Rain Check: McAvoy, Harman & Marshal
James McAvoy, Nigel Harman and Lyndsey Marshal star in Richard Greenberg’s Pulitzer-nominated three-hander Three Days of Rain, in which the three actors play characters across two generations. Roger Foss met them during rehearsals with their director Jamie Lloyd to discuss the complexities involved.
James McAvoy’s film credits include Atonement, for which he received both a Golden Globe and BAFTA nomination, The Last King of Scotland (earning him another BAFTA nomination), The Chronicles of Narnia, Bright Young Things, Becoming Jane and Wanted (co-starring opposite Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie). He will be appearing in The Last Station with Helen Mirren, due for release in 2009. His TV credits include White Teeth, State of Play and Shameless. Theatre credits include Breathing Corpses at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, Out in the Open at Hampstead Theatre and Privates on Parade at the Donmar Warehouse.
Nigel Harman is perhaps still best known for his role in BBC TV's EastEnders and he’s soon to play the lead in Hotel Babylon. Other small screen credits include Lark Rise to Candleford and The Friday Night Club. His theatre credits include The Caretaker at Sheffield and the Tricycle directed by Jamie Lloyd, Privates on Parade at the Donmar Warehouse and Guys and Dolls in the West End, both directed by Michael Grandage, and The Exonerated at Riverside Studios. Film credits include Blood Diamond.
Lyndsey Marshal’s film credits include the BBC/HBO series Rome, The Hours and The Gathering Storm. Her stage credits include The Pride at the Royal Court Upstairs (directed by Jamie Lloyd), Absurdia at the Donmar Warehouse, A Matter of Life and Death at the National and The Hypochondriac at the Almeida Theatre, for which she was nominated for an Ian Charleson Award. She was nominated for an Olivier Award and won a Critics’ Circle Award for her performance in Boston Marriage at the Donmar Warehouse.
Jamie Lloyd’s most recent West End production of Piaf transferred from the Donmar Warehouse to the Vaudeville. Other credits include Harold Pinter's The Lover/The Collection at the Comedy Theatre and The Caretaker at Sheffield and on tour and The Pride at the Royal Court Upstairs. As an associate director, his credits include Michael Grandage's productions of Guy and Dolls at the Piccadilly Theatre and in Melbourne, Australia, and Evita at the Adelphi Theatre. He is an associate director of the Donmar.
Richard Greenberg's plays include Take Me Out, Night and Her Stars, The American Plan, The Author's Voice, The Bloodletters, The House In Town, Eastern Standard, The Dazzle and Hurrah at Last. Three Days of Rain was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Drama and was first staged in London in 1999, when Colin Firth, David Morrissey and Elizabeth McGovern starred in its UK premiere at the Donmar Warehouse.
Can you each outline the six characters you play in Three Days of Rain
James McAvoy – I play Walker and Ned Janeway – father and son – and both are in their thirties, like the other characters. In the first act, set in 1995, Walker is struggling with himself and trying to understand more about his recently dead father, a famous international architect, after the discovery in his Manhattan loft apartment of his journal with a puzzling first entry that says, ‘April 3-5, 1960 – three days of rain’. Walker, his sister Nan and their friend Pip, assume it’s a weather report, but Walker wants to give some meaning to the entry through the collective memories that he and his sister share about their parents. Then, in the second act, it’s the same loft in 1960 and I’m Walker’s father Ned, also aged 30. He’s a shy, evasive man who suffers from an incredibly bad stammer and is an assistant to Theo, an architect and his best friend.
Lyndsey Marshal – In the first act I play Walker’s sister Nan who doesn’t want to know too much about his dad’s journal and is reticent about delving into the family’s past. Later, when we go back to 1960, I’m Lina, Ned’s wife – she’s very odd, very boho, and she’s had a bit of a breakdown.
Nigel Harman – In 1995, I’m Philip O’Malley Wexler, or ‘Pip’. He’s a crappy American daytime television actor who’s been lifelong friends with Walker and once shared an intimate time with Nan. I guess he’s just happy-go-lucky and comfortable in his own shoes, but when he gets in the company of Walker and Nan, the relationships shift and you begin to see the reality of their lives together. In the second half, I play Theo, Ned’s architectural partner. He’s confident, well-groomed, mercurial. Is he hiding something? A genius who may be a fraud?
