BWW Interview: Anthony Calf Talks HEDDA TESMAN at Chichester Festival Theatre
Anthony Calf's rich and varied career ranges from Poldark, King Lear and The Children's Act on screen to, on stage, working with directors like Richard Eyre, Nicholas Hytner, Rupert Goold and Lyndsey Turner.
His current project is Cordelia Lynn's adaptation of Ibsen's Hedda Tesman, playing now at Chichester Festival Theatre.
Your acting CV is so varied - have you got a highlight from the past couple of years?
Doing King Lear with Anthony Hopkins [for the BBC in 2018] was a theatre actor's dream. It was a combination of having a wonderful leading actor, a superb supporting cast of actors, and being directed by an absolute Knight of the theatre [Richard Eyre]. Also, we were performing our greatest playwright's text! What's not to like?
We rehearsed for two weeks at Pinewood Studios and we became somewhat of a team supporting Tony. It was an absolute treat.
And now you're on stage with Hedda Tesman - can you give us an overview of the play?
It's a very modern play, but with a very strong Ibsen influence.
I play George Tesman. It's about a couple, who are are in their 60s (early 60s, I hasten to add...), rather than a young couple as in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler.
They've been married for 30 years: 30 years of understanding and compromise, and, from George's point of view, 30 years of trying to please the woman he loves, and perhaps having a sense that he is failing. He palpably adores her and is passionate about her, but perhaps doesn't get that in return.
It is tragic; I think he is quite a tragic figure, but he is also buoyant and supportive. I incorporate a part of myself into the role, with direction from Holly Race Roughan, who is brilliant.
Do you often feel like you've approached a role with an element of yourself?
Inevitably, when you sit down and talk about characters and life experience, the most experience of life you have is... yourself.
When you put yourself into someone else's shoes to understand what they might be like, it is helpful to take some of your own experiences with you (though I must add that it's not my experience with my wife!).
But, you might know how it feels when you're doing a house up, for example, or what it feels like to be a room with a piano. I can relate to elements and I know what is at stake.
In this case, the couple arrives at a house that Hedda has been professing that she has wanted to live in for many years, so George has bought it. It needs a lot of work.
How does the script marry with Ibsen's Hedda Gabler?
I've seen Hedda Gabler, and know the basic background, but I'm afraid I can't compare the two too much! When this script arrived on my doorstep, I was so taken by the play Cordelia has written that I felt no need to refer to the Ibsen version at all.
It's got an extraordinary sense of drama, but also a wonderful sense of reality, which brings it very much into the 21st century. I like the drama of Ibsen's plays and the strength of his characters. The characters Cordelia has adapted are all very strong.
Instead of Hedda's friend featuring, as in Hedda Gabler, George and Hedda have a daughter, Thea, who is estranged. Natalie Simpson plays her, and she is terrific. Haydn Gwynne is playing Hedda, and the whole cast is very collaborative and gets on so well. They're working so hard for Holly and Cordelia.
Is it motherhood that's become one of the most tangible themes?
The relationship between Hedda and her daughter is an odd one. Well, actually, it isn't. It's quite a similar relationship to lots of people's relationships between mother and daughter: a sort of combination of love, but quite combative. Absolutely there's love and adoration, but palpably what comes out is criticism.
In our version, Thea, the daughter, has been estranged for five years. In discussion, it's because of her relationship with her mother, and she has to sacrifice her relationship with her father as a result. It's a very fiery relationship between the two of them. It's very interesting.
But really, patriarchy is the point. It has been hanging over Hedda's life. The life of a 60-year-old woman has been absolutely dominated by men, and not necessarily George, but her father, absolutely. His image, quite literally, hangs over the production.
The script really is second to none, and I would really recommend buying the playtext. If we can bring even 50% of the atmosphere Cordelia brings to the text, I think we'd be doing a great job.
Has Cordelia been part of the rehearsal process?
Yes, she's been around a lot - and she and Holly work exceptionally well together. I cannot tell you how much this has been one of the most productive and collaborative experiences of my theatre life.
The script has developed fractionally in the rehearsal room, but one of the wonderful things about Cordelia is her specificity. She is very specific about lines, or punctuation or structure. Just because you as an actor might be having difficulty with a line, or understanding it, does not mean she will change it. She has a reason for every single dot, comma, word, paragraph, or spacing.
She writes like a musician would write notes on a notation and I love it. I absolutely love it.
Do you think this process will change the way you read scripts in your future roles?
Well, you do always look for the writer's intention. For example, I was blessed to do a production of Betrayal at the National years ago when Harold Pinter was still alive, and I was able to ask him the difference between a silence and a pause, a dash or a full stop, and he was very specific about the way that he wrote.
I like reading music, and the specificity of musical notation, in the same way I like the specificity of language. An actor needs to try and observe every single word, and intention, if they possibly can. I like that challenge.
What's lovely is seeing this specificity in someone so young, and so worldly and intelligent. Cordelia is an extraordinary woman - and isn't that encouraging for the future of theatre?
Anna Flesichle is the designer on the production, and she was nominated for an Olivier Award for her domestic set for Home, I'm Darling. Can you give us an idea of what her design is like?
Yes, she does do exciting things with domestic sets. In theatre, there is a heightened style. It's sort of like the skeleton of a house: it's a very interesting and unsettling atmosphere that she has created.
That disconcerting feeling is important: this house has not been maintained well at all and George is bringing Hedda into something that should be her dream home, but she is not particularly happy there.
Like any home, you need to have a vision when you are doing it up. But it's unsettling to walk into someone else's house and inhabit it. Anna has done a great job at capturing that.
You're a bit of a Chichester veteran - you were recently there with David Hare's Plenty. Do you like the venue?
I do like the venue! It's a sort of a 'regional national' theatre: it has the National Theatre in its history, and the first seasons were done by Laurence Olivier. It's a very strong theatre and one that I've known and experienced properly for many years. I love the main stage thrust.
Why do you think people should see Hedda Tesman?
The strength of it, the hostility of it, the sensitivity of it. The detail.
Hedda Tesman is a co-production between Headlong, Chichester Festival Theatre and The Lowry. It runs at Chichester Festival Theatre until 28 September and at The Lowry 3-19 October
Photo credit: Johan Persson