|Simon Day in rehearsal for Love's Labour's Lost|
20 Questions With...Simon Day
Date: 17 February 2003
Simon Day has acted in more Trevor Nunn productions at the National than anyone, including Nunnís swansong, Love's Labour's Lost, which opens this week. Day reflects on the Nunn years, Tom Stoppard & his own playwriting.
Simon Day holds the record as the actor who has appeared in the most productions directed by Trevor Nunn during his five and a half years as artistic director of the National Theatre.
There have been seven in total: Troilus and Cressida, Albert Speer, the three plays from Tom Stoppard's epic The Coast of Utopia trilogy (Voyage, Salvage, Shipwreck), the current hit revival of Cole Porter musical Anything Goes and Nunn's final NT production, Love's Labour's Lost, which opens this week.
But, while Day's Nunn credentials are unrivalled, they aren't his only National Theatre credits. He's also appeared there in Hamlet, Candide, Money and Oh What a Lovely War!, as well as the one-man show Diary of a Madman, which also played at the Zemun Festival in Belgrade.
Elsewhere, his many stage appearances have included Romeo and Juliet, Love Off the Shelf, October Song, Good Woman of Setzuan, Venom, Oedipus Rex, The Crucible, The Barber of Seville, Blood Brothers, A Woman of No Importance and By Jeeves, which transferred to the West End following its run at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre.
On television, Day has appeared in a variety of shows including The House of Elliot, Peak Practice, London's Burning, Red Dwarf, Pie in the Sky, The Knock and Casualty.
Offstage, Day is also an accomplished playwright. His first play, a black comedy titled Spike, premiered in 2001 at Southampton's Nuffield Theatre, in a production starring Richard Briers. Since then, Day has continued to write and, during The Coast of Utopia, his play The Country Doctor - based on a short story by Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, who was also a character in Stoppard's trilogy - was staged at the end of 2002 as part of the NT's platform series.
Day continues to star at the NT Olivier as Lord Evelyn in Anything Goes, which last week won the 2003 Olivier for Outstanding Musical Production. This week, he joins the same ensemble - bolstered by Joseph Fiennes and Olivia Williams - in Nunn's swansong production, Love's Labour's Lost, in which Day plays the King of Navarre.
Date & place of birth
Born 13 April 1967 in Gillingham, Kent.
Lives now in...
My wife and I live in Camden at the moment, but we've being doing up a house in Whitstable in Kent. We're planning to move in there in about six weeks when our first baby is born.
University of East Anglia and Bristol Old Vic.
First big break
Working with Alan Ayckbourn in Scarborough was a break. I did a full season with him and then returned twice subsequently. The third time was with By Jeeveswhich then transferred to the West End. But I suppose getting in at the National was my biggest break. I've had five wonderful years here and done lots of work with Trevor Nunn.
Career highlights to date
There were a number of moments when we were doing The Coast of Utopia trilogy. I'd be standing in the wings waiting to go on to do a fabulous scene written by Tom Stoppard in a wonderful production directed by Trevor Nunn. I'd think, if I could turn back the clock ten years, would I have ever believed that I'd be here now? I don't think so. I had to keep pinching myself to believe it.
Another highlight was doing The Diary of a Madman in Belgrade two years ago as part of a festival of what they call "monodrama". That was a rare treat. It was scary because it was just me. The stakes are higher with a one-man show but, if it succeeds, the rewards are greater, too. It was also pretty wonderful performing to 500 people whose first language is not English.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
I had a fantastic time doing Albert Speer, even though we only had 29 performances. It was about such incredibly difficult and depressing issues - centring on Hitler's architect and whether he knew the extent of the Nazi atrocities - but it was a terrific new piece of theatre and we had the most fabulous acting company.
I've also loved doing Anything Goes, which couldn't be more different from Albert Speer. That's what's so wonderful about being an actor, that you can have such widely differing sensory experiences. With Anything Goes you can sense the audience's joy; even if they come in dreary because of the weather or the economy or the fact that we're about to go to war, they leave uplifted. We liken it to a champagne enema.
Simon Russell Beale from Hamlet - I played Horatio. And Alex Jennings from Albert Speer, in which I played another Horatio-type character. They are both great guys and it was wonderful to be able to observe and learn from them. And we all had a cracking time during The Coast of Utopia.
I've got to say Trevor Nunn, who's given me so many amazing opportunities. I've also very much liked working with Dominic Hill, who directed Diary of a Madman, and John Caird.
Harold Pinter - though I've not actually been in any of his productions professionally, I'm gagging to. I've become a big fan of Tom Stoppard's since The Coast of Utopia. When I'd seen his plays before, I'd often felt stupid. That's a danger with his writing, but it's a danger worth taking. In an age of dumbing down, Stoppard dumbs up, he challenges the audience. I think I was just lazy before, but now I'm a convert. And I love about the great Americans - Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill. I studied the 20th century novel and drama at university and got quite fanatical about them.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Having played Horatio and understudied Simon Russell Beale's Hamlet, I got a real taste for that part and would like to tackle it in my own production. I'd also like to play Iago in Othello and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. All Shakespeare, that's rather dull, isn't it? I would also like to play an American. I've actually never played one, even though accents are a strong suite of mine and I'm married to an American.
