He has worked extensively at the RSC and National Theatre. Past roles include Gabriel in Gates of Gold (Manchester Library Theatre) and King Lear in King Lear (Southwark Playhouse).
His film work includes the part of Hrothgar in Beowulf (1999) and recent television credits include an appearance as Michael Heseltine in Margaret (BBC2).
In the arid heat of Oklahoma in the 1930s, Depression hit drought-wrought farmers hard. Families in their thousands upped sticks and headed to California, escaping the poverty and unpredictable, harsh dust storms that made living off the land insupportable. What the travellers escaped into was a life equally harsh, as they became migrant workers, despised by native Californians and exploited by their new employers. These difficulties are at the root of John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, < i>The Grapes of Wrath, which has been adapted for stage by Frank Galati and under the direction of Chichester Festival Theatre’s Artistic Director Jonathan Church, is currently touring with an impressive cast of twenty.
Oliver Cotton is one of those, taking on the role of Jim Casey, the newly converted preacher who accompanies the Joad family as they follow the path of the many migrants before them. Cotton’s view of his character, Jim Casey, neatly echoes the shifting nature of the wider action in The Grapes of Wrath itself: “The character is a man who’s been through a sort of epiphany, he’s changing his life, he’s in the middle of a huge life change when the play starts. He sees his past as something false and manipulative: he used to use his power, use his charisma as a preacher to have sex with girls, and have a good time. He’s changing in his philosophy to being a very religious man, to having more faith in human beings and human society.”
Jim Casey plays an inciting role in crucial moments within the play, including a number of tense scenes, as the Joad family are often moved along by various bullying figures of authority, and as Cotton explains, “It gets very violent at some points.” To bring these scenes to life, he says, “we have a very good fight director, called Terry King, who’s terrific, and in fact they’re quite powerfully done. They’re very simple, but they take a lot of working out. We have a fight rehearsal every day before we do the show, for safety purposes, every day.”
As well as taking part in these fight scenes as Jim Casey, Cotton has a death scene to contend with (not to spoil the plot): “Well, my death scene comes out of the blue, it happens so quickly...” On the subject of how much of a challenge they are, Cotton is unfazed: “In general death scenes aren’t tricky, not really! You have to do a bit of medical research actually, if you get shot, or hit, you have to work out what would happen to you, but it’s not rocket science – you’ll generally just end up falling over! But you do have to work out how to do it carefully because if you fall on the same place every night you can really hurt yourself. You can get some terrible bruises.”
Discovering the history held within The Grapes of Wrath’s story was another bit of important research that Cotton carried out: “We all did a lot of research, it was an integral part of rehearsal. I knew quite a bit about it anyway because I’m very interested in American history. It’s very important to get the details right... It’s usually something very small that helps you, a hat, or a piece of clothing that you might see in a photograph, what sort of shoes people were wearing.”
Going deeper into the context of the play was useful, as Cotton says, because it gave crucial clues about people’s existence in poverty that we could never truly grasp from our own lives: “It’s what you don’t know that’s important, because these people had nothing at all. There wasn’t a McDonalds to go to, there was no hospital to go to. They had nothing, and they lived in the most miserable backward part of America in constant dust storms, with no hope. If you wanted a meal, you had to dig out a piece of salt pork and make a fire to cook it. They had no money, and life was very, very hard. It’s hard for us now to understand because we are very pampered in our lifestyle, we’re just used to it; even if we’re poor we can still go and get a bag of crisps. So we don’t understand that pain of just having the clothes you’re standing in, and if the rickety car they’re travelling in breaks down you’ve had it – everything’s a problem.”
But we shouldn’t come to see it for a reality check, says Cotton: “I hope people want to come and see it because they want to see a good story. But people have to come see it as a sort of lesson.” However, he does see that there are resonances with events today: “I think it has a lot of echoes with what’s happening now – and what happened in Grapes of Wrath was that a lot of bankers foreclosed on people’s land and just threw them off the land. And now, specifically bankers are ruining people’s lives. People certainly when they’ve come and seen it have said they’re very moved by it, but also, that they’re very disturbed by the parallels in it.”
Ultimately, Cotton believes that a performance is about the here and now: “You want people to believe it’s happening right now, otherwise they can go and read it. If I watch a play, I want to believe that it’s happening right there, that’s the difference between acting and reading: it has to be immediate. We’ve been doing the play every night, and it seems screamingly obvious, but it’s very true, the hardest thing is to recreate it, night after night, as though it is the first time, because it’s the audience’s first time.” If reviews are to relied upon, then that is exactly what’s in store for The Grapes of Wrath’s audiences at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and beyond.
- Oliver Cotton was speaking to Vicky Ellis
The Grapes of Wrath is at West Yorkshire Playhouse until 13 October, and afterwards continues on its national tour.