BWW Interview: Actor Ian Hallard On Reviving THE BOYS IN THE BAND
Actor Ian Hallard has done a range of work, from musicals and Shakespeare to phone-hacking play Great Britain at the National Theatre and TV staples like Doctor Who and Poirot. He also co-wrote a Poirot episode with his husband Mark Gatiss, and the pair are now starring together in a revival of Mart Crowley's seminal play The Boys in the Band, which changed the landscape of gay theatre on its Off Broadway premiere in 1968. It begins previews tomorrow at Park Theatre, where it plays until 30 October, and will then tour to Manchester, Brighton and Leeds.
What was your first theatre experience?
I didn't come from a theatre background, but Mum used to take us to pantos every year at Birmingham Hippodrome or New Alexandra Theatre, so my first show would have been a panto. I remember I was the sorcerer in The Sorcerer's Apprentice at school, and I always did drama clubs and school plays.
When did you realise you wanted to act professionally?
Funnily enough, it was comparatively late in the day. I did A-levels and went to university, but spent most of my time there doing plays and very little studying! Then I had a conversation with my dad, which was basically a complete role reversal from what you'd expect. He said "I've spent my whole adult life doing a job I've not enjoyed very much - you should give acting a go."
I'd always thought I've been strong academically, so I'll probably do that and acting will be an amateur thing, but that set me on a different course. I then did a postgrad at Mountview.
What was your first job in theatre?
Do you enjoy doing a mix of work?
Like a lot of actors, I find variety is the spice of life - it's lovely to be able to go from a radio job one to week to telly, a play, a film, a musical. The only unfortunate thing is people pigeonholing you, so maybe that's why I don't do as much musical theatre these days. But I love to do all sorts - that keeps it fresh and exciting.
What was it like developing Great Britain?
That was amazing. My agent rang through with the audition and just said it was a top-secret Richard Bean play at the National. We weren't sent a script in advance, which was nice in a way because everyone's auditioning on a level playing field - although I did Google "Richard Bean play National" and found he'd given an interview to the Guardian saying he was working on a piece about the phone hacking scandal!
Right at the beginning, Nick Hytner did say "This is a big risk". The worst case scenario was the jury not reaching a verdict and going into a retrial, which would have meant the production couldn't happen, but there were serious legal implications too. The Murdoch lawyers were scouring the internet for anything prejudicial, so there was genuine concern that if word got out about the play, this multi-million-pound case could have been thrown out and the National held in contempt of court. Then, when the verdict came in, our hearts sank when they all got off.
Do you enjoy doing provocative work?
Yes, actually a few years before, I did Scenes from an Execution at the National - that's a great piece, which doesn't give the audience any easy answers. Obviously there's space for a good night out too, a fun comedy, but I love when something really makes you think.
How did The Boys in the Band come to you?
I did a rehearsed reading a couple of years ago and I've been interested in it ever since. Tom O'Connell and James Seabright then put together the production here at the Park and asked me to play the role, and sorted out the tour as well, so it's come together very serendipitously. It's the first time I've worked with Tom and James, and it's a really happy company.
What does the play tell us about the gay experience then and now?
Obviously it's such a slice of its time - that very specific period pre-Stonewall riots, when gay men could be arrested, and gay bars or even private residences could be raided by the police. It's fascinating to see how things have moved on. Now we have gay marriage, and it's no longer politically viable for any mainstream political party to be outwardly homophobic - even UKIP.
But it's not a museum piece. The themes are incredibly relevant, to the point where lots of people reading it for the first time think it's a new piece of writing. It's still very pertinent to the gay community and beyond, dealing with ageing, body image, open relationships, racism, effeminacy, addiction. So it's fascinating to see how much things have changed and how some are still the same.
But the whole question of relevance is interesting - I think gay plays are often held to higher standard. Sometimes it's supremely relevant, but sometimes you just think "Let's do it again because it's a great play". My Night with Reg was an AIDS play, but watching the recent revival, you realise it's about unrequited love. That's got nothing to do with being set in the Nineties or even being a gay play - it's just wonderful, moving drama that anyone can appreciate.
Was it important to you growing up to have dramas with gay stories?
The internet has really moved the goalposts - I didn't have that as a teenager, when I was realising my sexuality. I scoured the Birmingham Evening Mail for any drama or documentary that might have any sort of gay theme, then watched it as surreptitiously as I could, smuggling the portable TV into my bedroom and keeping my finger hovered over the off switch in case anyone came in.
There was Steven Carrington in Dynasty, whose boyfriend was killed in the big Moldovian wedding massacre, but there were very few positive or optimistic gay stories, particularly with all the fear surrounding the HIV crisis. When two gay characters in EastEnders gave one another a peck on the cheek, it was front page of the Sun and national outrage.
So we still have a distance to go, but the journey we've made is incredible. Boys in the Band has been a big part of that - it was groundbreaking when it premiered, because there hadn't been plays like that before showing gay men as a community.
It really shows a variety of gay men as well
Yes, there are nine men in the play, and they show very different experiences. One is camp and effeminate, some are butcher, there's a bisexual guy who's been married, another guy who is married and may or may not be in the closet. It's a brilliantly written and constructed play.
It's also very witty. There was a famous film made of it in 1970 with the original cast, and people who know that perhaps don't appreciate just how funny it is, as they cut a lot of the comedy for time. We've got the playwright coming over - he's very excited to see it revived, and he's been going back and forth with our director, changing a few lines, so it's a revised version too.
Your character, Michael, is a lapsed Catholic?
Well, his lapsed status varies - his religion come and goes! It's a big source of conflict. He's a recovering alcoholic, so he's got religion and booze and sexuality to deal with - he's a troubled figure.