What's the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
I'm performing so much it's difficult to go to the theatre. Jitney was the last thing I saw that I "standingly ovated". It was fantastically engaging. Stories about unfinished business between people really speak to me.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Stop making war.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) who would it be?
Probably an astronaut, though I'd like to swap while they were orbiting the earth, before they have to come down! Or an underwater photographer. I haven't got the bravery or the skill to do either of those jobs.
Favourite holiday destinations
The only holidays I get these days is reading the travel section of the weekend newspaper. I've read about a place in Morocco called Essaouira that sounds wonderful. I'd also like to visit St Petersburg.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald and A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I also enjoy the short stories of Tobias Wolf.
Favourite after-show haunts
I'm a member of a private club called Black's in Dean Street in Soho. It's open until 1.00am, which is very handy, and has a wonderful lived-in, Georgian comfiness to it. The food is lovely there, too. But working at the National, it's often easier to go to Joe Allen's since it's just across the bridge.
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I never had any other ideas aside from theatre. I'm a playwright as well. My most recent play came out of being steeped in all things Russian when I was performing in The Coast of Utopia. The chap who runs the National's Platforms approached me because he wanted to programme a number of Russian things. He suggested that I adapt Ivan Turgenev's short story The Country Doctor, so I got on and did it.
Why did you want to accept your parts in Love's Labour's Lost & Anything Goes?
They were the ones on offer! When you're working for a director like Trevor who has such definite visions, you trust his judgment. Lord Evelyn (from Anything Goes) is lovely, silly, fun-loving, your stereotypical English gentlemen with a twist. The King of Navarre (from Love's Labour's Lost) is in a similar vein - very high-brow but naÔve. The challenge is making the differences between the two, and also getting enough sleep! Most of the cast have been napping between the hours of 4.00pm and 6.00pm, while we're rehearsing during the day and doing a show in the evening. It's extremely hard work. Even though the two plays are linked - both being about hidden identity, looking for love and possibly marrying the wrong person - they couldn't be more different in terms of setting, language and mood. Anything Goes is joyous and silly; Love's Labour's Lost is more painful and bittersweet.
Would you like to see a return to more repertory companies?
Yes, there should be more repertory. It's a great learning tool for actors and it also leads to more imaginative casting. You can have someone playing a fop in one play and a gangster in the next, which is a real test of their acting skills. The joy of acting is in forgetting yourself for a couple of hours and becoming someone else entirely. There's nothing more boring than playing a character who's just like you.
As the most frequently cast actor in his NT productions, what will be your abiding memory of the Trevor Nunn directorship of the National?
I don't know anything about how Trevor's run the building so I can't comment on that, but I can say the quality of his productions has been out of this world. There's a nickname for him, "Second to None", which is obviously a pun on his surname but, in terms of his ability for staging, it really is true. Especially in the Olivier - this huge, cavernous space - he is unrivalled in being able to fill it with people and movement and grand images. He's also terribly good at not neglecting people in smaller parts. In a Nunn production, everyone knows what they're doing all the time.
One of my lasting memories of working with him here will, I think, be from the first week of rehearsals for Love's Labour's Lost. We did a three-day Shakespeare workshop, which was necessary because a large portion of the company had never done Shakespeare before. I remember thinking what an extraordinary privilege it was to be sitting at Trevor Nunn's feet in his last months at the National, with him giving us - with such passion - the benefit of his enormous knowledge of Shakespeare.
What's your favourite Shakespeare play? And Cole Porter musical?
My favourite Shakespeare play is Measure for Measure because it so defies categories. It's not a tragedy, it's not really a comedy and it's not a romance either. It is quite funny but also dark, chaotic and rather strange. As for Porter, I have to admit the one I'm in is the only one I've ever seen or heard.
What's the funniest thing that has happened in rehearsals or runs to date of the productions?
We had a hoot choreographing and rehearsing the Gypsy song for Anything Goes. Stephen Mear came up with some marvellously silly business with a tambourine and then dropping Reno Sweeney. I haven't laughed like that for years.
What are your plans for the future?
Imminent fatherhood seems to be eclipsing everything at the moment. In terms of playwriting, I'm adapting a second Turgenev short story, which I'd like to play as a double bill with The Country Doctor, and I'm also translating a German play. There's talk, too, of Anything Goes transferring to the West End. I couldn't possibly say whether or not I'd like to go with it, as that would put me in a bad bargaining position with producers.
Love's Labour's Lost opens on 21 February 2003 (following previews from 15 February) at the NT Olivier, where it joins Anything Goes in repertory.