An associate artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company, actor Roger Allam was a regular fixture in Stratford and at the RSC’s former London home at the Barbican Centre for ten years from 1981 to 1991.
His myriad credits with the company include All’s Well That Ends Wells, Our Friends in the North, The Twin Rivals, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Today, Richard III, The Party, The Archbishop’s Ceiling, Heresies, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Much Ado About Nothing, The Seagull, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the premiere of musical blockbuster, Les Miserables, in which he originated the part of Javert.
In the West End, Allam has been seen in City of Angels, Arcadia, The Importance of Being Earnest, What the Night Is For (opposite Gillian Anderson) and, twice (once as Marc, once as Serge) in Art. In 2002, Allam won his second Laurence Olivier Award, a Best Actor honour for his role as Captain Terri Dennis in the Donmar Warehouse revival of Peter Nichols’ Privates on Parade.
At the Olivier Awards the year before, Allam was nominated for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for, respectively, Summerfolk and Money, two productions performed by Trevor Nunn’s acclaimed Ensemble company at the National. Allam won the latter, as well as the Clarence Derwent Award for the Ensemble’s production of Troilus and Cressida. His other National credits have included The Way of the World, Albert Speer and The Cherry Orchard.
Allam has also performed seasons at Birmingham Rep, the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre and Manchester’s Contact Theatre and, in the mid 1970s, was a founder member of the feminist-orientated Monstrous Regiment Theatre Company.
On screen, Allam has been seen in the likes of Manchild, Foyle’s War, Waking the Dead, Chambers, The Creatives, Heartbeat, Midsomer Murders, Between the Lines, Inspector Morse, The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, The Swiss Family Robinson, RKO 281 and Henry IV.
In September 2003, Allam returned to the National to star in the the world premiere of Michael Frayn’s Democracy, for which he was nominated for another Best Actor Olivier. He plays West German chancellor Willy Brandt, starring alongside Conleth Hill as Brandt’s spying assistant Gunter Guillaume. After extended runs in the NT Cottesloe and Lyttelton, the production transfers this week to the West End’s Wyndham’s Theatre.
Date & place of birth
I was born at All Hallows Rectory, Devons Road, Bromley by Bow (east London) at ten in the morning one day in the mid to late Fifties.
Lives now in…
East Sheen, southwest London.
First big break
That was probably in 1983 when Sheila Hancock gave me a big break during my time at the RSC. Sheila and John Caird put together a small-scale tour, and I kind of became the leading man. I played Oberon/Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. That shoved me up the ranks.
Career highlights to date
1987 in Stratford was a highlight because, suddenly, I was being cast in some of the biggest parts in all the main-house productions. Doing City of Angels in the West End - I never thought I’d get a chance to do the American private eye thing, an homage to Humphrey Bogart. The last time I was here at the National, from 1999 to 2001, working as part of Trevor Nunn’s ensemble was wonderful. I did a series of five plays and enjoyed every one, everything seemed to go very well. Playing the outrageous Captain Terri Dennis in Privates on Parade at the Donmar Warehouse. And then following that up with this play, Democracy, which is very non-showy. It’s all about contrasts.
How did you come to found Monstrous Regiment?
I wasn’t actually one of the people responsible for founding it - I was a founder member, someone who just happened to be there almost from the beginning. It was important for me because I was stumbling around, fresh out of university, and it was my first job! I stayed with the company for two-and-a-half years and did a bit of everything – composing the odd song, playing instruments (guitar, keyboard), doing lighting, as well as acting. There were a number of other interesting political theatre companies around at the time, including 7:84 and Belt and Braces. It was hugely exciting and somewhat overwhelming because it took up all of one’s time. There was very much a group ethic.
One’s favourite directors are often associated with favourite roles. Michael Grandage is a favourite for giving me the chance to play Terri Denis, and also because he’s very practical and actor-based. Michael Blakemore for similar reasons – for letting me do City of Angels and this, and for being such a great craftsman. Matthew Warchus for Art. Nicholas Hytner for Measure for Measure, which we did years ago together in Stratford. Bill Alexander for letting me play Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing that same year (1988/89). Terry Hands for giving me some big chances at the RSC, including playing Brutus in Julius Caesar (1987/88). It’s a terribly difficult play and that was not a much-loved production as far as the critics were concerned, but it was very challenging and it brought one on a bit. Also I’ve done a lot with Trevor Nunn over the years and it’s always a pleasure to work with him.
