Past/Present/Future for Ö Douglas HodgeDate: 13 November 2008
Actor-director Douglas Hodge stars as drag queen Albin in Terry Johnsonís acclaimed Menier Chocolate Factory production of Broadway musical comedy La Cage Aux Folles, now transferred to the West End. As an actor, he has appeared in more than ten Harold Pinter plays and his other recent stage credits include Titus Andronicus, Pericles, A Matter of Life and Death, Dumb Show and Guys & Dolls, for which he was Olivier and Whatsonstage.com Award-nominated for playing Nathan Detroit opposite Ewan McGregorís Sky Masterson. His directing credits include The Dumb Waiter, See How They Run and, at the Donmar Warehouse, Absurdia, where heís been appointed an associate director and will revive Athol Fugardís rarely seen 1975 play Dimetos, starring Jonathan Pryce, in the new year.
PAST: I went into theatre because I always wanted to create things from scratch Ė do what I would call proper art. I knew Iíd never write a novel but I did have a secret life writing music, although I wasnít confident enough to make a career out of it. The only other way into being creative from my background was to go into acting. I joined the National Youth Theatre, but then as soon as I got into RADA I decided I really wanted to direct, so I left early, only to find that I got work straight away as an actor. Itís only lately that Iíve started to feel confident about directing Ė and that itís not wrong to advise my peers about which choices to make. Now I love it, and Iíve directed film as well as theatre. The song-writing continues too. Itís been a kind of therapy that has gone on throughout my life. Again, it was only much later when I was in Guys and Dolls, that it really began to emerge.
Looking back, Iíd say one of the biggest influences on my career and on me personally has been my association with Harold Pinter. The first play I directed was The Dumb Waiter and Iíve been in ten of his plays, including No Manís Land. Going to the recent West End press night of the revival starring Michael Gambon was really moving. I was jealous that I wasnít still up there doing it! My relationship with Harold has been extraordinary. Iíd say heís been a fatherly figure throughout my entire career.
Itís interesting when you direct because youíre using lots of different collaborative skills all of the time. But there is a sort of terror about being a polymath. In England, if you can do more than one thing, youíre immediately smirked at, which is quite dangerous I think. Iíve seen it happen to other people. But I love it because you use different parts of your brain. When we were rehearsing See How They Run, I was also at Shakespeareís Globe acting in Titus Andronicus. It was three hours of grief, murder, bloodshed and horror at night and then during the day I was directing light relief farce.
Iíve also been appointed as an associate director at the Donmar Warehouse, which means I help with the programming and direct one show a year and feed in ideas. Iíve already directed a season of absurdist plays there and next year Iím directing Dimetos by Athol Fugard. All these things feed into one another and that can be energising, as long as you donít get exhausted. Itís probably why I got ill with pneumonia before we opened La Cage Aux Folles at the Menier Ė my body just shut down. Iíve never felt so bad in all my life. It was a big lesson. Now I try not to do too much at once and channel my energies into fewer things. But when the curtain comes down on La Cage I still find Iím on the Tube reading through the next project at the Donmar.
PRESENT: Having a long gap between the season at the Menier and transferring to the Playhouse was a great opportunity because it meant we didnít rush in unprepared. Every single aspect of the show has been improved. The worry was that we would lose the clubby feel, as if you were going into a drag club, but I donít think we have. In an early preview I just sat on the edge of the the stage like Judy Garland and sang to everyone and it felt really intimate. And thereís a new bit which we couldnít have done at the Menier. At the end of ďI Am What I AmĒ I storm off stage, through the audience and straight out onto the street Ė into the pouring rain some nights! If we had gone to a bigger venue, it would have radically changed the feel of the production. Despite all the glamour and campness, thereís still this backstage edge where itís seedy and awful and tough hard work. I love all that Ė the smell of it.
What rings true for me about Albin is the moment during the song ďA Little More MascaraĒ when heís looking in the mirror and doesnít know who he is any more and transforms himself into Zaza. He starts off slumped like a depressed clown and transforms into this persona who has tremendous bravado and guts. Camp in itself is a sort of armour you can build around yourself for protection, as I discovered when I visited lots of drag clubs when I was researching the role. Some of the most dangerously witty camp people are actually among the most vulnerable people you could ever meet.
When Harvey Fierstein wrote La Cage with Jerry Herman, he says he fought for a gay actor to play Albin and I can understand where heís coming from. Heís a very political man and La Cage made a big difference to a lot of peoplesí lives. But as a straight actor, I have other things I can bring to the role from my own life experiences. Iíve been in a relationship for 25 years, and this show is partly about the compromises Albin and his partner George make along the way in their longstanding partnership. Also, Iíve adopted a child, which Albin has done Ė something that a lot of gay people may not have done. So there are a lot of aspects of Albin which are common to me.
The secret of performing an anthem like ďI Am What I AmĒ is to do it in character and never let it become something outside of the show. Itís someone saying that we must have the strength to be ourselves. The first time I did it, it struck me as being exactly like something out of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet Ė the number has this kind of common ownership which I hadnít realised happened in musicals, even when I played Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls where there was this Frank Sinatra thing going on. Most of the audience are mouthing the words with you. I feel I have a massive responsibility to deliver their expectations.
FUTURE: It was my idea to direct Dimetos at the Donmar, which starts rehearsals in February. Why? Because itís a masterpiece. I discovered the play when I was doing See How They Run. When Michael Grandage asked me to become associate at the Donmar, I gave him a list of three plays Iíd like to do and it was at the top. Essentially itís like a modern piece of poetry although written in dialogue Ė and disturbing on subterranean levels. Jonathan Pryce is the only actor I wanted to play the title role. He has everything I like about good acting Ė incredible virility and danger. Heís the man.
Iíve also been commission to write a musical, which broadens my life even more. Iíve written it with Aschlin Ditta, an old friend from the National Youth Theatre and who wrote a film I did a couple of years ago called Scenes of a Sexual Nature. Itís already been taken up by producer Matthew Byam Shaw and weíve workshopped it with Sheila Hancock, Catherine Tate, Lara Pulver, David Haig and Jason Pennycooke who is in La Cage. Itís a love story set across 50 years and the working title is Meantime, which may change Ė perhaps weíll add an exclamation mark!
So Iím playing the lead in a West End musical, Iím writing a musical and Iím preparing to direct a play at the Donmar Ė thatís enough to be going on with, surely!
- Douglas Hodge was talking to Roger Foss
Following its initial run at the Menier Chocolate Factory at the start of the year, La Cage Aux Folles opened on 30 October 2008 (previews from 20 October) at the West Endís Playhouse Theatre, where itís currently booking until 10 January 2009. The production is directed by Terry Johnson and also stars Denis Lawson (as Albinís partner Georges), Tracie Bennett and Paula Wilcox.