PAST: I went into theatre because I always wanted to create things from scratch – do what I would call proper art. I knew I’d never write a novel but I did have a secret life writing music, although I wasn’t 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. It’s only lately that I’ve started to feel confident about directing – and that it’s not wrong to advise my peers about which choices to make. Now I love it, and I’ve directed film as well as theatre. The song-writing continues too. It’s 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, I’d 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 I’ve been in ten of his plays, including No Man’s Land. Going to the recent West End press night of the revival starring Michael Gambon was really moving. I was jealous that I wasn’t still up there doing it! My relationship with Harold has been extraordinary. I’d say he’s been a fatherly figure throughout my entire career.
It’s interesting when you direct because you’re 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, you’re immediately smirked at, which is quite dangerous I think. I’ve 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 Shakespeare’s 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.
I’ve 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. I’ve already directed a season of absurdist plays there and next year I’m directing Dimetos by Athol Fugard. All these things feed into one another and that can be energising, as long as you don’t get exhausted. It’s probably why I got ill with pneumonia before we opened La Cage Aux Folles at the Menier – my body just shut down. I’ve 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 I’m 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 didn’t 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 don’t 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 there’s a new bit which we couldn’t have done at the Menier. At the end of “I Am What I Am” I storm off stage, through the audience and straight out onto the street – 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, there’s still this backstage edge where it’s seedy and awful and tough hard work. I love all that – the smell of it.
What rings true for me about Albin is the moment during the song “A Little More Mascara” when he’s looking in the mirror and doesn’t 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 he’s coming from. He’s a very political man and La Cage made a big difference to a lot of peoples’ lives. But as a straight actor, I have other things I can bring to the role from my own life experiences. I’ve 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, I’ve adopted a child, which Albin has done – 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 “I Am What I Am” is to do it in character and never let it become something outside of the show. It’s 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 – the number has this kind of common ownership which I hadn’t 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 it’s 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 I’d like to do and it was at the top. Essentially it’s like a modern piece of poetry although written in dialogue – 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 – incredible virility and danger. He’s the man.
I’ve also been commission to write a musical, which broadens my life even more. I’ve 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. It’s already been taken up by producer Matthew Byam Shaw and we’ve workshopped it with Sheila Hancock, Catherine Tate, Lara Pulver, David Haig and Jason Pennycooke who is in La Cage. It’s a love story set across 50 years and the working title is Meantime, which may change – perhaps we’ll add an exclamation mark!
So I’m playing the lead in a West End musical, I’m writing a musical and I’m preparing to direct a play at the Donmar – that’s 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 End’s Playhouse Theatre, where it’s currently booking until 10 January 2009. The production is directed by Terry Johnson and also stars Denis Lawson (as Albin’s partner Georges), Tracie Bennett and Paula Wilcox.