Certainly Caryl Churchill for constantly expanding the form, though she hasn’t been writing so much in recent years. Harold Pinter for being able to explore the hidden depths in everyday moments. Like in A Kind of Alaska and his concentration on a person just waking up, exploring that moment in all its variety. Peter Nichols for the way he plays with theatrical form. And Michael Frayn for being so clever but not letting himself run away with it.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I’d like to do more Shakespeare at some stage. Iago perhaps and King Lear, which is the first role I ever wanted to play, though I don’t know if I’ll still want to when I’m nearer the right age for it. When I was studying Shakespeare at school, I heard a recording of Paul Scofield playing Lear, which made one understand the words in a very visceral way. The most rewarding role is one that nobody else has ever done before.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
Come Out, Eli, which was directed by my friend Sara Powell at the Arcola Theatre. The acting was brilliant, with a young black guy playing a middle-aged, middle-class white guy. Within the context of the piece, it worked tremendously well. It was also a celebration through language and accent of the extreme diversity of ethnicity and culture that we have in this city and in Hackney (east London) in particular. For 20 years, I used to live very near there, in Stoke Newington so I know it very well.
What would you advise the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
Two things. First, for the government, if you give a place a lot of money to put up a new building, then give them the money to put staff in that building and to pay them properly. Second, for the industry, let’s have far less obsession on ‘management’ and reduce all those layers instead. As it is, it can seem as if the purpose of a theatrical organisation is to be managed rather than put on plays. That certainly applies to the RSC, at least it has in the past.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Warren Beatty, for totally prurient reasons. I’d just like to go through his many and varied sexual memories.
Favourite holiday destinations
Tuscany. It’s beautiful countryside filled with beautiful towns and villages, with wonderful food and wine.
Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking. I’ve always enjoyed cooking. I don’t have specialities, though I do like meat a great deal. Nothing too chi-chi or frou-frou. Sunday roasts are good.
Favourite after-show haunts
All the usual, I’m afraid: Joe Allen’s, The Ivy and now The Wolseley. Jeremy King is an old school friend.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
Something very similar I expect, maybe I’d have had a go at singing, maybe opera.
Why did you want to accept the part of Willy Brandt in Democracy?
I was at the time ‘currently unengaged’ – which is always a good reason to accept a role. Having said that, when I first read Democracy, I didn’t really get it and, for trivial reasons, I didn’t know if I wanted to play Willy Brandt. It’s the opposite of a flamboyant role like Terri Dennis. There’s a lot of standing around and listening to other people. But as I continued to read, I saw there were other possibilities. You do need a very different kind of acting to carry it off.
How, if at all, did your experience playing Hitler in Albert Speer influence your thinking?
There was a lot of crossover research, and it was interesting to learn the native German experience from the other side. Willy lived in exile during the war, but of course, the reverberations from the Nazi period carried on long afterwards. Hitler had such a mask-like appearance. There’s no way one could do him without the ‘tache and the hair. We considered something similar with Brandt, but when we did a test, it just looked like me with a lot of make-up. That could be a barrier to the role, which is much more about the character’s interior life.
What are your own memories of the fall of Berlin Wall?
I’ve never been to Germany at all so I have no actual memory of Berlin with or without the wall. Of course, I watched the wall coming down on television. My abiding memory of that time is the extraordinary domino effect, how it could all crumble so easily. I have some memories of Willy Brandt, too. I remember, as a child, watching when he was mayor of Berlin and John F Kennedy came over. And I remember him nearly dying in the helicopter. I have this picture in my mind, zooming in on him and this extraordinary face … (effects look of blank resignation). My parents were quite keen on Brandt. I think he brought back a sense of decency to German culture and political life. Before Democracy, I didn’t remember anything about Gunter Guillaume.
What’s your favourite line from Democracy?
”So many different people with so many views and so many different voices and, inside each of us, so many more, all struggling to be heard.”
What’s the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that has happened in rehearsals or run to date of Democracy?
The most extraordinary thing was when two of the characters from the play, Reinhard Wilke and Horst Ehmke, actually came to see it. They loved it and we all got drunk in the Green Room bar afterwards. What was most interesting to me was them – their sheer physical presence and Germanness, especially Ehmke. He was very powerful, rather imperious and wonderfully cultured, and he had these great big hands. I don’t know many English politicians personally, but I can’t think they’d be like that. Maybe Scottish politicians would be. They made lots of jokes about shagging, accompanied by this hand gesture (pumps fist), which later crept into a few performances.
What are your plans for the future?
Just keep going. We’ve got six months at Wyndham’s. Then the play’s going to Broadway, though not with us. I think they want an American cast.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Yes, one more thing. Can you include Conleth Hill as one of my favourite co-stars? Otherwise, he’ll just moan. Be sure to say that, I don’t want to hear his moaning.
- Roger Allam was speaking to Terri Paddock
Democracy opens at Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End on 20 April 2004, following previews from 15 April.