By David Hennessy
Currently playing The Earl of Kent in Sam Mendes’ King Lear at The National Theatre, Dublin actor Stanley Townsend’s current role sees him coming full circle.
“I came over to do Guys & Dolls in The National and kinda stayed put after that,” says the actor who has now been in London for seventeen years.
“It’s kind of completed a circle, I hadn’t really thought of that but it’s on the Olivier stage as well. The National’s a centre of excellence, it’s a fantastic place to work and it’s one of those places that is a destination. A lot of times you’re doing work, you’re looking for more work but once you’re working in The National, I suppose you feel you’ve made it. I love working at the national and also usually you’re in rep so you get some days off which is kind of glory when you’re a theatre actor to be in a theatre show and get three or four days off is just bliss really.”
Stanley’s many screen credits include Killing Bono, The Libertine with Johnny Depp, Saddam’s Tribe in which he played tyrant Saddam Hussein and One Chance in which he plays Pavorotti. At the moment, he can be seen on BBC alongside Gabriel Byrne in Quirke and in Sky’s 24 where he plays a Russian minister. He also recently played an American military leader in Sky’s Fleming.
It may be hard to believe due to the extensive stage work that Stanley has done, that includes winning an Irish Times Best Actor Award and being nominated for an Evening Standard Award for Conor McPherson’s Shining City, that the current production is the first time Stanley has performed Shakespeare over this side of the water.
“I’d done a good few of them over in Ireland in my, I suppose, in my youth,” he laughs. “But none here and between the jigs and the reels, it ended up being the first one I’ve done over here and it’s a great thrill and a great privilege really.”
Asked if it was daunting to be performing the work of the bard in his homeland, Stanley pays credit to the support he has had from a cast that is led by Simon Russell Beale and Anna Maxwell Martin: “I was embraced by the company of people I was working with. You always have your own insecurities but I was certainly well supported and engaged with but we had such a good time in rehearsals and they’re such a brilliant company of folk to be working with so that kind of bolstered me against any of my own demons.”
This is not Stanley’s first time being directed by Sam Mendes, director of American Beauty and Skyfall: “We did The Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey. Judi Dench was in that, she was amazing, a fantastic woman to work with. Myself and Eanna MacLiam took her on because she used to do the Daily Telegraph crossword and myself and MacLiam thought we’d have a go at this so we used to race her to see who could finish first. I don’t think we ever beat her, but we gave her a run for her money.”
On the renowned director that Stanley has now worked with before and after his coming to huge prominence with high profile films, Stanley says: “Sam is fearless. He knows the play inside out and upside down, he’s been looking at this play for a long, long time and he’s finally taken the plunge and giving it a go.
“It’s the depth of his knowledge of the play, his fearlessness, his insight, his humanity really in that he will listen to everyone and say everything and he has the luxury of a long rehearsal process so that you can go down cul-de-sacs and come back up.”
This production had the luxury of eight weeks to prepare which must have been needed with the show being three and a half hours long and on a massive scale: “When you’ve only got four weeks to put it on, that’s risky because you can end up under-rehearsing certain bits of it. The play was put under an extreme scrutiny by the group of people and then the decisions were made and implemented. He’s a great sense of humour and fun and a lot of laughter but a real examination of the text and what’s going on and what’s going on in the play.”
The Earl of Kent is an interesting character. When an aging King Lear disowns his loyal daughter Cordelia, Kent speaks up for her. For this, Kent is banished like Cordelia but so overwhelming is his loyalty to the king, he comes back in disguise: “One of the gifts and also the challenges that Shakespeare issues with Kent is that he writes a man that is incapable of betrayal, he has great integrity and truth to him. He profoundly disguises himself and that’s a kind of contradiction that is both wonderful but challenging to achieve.
“As it’s written, I think Shakespeare thought of him as wearing a beard in the first couple of scenes and then taking it off so that was a starting point, and then just to make his change as extreme as we can, the best you can do is shave your head then, isn’t it?”
Another part of his disguise is a new accent, Stanley’s own Dublin brogue: “As himself he has an English accent, he is Kent after all, and then as Caius when he’s in disguise, I used my own Dublin accent so when I’m in disguise, I’m using my own voice. Playing the character himself, I’m putting on an accent. It’s counter intuitive for me, it’s the wrong way round but nevertheless, it seems to work.
“It feels very right when you speak the verse in a Dublin accent. It doesn’t jar at all, it fits, the rhythms work and there’s a warmth in the accent that works well for the character. It’s a joy.
“That’s the biggest challenge: To make that disguise believable and I have had the number of people who said to me they didn’t realise until a good way into the character of Caius that I was the same guy so that’s kind of rewarding and satisfying.”
We can also currently see Stanley playing Inspector Hackett in BBC’s drama adapted from the John Banville books, Quirke. How does he see the relationship between his inspector and Gabriel Byrne’s pathologist: “I think they’re oddly kindred spirits really, they both want the truth and they have that shared purpose, they have a shared sense of humour and a shared sensibility.
“Quirke leads a much darker life but I think there’s that simpatico between the two men and understanding but Hackett is a family man, he has two boys and he carries the sandwiches his wife makes to work. He has a strong domestic set-up whereas Quirke’s domestic set-up is unusual to say the least, they’re very different in that way.”
On working with the star of The Usual Suspects, the actor reveals: “He’s warm, generous, funny, a good story teller and then when the cameras go on, he’s on it so ‘On your toes, Stan, you’re working with quality here now, boy’ so he’s fantastic to work with because he’s so good, he raises your game.
“When you work with good people, they make you better. That’s true in any job, in any walk of life. There’s no question, Gabriel Byrne’s a great actor and I’ve watched him over the years so I know his work and to be working with him, it gives you a lift. It’s the same with Simon Russell Beale. The bar he sets is so high when you come into rehearsals, he’s on top of it. He knows the part inside out, he’s off-book from day one so you’re going: ‘Right okay, he knows all his lines and he’s playing Lear. I’ve got to know all my lines because I’m only playing Kent.’”
There have been reports of complaints that some have found it difficult to understand the dialogue of Quirke, this comes after endless complaints about mumbled dialogue in the BBC’s Jamaica Inn. When the issue is raised, Stanley says he feels ill-equipped to comment on the issue as he has not read the coverage but does say: “There have been issues with sound on television in the last few months but I’ve never had any problem being heard. Maybe it’s an accent thing.”
For the full interview, please see the June 14 Irish World.
King Lear can be seen in repertory at The National Theatre until July 2. For more information, go to: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/.
Quirke continues on BBC. 24 continues on Sky. The Nether is at The Royal Court Theatre from July 17.