Brief Encounter with… David Oakes, the Open Air Theatre’s Mr Darcy

David Oakes plays Mr Darcy in the Open Air Theatre’s new production of Pride and Prejudice, which opens this week. Here, he tells us about the challenges of portraying such an iconic character, and how he’s hoping co-star Jane Asher will bake for him

David Oakes as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice at the Open Air Theatre
David Oakes as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice at the Open Air Theatre
© Francis Loney

Tell us about this version of Pride and Prejudice

Simon Reade [the adaptor] has kept very true to the spirit of the book – so there’s a lot of humour in there but he also focuses on the darker sides of the relationships, such as the extent to which Mr and Mrs Bennett’s marriage has decayed. The flip side is that by going down quite a dark route the ending is subsequently much more enjoyable and lively.

So fans of the BBC version might be slightly surprised by it?

I’d say so. There’s a very nice twist towards the end – not that they all die or anything – but it’s certainly not all froth and frocks.

How did you approach the character of Darcy?

I read the complete works of Austen at University and Darcy made a big impact on me – I always thought he was quite fun. But it’s a big challenge to show the strength and warmth underneath his very austere outlook on things. So it’s very much a role of subtlety and repression, more than of heartfelt wailing.

He’s probably more often seen on screen than on stage

He is, though you actually see a lot more of his character on stage than on screen. In most TV or film adaptations you only ever see him when he’s with Lizzie, when he’s very closed-off, but on stage there are more scenes where he’s not with her so see a much more rounded, fuller version of the character. Also, he’s often played by older actors but I’m pretty much exactly his age in the book (28). What’s great about this production is that everyone is the right age. We’ve got actresses playing Kitty, Lydia and Mary who are all 16 and 17. Hardly anyone in the cast is over 30.

Have you modelled him on anyone in particular?

Not really, I haven’t deliberately tried to revive any version. Sometimes I’d say a line in rehearsal and it would come out like Colin Firth, but that’s just because his portrayal’s so well known.

So you won’t be re-enacting the wet shirt scene?

If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked that in the past few months, I’d be very wealthy indeed! We have been joking that if it rains I’ll take off my jacket and attempt to recreate it.

We should also mention that the production coincides with the 200th anniversary of the novel

Indeed, and I hope we get a good response from the traditionalists as well as from those who don’t know the book at all. I’m actually rather shocked at the number of my friends who’ve never read it. But if people watch our production and then want to read the book we’ve done our job well.

Jane Asher (centre) as Lady Catherine de Bourgh
Jane Asher (centre) as Lady Catherine de Bourgh
© Francis Loney

How are you finding working with Jane Asher?

She’s awesome. The entire cast have a plan, unbeknownst to her, to bring in baked goods every single day – Olivia Darnley brought in flapjacks the other day and Rebecca Lacey had chocolate brownies; I’m going to bring in a fresh loaf of bread. Hopefully she’ll eventually get the hint that we want her to bake stuff for us!

How did you get into acting in the first place?

I was always involved in youth theatre before I went to university, but at uni [in Manchester] I became more of a director than an actor, and that was always the path I wanted to take. Then I made a decision when I left university to act, because I thought if I wanted to be a professional director then I would have to be professionally directed. It’s kind of a long way round, but I’ve been acting for seven years and am directing stuff on the side now in an attempt to get back to where I started.

You’ve done a lot of TV work

About four years ago I kind of got stuck playing a line of psychopathic rapists on TV. I started with Pillars of the Earth and then The Borgias, and I’m currently in The White Queen. I’ve been playing bad guys back to back, so Darcy’s a bit of an antidote! I think I’ve committed more non-consensual sex acts on screen than any other actor, which is a bizarre claim to fame but there you go.

So what’s next?

What I’ve loved so far is the variety. I started off playing floppy haired romantics and then got cast as a superhuman gay rower with mood swings [in Trinity]. So over the years I’ve collected a range of rather weird and wonderful characters, and I suppose in a sense Darcy’s an extension of that. As long as I can continue playing interesting roles I’ll be happy.

Pride and Prejudice continues at the Open Air Theatre until 20 July 2013