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Much Ado About Nothing star John Heffernan: 'It still holds up, it still works'

The actor talks comedy, parenthood and the joy of working at the National Theatre

John Heffernan in Much Ado About Nothing
© Manuel Harlan

John Heffernan has quietly established himself as one of the National's go-to leading actors, with principal roles in Saint George and the Dragon and Edward II already under his belt.

His latest, as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, sees him star opposite Katherine Parkinson's Beatrice in a production that promises an "escape to the Italian Riviera". The setting is a 1930s-era hotel, which he says "makes perfect sense" for a play set amid a closed, exclusive community.

Heffernan, who is 41, points out that actors ranging from their 20s right up to their 80s (in the case of James Earl Jones at the Old Vic) have played Benedick, so he falls somewhere in the middle. "There's a lot of stuff about age in the play. We had quite a few conversations in rehearsals about what it means to be single in your 40s. Society asks questions about why you haven't coupled up – there's a lot of pressure. Katherine and I have really enjoyed exploring that, it's quite rich territory."

Shakespeare scholar Howard Bloom labelled Much Ado "the most amiably nihilistic play ever written", and a lot of its humour lies in the sardonic sparring between its central couple. Heffernan says much of this tension comes from the "armour" they have each developed, after so long on their own. "They are so well matched, in their frames of reference and the way they communicate, but they both try to keep each other at bay. The play becomes about the process of shedding that skin and letting yourself be known to another person."

Having been a Shakespeare aficionado since childhood – to his mum's surprise he asked her to take him to an RSC production of King Lear when he was 12 – he rates the play highly. "There are some Shakespearean comedies where you have to work really hard, and the gags need a lot of help, but Much Ado still holds up, it still works."

But he adds that its popularity poses challenges. "With certain moments, particularly the gulling scenes [in which Beatrice and Benedick are tricked into thinking the other loves them], it can be hard coming up with new bits of business. In some way the most radical thing is to do nothing."

John Heffernan and Katherine Parkinson as Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing
© Manuel Harlan

Heffernan has played a number of comic roles on stage and says it is a more "cutthroat" form of acting. "When the audience are silent during a tragedy, you tend to think 'either they're captivated or they're asleep'. You can try and fudge it a little bit. Whereas with a comedy, either they're laughing or they're not. So you have to be bold."

He relays the experience of doing She Stoops to Conquer at the National in 2012, which featured a lot of direct audience address. "You might try to eyeball someone in the stalls and then realise they're looking at their watch. You've got to be prepared to fall flat on your arse, but the reward when it goes right is great."

Heffernan's CV is enviable in its range, both on stage and screen. He has also worked with a broad spectrum of directors, from Joe Hill-Gibbins and Carrie Cracknell to Jamie Lloyd and Trevor Nunn, and is quick to praise Much Ado's Simon Godwin. "He's a naturally very funny man, and he's wonderful at creating a company. He's also super smart, and has a great eye. He's involved in every aspect of the production."

Godwin is another fast-rising National stalwart, and Heffernan describes it as a place where "you're surrounded by creativity". He says he particularly enjoys its collegiate nature. "To be able to walk into a building, where everybody is working together from every possible angle to create that evening's show is a very special and unique thing."

He adds that, as a father of two children with his wife Kathryn, who works at the National, he's particularly impressed with how they support parents. He cites the example of a creative working there currently, who has been able to bring her new baby into rehearsals. "The hours are obviously not so great with young kids, and it can be tricky, but the National is genuinely amazing when it comes to helping out with childcare."

As for future plans, he says he tries to take the roles as they come. Having known him since university, I've long been impressed by his knowledge of theatre (many moons ago he directed me in a student production of Hamlet), and I'm curious to know if directing might be something he'd consider in a professional capacity? "I don't think so – I found it a bit lonely," he replies, adding that he is very happy to continue on the path he is currently on.

"As long as I get to do stuff that has a range, and doesn't too tightly pigeonhole me, then that excites me," he says. "Part of the joy of this job is that you never know what's next. I had no idea this was going to happen, it was a bolt out the blue, and it's been the most wonderful experience."