Richard Greenberg once said in an interview that his play should come with a warning that “there is some assembly required because it’s almost a mystery”. Do you agree?
Jamie Lloyd (director) – What Richard means is that our parents are ultimately enigmas to us – there’s always a bit of mystery to them. And the play is structured like a mystery, particularly act one, which has the pulse of a thriller – and we’re exploiting that to the max – when Walker, Nan and Pip want to know as much as possible about themselves by finding out as much as they can about their parents. The stakes are raised because Walker and Nan’s father was an absolutely mystery to them when they were being brought up.
LM – On top of that their mother is mad! But Nan and Lina are both completely impossible to grasp hold of as people. So in 1995, it’s a surge to find out what was really true in 1960 and what’s the mystery lurking beneath the surface.
JM – He’s right about the mystery thing – it leads to a real cliffhanger at the end of act one and the questions are only really answered in the second act.
Is the audience required to do some “assembling” too?
JM – When I first read the script, I didn’t realise how much the audience becomes actively involved with these people and the mystery they are trying to solve.
JL – You have to almost become an investigative journalist to work it all out, which makes for a fascinating evening in the theatre.
As actors playing your counterparts in two different eras, which of the characters do you feel most at ease with – those in 1995 or in 1960?
NH – In rehearsal, to be honest, it’s depends on which day of the week it is! Sometimes in the first act I’ve had a really clear picture of what this guy Pip is like and the sense of the period he lives in. Maybe all three of us relate to the Nineties more because we lived through them.
LM – I found it quite difficult at first making the time difference work. You go round in circles. In rehearsal, one day I’d feel as if I know who Nan is and her world in the Nineties. Then a few days later I’d be working on Lina and wouldn’t have a clue where I was. But eventually you reach a point where you get little shreds of personality going from one character to the other and one era to another. They balance each other out. It suddenly all makes sense.
JM – I started off in rehearsals thinking of my characters as if they were from two completely separate times. I struggled to deal with that at first; when you’re trying to get inside two personalities in one play, it can feel weird. As an actor, it still slightly terrifies me. We’ll have to see if I ever get really comfortable with either of my characters.
NH – But it gets scarier. Sometimes both of my characters, Pip and Theo, mirror each other, sometimes they’re complete opposites – or they’ll both show the same emotion manifested in a different way. I suppose it means that I don’t really gravitate towards any one of the two periods – both are exciting. I can’t imagine doing one without the other.
Do you have a different acting style for each decade?
JL –I don’t think we’ve sought to find a mode of acting for the Sixties as opposed to the Nineties. But of course in terms of look and atmosphere, the two eras will be quite different.
NH – For me Theo has to come over as a very Sixties guy, but there’s an overall style to the piece and we haven’t entered into a pastiche of Sixties American. It would get in the way of the story.
LM – Yes, I don’t think the play really requires us to find different styles – although our American accents might change a bit between the Nineties and the Sixties.
JL – And you have to trust what Richard has written and go along with it.
Before working on Three Days, Jamie was at the Royal Court directing Lyndsey in The Pride, which also switched between eras – the Fifties and 2008. Did that help with your approach to this play?
JL – It certainly gave me an understanding how to assemble Three Days of Rain . The Pride zoomed backward and forward in time, literally from scene to scene, and we rehearsed the two time periods as single through-lines. That’s essentially what we had to do here as well, starting with 1995 and then rehearsing the Sixties completely separately.
LM – I’d say the time difference in Three Days of Rain is harder to get your head round. When you jump quickly between decades like we did in The Pride, you don’t feel too far away from your character. But with this play, each act is like starting all over again. We’re actually different people speaking a brand new language.
You are all roughly in the same age group as the characters you are portraying. Does that help you to understand where they are in life?
JM – That’s so important. I can definitely understand how tormented I’d be if I was in the same position as Ned is in his thirties.
