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20 Questions With...Paul Hegarty

Actor Paul Hegarty - who’s currently playing the title role in Sweeney Todd - explains why he likes commercials, how his first big break was a Trial & why he’s trying to emulate the late Denis Quilley in his approach.

By • West End


Actor Paul Hegarty has forged a name for himself as a regional theatre regular, appearing in places like Edinburgh, Dundee, Worcester, Manchester, Leicester, Windsor and Ipswich. But he is no stranger to the West End, and is currently playing the title role in Sweeney Todd at the Trafalgar Studios.

As an actor his multitude of regional credits include Trafford Tanzi, Tale of Two Cities, The Winslow Boy, The Real Thing, Masterpieces, Taming of the Shrew, The Glass Menagerie, Taste of Honey, The Trial, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside and The Rivals. His London credits include Duchess of Malfi, Shylock, First Whisper and Jane Eyre.

Hegarty has also appeared in many musicals. He played Kayama in the European premiere production of Sondheim's Pacific Overtures at Manchester Library Theatre. In the West End he has appeared in Jesus Christ Superstar, Les Miserables and Caberet.

Hegarty's TV credits include The Alchemist, The Innocents, Taggart, Casualty and A Touch of Frost amongst others.

Stephen Sondheim's modern musical classic Sweeney Todd, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. The production opened at Newbury's Watermill Theatre, this past February before embarking on a regional tour. It's directed and designed by Watermill associate director John Doyle, and performed by a cast of nine actor-musicians led by Hegarty and Karen Mann.


Date & place of birth
I was born in Glasgow 40 years ago or 40 years plus!

Lives now in...
Wandsworth

Training
Rose Bruford College and later I did my English degree through London University.

First big break
A long time ago I did a production of The Trial by Kafka directed by a chap called Andrew Visnevski, it won a Fringe First and went to the Young Vic. It was a big break because it introduced me to a style of theatre which I hadn't been familiar with, a total theatre that incorporated vocal delivery and physical presentation.

Career highlights
For me, because I'm so mercenary it's not always about the art, sometimes its about the money and a highlight can be getting a lucrative commercial that facilitates a certain lifestyle, so I can buy a better bike, or a better flat. The other side of coin is when you're not paid as much but you do a good touring production of say Shakespeare or a Rattigan like The Deep Blue Sea and it feels like quality work, that's very satisfying. Another side is when you do a commercial West End production, it's nice to be in town and you are treated well by the management, so it's a combination of things for me.

Favourite productions you've ever worked on
I'm going to say Sweeney Todd because of the demands that are required. It brings together vocal dexterity with speech and singing as well as a physical accomplishment because of way we move. It's the total of those things, the ensemble, the fusion of those elements and the fact that it is a complex piece - it's great.

Favourite actors
Denis Quilley who very sadly died last year. I was a great fan of his simply because of the range of his work which traversed from Shakespeare and Restoration to the West End and National Theatre and also film. It's an inclusive style of work I'd like to emulate. On the female side Diana Rigg - I'd travel a distance to see her perform - and more recently Lisa Dillon who played Desdemona in Othello which was at Trafalgar Studios before us.

Favourite director
Simon McBurney, Laurence Boswell, Edward Hall and Katie Mitchell who does terrific work. And I like Mark Rylance's work at the Globe. I think Nick Hytner has a great sense of programming and production values too.

Favourite playwrights
There's obviously Shakespeare, that goes without saying, also Terence Rattigan, Brian Friel, Caryl Churchill and I don't think you can forget Alan Ayckbourn - I would have been doing an Ayckbourn play if I hadn't got Sweeney - Absurd Person Singular. I like Tom Stoppard, not to say that I always understand him, but somehow it works. I went to see Jumpers and although I didn't get all the philosophy I would find myself laughing all the time - somehow the structure of the text allows you have to access to the comedy.

Favourite Musical writers
Kander and Ebb on something like Cabaret because there is a very strong storyline - there are still elements of razzmatazz but the whole is driven by character and plot, that's important to me as an actor.

What roles would you most like to play still?
I'd like to do something at the Globe, I always like the work there, some of those meaty Kings or Dukes would be good. I really enjoy restoration comedy because of the vocal commitment and comic technique, things like The Recruiting Officer or She Stoops to Conquer. Of course I do like new plays too, it's critical to get involved with new, young writers, young directors and new spaces which is why I'm so excited to be working at Trafalgar Studios.

What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
There are two things, both at the National: Measure for Measure was a great production, so exciting and really innovative, I thought the prison sequences were particularly good. Also The Pillowman, that I liked for a different reason; it was unsettling and unnerving and distasteful to a degree, but as an audience member you could not be passive. I think that's important (whether I'm watching a play or performing in it) that the audience shouldn't be able to be passive and just sit there thinking "This is nice", that is why people like theatre, and why it's not like watching TV, which is totally passive.

