How are you finding Trafalgar Studios compared to the Minerva?
The Trafalgar is a very different space from the Minerva. It’s great but you have to work out new the shape - the geometry and space, where you are makes a huge difference. The Minerva is a well-designed thrust, a very intimate theatre space. It sits about 280 and feels like being in a bear pit, whereas the Trafalgar is the contrary. It's my first time in the space and it’s so wonderful but also rather odd, sitting at the top of Whitehall - such a peculiar and different part of London. It doesn’t feel like being in the West End, and it's been a delightful experience so far.
Can you explain the background of The Last Cigarette?
Simon Gray wrote these wonderful books which ended up as The Smoking Diaries. They were based around his physical decline and his eventual diagnosis of cancer. He wrote throughout his illness, as a way of enduring it. He was always a good audience for his own jokes, it would cheer him up to make a tasteless joke at his own expense and to rubbish his own feelings of mordant despair. His delight in his own wit was not vanity, it was simply an enjoyment of the things that make him laugh. He wrote the play in his last few months and we were rehearsing it within six months of his death. Simon was a man who you could not help being moved by, or admire.
Did you have a professional history with Simon Gray?
I was rather bad in one of his plays 25 years ago. It was The Common Pursuit, directed by Harold Pinter, and it drove him so mad that he had such bad actors in his production. He decided to write a diary of it, which became a book called The Uncommon Pursuit. It’s very funny and he’s very scandalous and rude about everybody. He started off being very excited and enthusiastic about me, but ends up doubting whether I'm up to the mark!
You probably didn't imagine that one day you'd be portraying him on stage
No, I didn’t. I wish he was here now and I didn’t have to.
You share the role with Jasper Britton and Felicity Kendal – how does that work?
In a way it’s fairly simple. People have different sides, and we play the different sides. Felicity plays Simon's softer, feminine, kinder side, Jasper plays the more serious, thoughtful side and I play the more callous, cynical side. When you talk to yourself, you listen to yourself with some other part of yourself. You converse with yourself - well, I do anyway. That’s what we’re doing. We’re in conversation with ourselves.
When I got the script, I didn’t understand how we could do it, I couldn’t visualise it. I thought, 'Oh my God, this is going to be terrible'. But, I desperately wanted to it, mainly for Simon. The story unfolds in a very intense and concentrated way. It’s like going into a science-fiction film and taking a journey down an artery of somebody’s body, except you're going into Simon Gray’s memories, and his mind, and his feelings about himself. At its best it’s delightful.
Playing an aspect of a person, rather than portraying their entire character, must be a challenge.
In the end, what you bring to the thing is just your miserable self. All you’ve got is you. Actors don’t become somebody else. They give themselves to whatever material they’ve got and make sense of it in the architecture of the story with everybody else. I pry myself as far as I can inside Simon’s head. The aspect I bring is my filtration of his thoughts through myself, as with Jasper and Felicity. There is empathy between us, we utterly depend on each other on stage. It’s a pleasure.
Are you a smoker?
Not now, but I used to be, and I loved it. I have huge sympathy for smokers. I like the fact it’s bad for you. There's an awful deception now that we should try and live life doing only things that are good for us. It’s utter lies. Frankly, I can’t bear there that there is no liberty towards smoking. We punish smokers, but we don’t punish the Government for nuclear waste or illegal war.
Is there any smoking on stage in The Last Cigarette?
We’re all non-smokers and we don’t actually light the cigarettes, so it’s not literal. But the play isn’t literal. We’re not dealing with naturalism. So, we just suggest it. I think it would be odd seeing three actors inhaling Silk Cut cigarettes in a play about cancer. People would think, 'Poor sods, why are they giving themselves lung cancer in order to do this piece?'
How are you finding working with Richard Eyre again?
Richard and I go back to the 70s. We had great times when he was running the Nottingham Playhouse, and I’ve done films for him as well. He probably thought I was dreadful back then - probably only employed me now because he couldn’t find anyone else, must've been desperate! But it’s very nice to be working with him again, we’ve always been friends, though I don’t know why seeing as he hasn’t given me any work recently.
You did an interview with Whatsonstage.com in 2002. Back then, you listed him as one of your favourite directors.
Yes, and he mustn't have read it. What’s wrong with the man? That was a very heavy hint!
So how have things been since then?
Up and down, I’ve kept going. The best thing I've done recently was Uncle Vanya with Peter Hall, which was last year. But, stupidly, I fell over at speed on stage and smashed my hip and had to have a hip replacement. I was lying in bed in a hospital in Surrey looking at all the other old geezers and I thought, 'this is it'. It was a real Simon Gray moment. It was a really sobering couple of months. I’m fine now, but it was a drag.
What are your future ambitions?
I take what comes. I didn’t think I would ever play Uncle Vanya, so when it came up it was fantastic. There are a lot of wonderful roles, but roles are what you make them. I don’t have any set ambitions, though there are certain directors and actors I would like to work with.
Which directors in particular?
I’m not going to tell you that – it didn't work last time!
- Nicholas Le Prevost was speaking to Theo Bosanquet
The Last Cigarette continues at Trafalgar Studios until 1 August 2009.
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