins – other stand-out roles in big BBC series include Fedor Dolokhov in War and Peace and Athos in The Musketeers – “The risk is always bigger. It’s so often the case that if an actor has a profile in TV or film, then theatre gets squeezed somewhere in between other projects. I had a window between filming Strike to get something with a huge degree of authorship sorted, and that meant deciding on the play and the director.”
He discussed this collaboration with Roll after they worked together on Don Juan Comes Back from the War at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry in 2007. “I feel such a partnership with this man,” Burke says. “When I work with him I feel as though I’m suddenly completely aware of why I do things and why I’m an actor. I do enjoy filming, but it can sometimes feel like there’s a lot of waiting around and you’re one cog in something bigger. But in theatre, there’s a sense of immediacy and of being part of a team.”
The 37-year-old has worked as an actor consistently across theatre, TV and film throughout his entire career, and got his first job after writing to an agent aged 17, in straight-to-DVD film Dragonheart: A New Beginning. He comes from a family of theatre royalty – his parents are Anna Calder-Marshall and David Burke – and his godfather, Alan Rickman, financially supported him to go to RADA. “All those figures around me were very important.”
Drama school still has a big role to play in an actor’s training, he says. “After all, you wouldn’t book a holiday from any old random agency. You want to know they can deliver.”
He praises what the different schools have to offer. “In ‘top tier’ schools you are given three years of wonderful things to learn and parts to play and, suddenly, when that stops, you freak out,” he says. “There are schools such as East 15 doing amazing things, where it’s all about creating theatre, where you train as an actor-creator, and what a muscle that hones. Okay, so fewer people might come out of these programmes crying: ‘I’m ready. Put me on the Olivier’, but they’re still doing extremely exciting and challenging things.”
His family always supported his ambitions to become an actor, as long as he went to drama school first. “I was at dance school when I was auditioning, and I felt the impact dance had on acting at the time – it made me consider movement more, and realise how freeing and exciting the body is.”
His early stage roles included Hamlet at the Riverside Studios, though in a reworking by Howard Barker titled Gertrude – The Cry, and his performance was described as “very funny and touching” by the Independent’s critic Paul Taylor. He played Romeo at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2004, followed by Malcolm in a production of Macbeth at the Almeida the following year.
Since then he has performed at venues including the Donmar Warehouse – where he won the Ian Charleson Award for his performance in Creditors, directed by Rickman – the Old Vic and the National Theatre. At the latter he played Freddie Page opposite Helen McCrory’s Hester Collyer in the 2016 production of Deep Blue Sea and brought a “charismatic swagger” and “easy naturalism” to the role, according to The Stage’s review.
Despite early dance training, Burke doesn’t leap towards roles that require excessive movement. “I’ve done the odd jig and ballroom scene, but if someone said: ‘This role involves a lot of dance’, I’d be scared. It’s not something I’d necessarily go for.”
Yet he is hugely in awe of those who make musical theatre. “When I go to see a musical I come out in a daze. I’m so overawed by them. The last show I saw was Show Boat, and I’m convinced that [director] Daniel Evans is a complete genius. I didn’t go to see musicals for years and I realise now it was because I was hugely envious and sat there feeling how wonderful all the performers were.”
So does he fancy pulling on the tap shoes for his next stage outing, especially after such a dark and brooding work as the Schiller? “Gadi and I were in the middle of auditions for Don Carlos,” Burke smiles. “He did say: ‘Maybe it’s a good idea to do a musical next’.”
Born: London, 1981
• Creditors, Donmar Warehouse, London (2008)
• Deep Blue Sea, National Theatre, London (2016)
• Strike (2017)
• The Musketeers (2014-2016)
• Ian Charleston Award, Creditors, Donmar Warehouse, London, 2008
Agent: Troika Talent