Shapeshifting for tour de farce

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TO magistrat1 SIDE-SPLITTING SHOW-STOPPER: John Lithgow in The Magistrate. Picture: Johan Persson

The latest National Theatre Live performance of The Magistrate will be screened on Wednesday and Thursday at Ster Kinekor’s Cinema Nouveau across the country.

DIANE DE BEER corresponded with John Lithgow, who is accompanied by a superb cast in this hysterical Victorian farce, and discovers the serious stage actor is someone we only ever see on screen.

How did you get to play this part? What made up your mind to accept it?

Nick Hytner (the National’s director for the past 10 years) e-mailed me out of the blue last July asking me if I know the play, the part and if I was free. I said yes to all three questions in a second.

What did you enjoy most about the rehearsal process?

I loved working out the comedy business and timing, kind of like chemistry experiments. This was especially true of the long solo turn that opens the second act.

Do you do a lot of stage work?

Plenty, by now I’ve done more than 20 Broadway shows alone. There have been six of them since 3rd Rock From the Sun ended.

Have you played in London before?

I did Malvolio in Twelfth Night with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford and two performances of my show at the National Theatre in 2009, but The Magistrate was my first proper London run.

What are the differences?

Much as I love my community of New York theatre rats, I think the mentality of London actors is very different. They are workmanlike, like guild craftsmen. They are smart, self-mocking, great carousers, and the star system is not nearly so rigid with them.

A Victorian farce? Why do you think it works for modern audiences?

It’s the kind of lunacy that works in every era. And because The Magistrate revolves around a woman lying about her age, it’s especially timeless. I’m in the Judd Apatow movie This is 40 (opening locally on May 3), which is exactly about the same subject.

Is it a genre you have worked in before?

Oh yes. In fact, I directed the play back in 1970 and played a small role and I’ve been in two productions of Trelawney of the Wells. Find me another actor who’s done that much Sir Arthur Wing Pinero (the playwright of The Magistrate). The closest thing I’ve done recently is the musical Dirty Rotten Scroundels on Broadway in 2005.

Actors always say farce is a tough one because of the timing and in The Magistrate it seems particularly rough – how did you prepare physically?

The timing doesn’t make it tough. That part is easy and fun. It’s the sheer physicality. I finally lost the 5kgs I’ve been trying to lose since Scoundrels.

For you, one could say it is almost a triple threat: your accent being American, the stage not being perhaps such a frequent medium for you, and the physicality of particularly your part – how did you manage these three factors?

None of these was a problem. I studied in England for two years, I do more theatre than film or TV and, as for physicality, I may not be young but I’m spry.

Touché! Is there a particular fitness you have to develop for stage and particularly for this production? How does you achieve that?

It’s called rehearsal. We had six weeks of it and I needed every hour to get my stamina up.

It seems as if everyone involved in the production enjoyed being a part of it, and that certainly comes across. How did you manage to maintain that exuberance?

It is a cast of actors who are great at this stuff and love doing it. And it didn’t hurt that we all loved doing it.

Your leading lady – it seems as if you have worked a lifetime together! Could you speak a bit about that?

What a nice thing to say. I completely adored working with Nancy Carroll. Let me think… Nope. There is no actress I’ve enjoyed working with more.

And could you tell us a bit about your experience working at the National Theatre?

My best answer is a piece I wrote for the January 13 issue of the New York Times, if you were to look it up. I’ve never worked in any institution where such a company spirit prevailed, and that includes about six other shows in all three theatres in the building.

Is it as much a joy for you to know this performance can be seen worldwide as it is for those of us who can now experience it on a cinema screen?

It’s pretty great. I have been getting e-mails for the past month from friends who saw it back in the US. They would never have had the chance otherwise. They would have had to settle for my interminable boasting.

Have you watched any of the National Theatre Live performances yourself? Do you prefer to watch live theatre? And how often do you see theatre?

The only one I’ve seen is Rory Kinnear’s terrific Hamlet. It’s not quite the same as being in the audience for the real thing – it’s kind of like eavesdropping. But it’s a whole lot better than not seeing the show at all.

Thinking about your chilling performance in the Dexter season that so terrified those of us who have seen it on TV, it was especially delightful to meet your deliciously naive magistrate in this National Theatre Live production. Any comment on the vast differences required to play these two roles?

You’re right, they couldn’t be more different. But the difference is what makes character acting so much fun. That’s what rep theatre is all about. When I was a student, I went to the Old Vic on two successive nights and saw (Laurence) Olivier play the captain in Dance of Death and the butler in Feydeau’s A Flea in My Ear.

Which role did you prefer to play and what medium (if money wasn’t a factor) would you favour?

My favourite role? It tends to be the one I’m doing at the moment or the one I just finished. But that question I usually answer with the role of Rene Gallimard in the premiere production of David Henry Hwang’s M Butterfly. That was 1988, but it feels like yesterday.

As for my preferred medium, theatre acting has always been the tap root. I love working in TV and film, but theatre is where I came from and where I always return. There is nothing like telling a story to a live audience of attentive people.

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