Can you relate to his struggles?
Not personally - I'm very well aware how fortunate I am living where I do, doing the job I do, having this social circle and home life. I count my blessings every day; I'm a very lucky gay man. I've never had any religious angst and I don't have an addictive personality. After an initial struggle working things out, I've been OK about my sexuality, and my family was fine after a while as well.
But I do know a lot of people who've had a hard time. I volunteer for Switchboard, the LGBT+ helpline, so I have second-hand knowledge of those mental health issues. I've also just started reading Matthew Todd's Straight Jacket: How To Be Gay and Happy, which is very articulate about the demons many people face.
How do you think this play represents the gay community?
It's always been controversial, because some people felt it wasn't doing the gay cause any favours. My character is self-loathing and winds up behaving violently towards his friends, so it's not a wholly positive representation. But I don't have a problem with that, because I think Michael's behaviour isn't about "He's wicked because he's gay", rather society has caused these issues and that's how they manifest. He's also just a bad drunk, which has nothing to do with sexuality - we all know people who, once they drink, we don't want to be around them.
There was pressure on the play because when it opened, it was the only gay play and people campaigning for tolerance and sympathy felt anything negative would be detrimental. Now, with so many representations, the whole weight of that isn't resting on this one play. Even 20 years ago, the HIV crisis was still in people's minds, so they wanted to push wholesome images. Now, we've matured and it's fine to show that gay people are just like everyone else - they can be drunk, unpleasant, kind, loving, a whole plethora of things beyond any limp-wristed stereotype.
Do you think you'll get different responses on tour?
I know there are strong communities in Brighton and Manchester, so that probably won't be dissimilar from London, and it'll be great to go to Leeds as well. It's just a matter of time constraints, otherwise it would be great to go to other places too - Scotland or the Midlands, where I'm from.
What's it like acting with Mark?
We've worked together a lot, mainly on writing projects. I'm his unofficial script editor - anything he writes, I read it and give him notes. If he's struggling on a plot, we go over it while we're walking the dogs. It's lovely to be on stage together - it means we actually get to spend time with one another, which has been hard to do this year! And it's easier running lines. The bane of the actor's partner's life is running lines, and at least now we can help each other out.
It's funny, people have asked us a lot if we'll be OK working together, but we do actually like each other - it's not a chore to be in each other's company! Though our characters have a complicated, antagonistic relationship, so that adds an extra frisson.
Would you like to do more writing?
Acting's my principle thing, and I'm probably more of an editor than a writer. Mark and I have a specific relationship with Agatha Christie - we were fans long before we were asked to write for the Poirot series, and it fit our skillsets well. If I'm at a loose end I might sit down at the laptop and think about writing, but acting is where my heart is.
Are you heading into another busy period with Sherlock?
Well, Series 4 is in the can and they're editing now - that's out early next year. There's no plans to shoot any more at the moment, but it depends on everyone's schedules - it's hard to get Benedict [Cumberbatch], Martin [Freeman] and Steven [Moffat] in a room now.
What would you like to do in future acting wise?
More of the same really. I'd love to do more Shakespeare, more contemporary writing, more TV - just see what comes along.
Any dream roles?
This has been one of them - it's a proper workout in terms of comedy and tragedy, and I'm on stage the entire time. The Winter's Tale is my favourite Shakespeare - I played Florizel at university, so maybe Leontes or Polixenes. I saw an RSC production when I was at sixth form, and I didn't know anything about the ending; I hadn't read it yet. When I saw the statue scene, it was so unexpected and beautiful, I was completely sucker-punched.
Musicals wise, I played Bobby in Company at drama school, and I'm now actually the right age for it! Or perhaps Chess if that ever came back - I'm a huge ABBA fan.
Any advice to budding actors?
Over the years I've seen so many incredibly talented colleagues leave the profession for completely understandable reasons - they wanted the security of a mortgage or were supporting a family, or just fell out of love for it. Unless you're incredibly lucky, you'll always be balancing periods of work with tougher times. When those disappointments start to outweigh the joy of doing the job, I'll know it's time to pack it in, and I'm not there yet.
So much of it is luck - there are brilliant actors who just don't get the breaks. The Honest Actors' podcast and blog is a fantastic resource, because you realise how many people are in the same boat. With social media, everyone's saying how thrilled they are to get this part, and very rarely do they say they were down to the last few and didn't get it, or they're struggling.
Make sure you have something else in your life - acting is too precarious to pin everything on it. That's one of the reasons I started doing Switchboard. And when you are working, cherish it. We're so lucky to do this - it's playing. How many people get to do the job they really want to do? I think back to my dad, just waiting for the weekend or retirement.
Finally, what can people expect from The Boys in the Band?
The first half is almost a farce - Michael's straight college friend turns up, and he doesn't want his gay friends to give him away. You've got the hilarious James Holmes, who played Clive in Miranda - giving this comic tour de force. And then the second half gets much darker - it's really angsty, meaty drama. We've had people in tears watching.
So it's funny, it's devastating, and Jack Derges (Andy in EastEnders) takes his top off, displaying his not inconsiderable chest! It's a terrible hardship - both Mark and I have to be kissed by him. When I rehearsed that the first time, our director Adam Penford suggested we try a version where the kiss goes on until I push him off. But he's so strong I couldn't get him off, and the kiss lasted far longer than it should have in the context of the play. Well, I said that was the problem, but no one would believe me!
It's a brilliant play and the cast is fantastic across about the board. Sometimes you hang back about inviting friends to a show, but not this one. I'm so excited for everyone to see it.
Picture credit: Darren Bell