JL – When I was casting, it was really important to me that the three actors were the right ages. Bizarrely, in previous productions the actors were quite a lot older than their characters. I don’t understand it. This is a play which is absolutely about being a thirty-something – a time in your life where you do start to question your identity, and I guess in some cases, your sanity! NH – I can identify with that. It helps in every way in terms of the energy of the characters and of the play itself. Being thirtysomething is an interesting turning point in your life. Women may have started to forge ahead in the Nineties, but in the Sixties you could be considered slightly past it when you reached your thirties.
JM – Being the same age makes the crisis the characters find themselves in even more resonant. You might think you appreciate your parents more when you’re in your thirties, but the play says that they’ll always be a bit of a mystery. It’s not just saying ‘what questions do you need to ask of your parents?’ but ‘what questions do you need to ask of life itself?’
Has this play made you think more about your own parents’ generation?
NH – Yes, and it’s been part of the rehearsal process. We’ve all brought in photos of ourselves as children, which was kind of like filling in the blanks. I came across a wonderful photo of my mum, which would have been from exactly the era we’re dealing with. You tap in to an intriguing image like that and try to get the feel of the period and what they were like then.
JM – As I get into my thirties, I’m finding that as much as I never wanted to be like my parents, I don’t really seem to have a choice. I’m noticing things in me that I recognise from them which are starting to calcify in me. I can see that going on with Walker, except that the things calcifying in him terrify him. He never wanted to be like his virtually silent father or his mum, who was nuts. He’s fiercely brilliant, but my own parents are the most upmarket intellectual people I never met!
LM – It’s reminded me of when you go through big emotions and your mum tells you about when she was once heartbroken and you really don’t want to hear that. You have an image of your parents and, like Nan in the play, you put them in a box and can’t imagine them ever being romantic or desperately in love. That’s the joy of discovering what this mysterious ‘three days of rain’ actually means. I suddenly thought, oh my mum and dad must have gone through that when they met and got married. It dawned on me that they’re not just ‘mum’ or ‘dad’ – they are their own people with their own histories.
NH – But isn’t it also about the sins of the parents? And whether or not you become a victim of your circumstances as a child or chose to go beyond them. I think the play partly deals with all of that – what cards you’re given and if you allow them to form your personality.
Three Days of Rain was nominated for a Pulitzer and is surely Richard Greenberg’s most successful play. It’s often being revived, most recently on Broadway starring Julia Roberts. What’s the secret of its success?
JM – It’s that term ‘assembly’. It’s so brilliantly constructed. The script itself is a great read – I hope they sell copies in the theatre. In fact it’s so good that you could even sort of busk your way through the entire play and it’ll still work. I promise I won’t be busking when we actually do it! LM – The audience gets involved because the play makes you want to find out what that journal entry means – then as soon as you figure out a family backstory, you discover another one that affects everything else.
JL – That’s why it’s such a great experience. They have to do some work too and make decisions. It’s great entertainment – incredibly intelligent, incredibly lyrical, great fun.
NH – It’s also a play about very erudite and bright people. The way they construct a sentence and deliver it is fun in itself sometimes. That’s a key element actually. There are bits that still make me giggle. I made myself laugh a lot today and thought to myself, “hey, that Richard Greenberg – he’s really funny”.
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve had to face working on this play?
JL – As director, for me it’s the detail – making sure we have solid American accents and working out the timelines. The only way to remind us what the characters were doing and when was to keep a chart on the rehearsal room wall recording each event, year-by-year, month-by-month and day-by-day. It’s a puzzle that we all need to understand so that we can be clear with our storytelling.
LM – For me it was going straight from The Pride upstairs at the Royal Court where it’s such an intimate space. You could do tiny little things there and all that will be very different in a bigger West End theatre.
JM – I’ve had to get my head around playing Manhattan-ites who are infinitely more intelligent and learned than I’ll ever be. These guys are so smart and so quick, with a rat-a-tat-tat delivery. That’s been my worry – trying not to be a phoney.
NH – Every day has been a challenge. Apparently whenever it’s been done before, people came back for a second or third viewing. Once you know the answers to the riddle in act two, you want to see again how they link to what happened in act one. It’s addictive.
Three Days of Rain opens at the Apollo Theatre on 10 February following previews (0844 412 4658). An abridged version of this article appears in the February issue of What’s On Stage magazine, which is out tomorrow in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online version. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatre Club - click here to subscribe now!!