You've worked extensively in plays and musicals, what are the skills you need for both and which do you prefer?
Clearly you need singing competency for a musical. But what is critical in a musical is to bring a strong character because people want to believe in the storyline and in that respect musicals have really changed. Music does carry the emotion and that takes you a long way - the wonderful thing about Sondheim is that the music is uplifting but the lyrics are a huge challenge to the audience as they have to hang on to them because they are so clever.

Both forms can be very complementary. The intensity that occurs in a musical - the interdependence between actors and musicians - needs to be brought to plays to create true ensemble work. I don't think I can say which I prefer, it's horses for courses really. Sometimes I find musicals difficult because in terms of acting it can be restrictive because you have to work within the frame of the music, in a play there can be more room for movement and variation, so in some ways plays can be more liberating.

What advice would you give the government - or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
Removing VAT on the tickets would be good. One thing that is hugely successful is the National's £10 season, I go there a lot and it does bring people in. High prices are a barrier. In terms of owners, as a punter if you are going to pay a lot of money for tickets and then a programme the whole experience has to be worthwhile and I'm not just talking about the play. The experience in its entirety - loos, box office, public spaces, seats, it drives me mad when a box office is too small and I can't see a seating plan. It's an inherent problem because theatre buildings are so old but it is possible when you look at the wonderful things they've done with the Opera House.

Broadly though more children in schools need to be exposed to drama and I mean visiting the theatre. I know its not easy as it takes a lot of organising but drama and the arts are not extra curriculum activity, but core, they are great springboards into other subjects, they build confidence and open horizons and we need to encourage that.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
A contemporary of Shakespeare's, did you see Shakespeare in Love? Didn't that film make you want to be in that time? It seemed such a vibrant, colourful, melting pot.

Favourite books
Narziss Und Goldmund, by Herman Hess. I'm also a fan of Ian McEwan.

Favourite holiday destination
Southwold in Suffolk.

If you hadn't been an actor, what would you have done professionally
Teaching, well actually I am qualified to teach, I teach in a performing arts college because I like to work with young students, it's invigorating. Teaching runs in my family you see, I narrowly escaped at the last minute!

Favourite after show haunts
My living room.

Favourite websites
I like the Guardian website and the BBC website is brilliant, I use the BBC active section a lot when I'm teaching.

Why did you want to accept your part in Sweeney Todd?
Partly because I was rather surprised to be offered it! Then I realised that the way John Doyle directs is very organic, an ensemble, and that appeals a lot to me - it's more about the company style and performances than showstoppers, although there are a few of those too. Secondly Sarah Travis is the musical arranger and she's wonderfully talented and wonderfully patient and I thought if she's willing to take a gamble on me, I'll go with her. It's a complicated thing to get under your belt, but she always encourages you. I concentrated on the character, then music began to fall into place.

Were you a fan of this musical before?
I didn't know it, obviously I had to learn bits of it for the audition though. I had heard of it though, I was already a fan of Sondheim, a while back I was in the European premiere of Pacific Overtures in Manchester and that was great.

How long have you played the drums? Do you find it difficult to incorporate the two skills? Have you ever played drums in a production before?
Strangely enough I've played since I was a scout, and I did a production at the Strand Theatre of Leonardo which had a drumming sequence, so I had to relearn for that, and here I am again with the percussive work. Because of way we have rehearsed actors in the wings never feel as if the life of the play has stopped, everyone's involved all the way through. It makes it taxing in another sense, its critical that your sense of being and support is always there, that's what makes it a unique production, it's very vibrant with energy coming from all nine people all the time. But I wouldn't put drumming on my CV, I'm okay but not compared to the accomplished musicians that surround me on stage.

What's your favourite song or line from Sweeney Todd?
There are two, the first I like because it reminds me of my wife Barbara,
"Pretty women, fascinating, sipping coffee..."

On a more serious issue there's a great line from the piece which sums it all up:
"The history of the world, my sweet, is who gets eaten and who gets to eat."

How do London audiences differ to those in the regions?
I think theatre provides a different function in the regions, there's a local audience who attend their local theatre. At the Watermill in Newbury Jill Fraser has done a wonderful job of building up a loyal audience base who know her work and the performers. In that sense it was a joy to jump on the back of that popularity as a newcomer - the same is true of lots of other regional theatres. In London audiences can be more discerning, but some don't speak English because there are so many tourists. Fortunately that doesn't affect the reaction to Sweeney Todd.

What's the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that has happened during the run to date?
When on tour, particularly the matinees, we had a lot of older people in the audience and they had a tendency to talk throughout saying things like: "Look at him, he's got his razor out again, oh dear, he's going to do her in" as if they were at home in their living room. That was quite funny, at least we knew they were following it!

What are your plans for the future?
To get my motorbike fixed and finish decorating the living room. I'm also looking at a script for a friend who's doing a radio programme so that's a possibility too.

- Paul Hegarty was speaking to Hannah Kennedy


Sweeney Todd is currently on the West End's Trafalgar Studios (formerly the Whitehall Theatre). It's currently booking until 9 October 2004.


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