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BWW Interview: Guy Henry Talks PETER GYNT at the National Theatre

Peter Gynt
Guy Henry

Guy Henry talks about his life as an actor and about David Hare's Peter Gynt, recently returned from Edinburgh to resume its run at the National Theatre.

Tell us a little about your start in acting, particularly your father's influence

He was an actor who started out in the 1950s (he's 87 now). After Italia Conti Stage School, one of his early jobs was with the Barry O'Brien Repertory Company. He toured the country with various plays.

His very grumpy assistant stage manager/actor was a young guy with dark glasses who everyone thought slightly pretentious - one David Baron. He was always scribbling things in a notebook and saying that he was going to be a playwright - he turned out to be Harold Pinter.

My father then worked in light entertainment, in variety, as a straight man to various comedians - one of whom was my godfather, Charlie Drake. Al Read was another, a Northern comic, Arthur Haynes too. My mother was a dancer at the Royal Opera Ballet and in variety. They met in Great Yarmouth when my father was in The Charlie Drake Show and my mother in The Benny Hill Show. So I'm steeped in theatrical history!

I wanted to be a disc jockey or a farmer when I was young, having grown up in Dorset and the New Forest. Then an English teacher, Clive Marklew, set up a drama club in my sixth form college (and one play we did was Pinter, A Night Out) and I got started. I went for one drama school, which happened to be RADA, and to everyone's surprise, I got in. I was fortunate and genuinely surprised - I was very inhibited and nervous!

Not many from that RADA year made it. It's a difficult business - it's not just about getting started, it's keeping going too.

In terms of "keeping going", you spent some time on Holby City?

I love it. I'm going back after we finish the run of Peter Gynt at The National. I'm nearly 59 now, and I've done a lot of artistic, badly paid theatrical work, shouting in wigs in the evenings and loved it. But it doesn't make you rich. So it's fantastic to have a lovely part in a very good programme on the telly and get a regular wage. Sorry if that sounds a bit mercenary, but it's nice to have a sense of security at my age. It's fab!

The executive producer on Holby, Simon Harper, has always said that if I found a play, they'd let me have some time out, and they've been as good as their word. Which is how I've done Peter Gynt for the last six months and loved it - a very fortunate position indeed.

Acting in a long-running TV show must be very different to acting in theatres in the evenings - what are the challenges of working on a television institution?

Keeping it fresh, I suppose. I've been in it, on and off, for nine years now, with a couple of years out - in one break, I did Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I have a part I love, a very quirky one, Henrik Hanssen. I have to say - arrogantly, I suppose - that he's much liked by the public, so you don't want to let him down!

There's an exhaustive series of auditions to find the right person for the character - I think he was called Arnold Brown when I auditioned. Because I'd shouted in wigs so often, I didn't mutter as much, so they thought they'd better make Arnold foreign - so Swedish he is.

There's a rough template with a bit of backstory for the character, but it's very much what the actor brings to it early on. The excellent team of writers then tailor the part to fit the strengths and weaknesses as they emerge.

It's nice that. I've played Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night several times...and so have hundreds and hundreds, well, thousands of actors since Shakespeare wrote it. But to create a character from scratch on the television has been a real pleasure.

We also pride ourselves on Holby - cast and crew - on being the friendliest show on telly. I've done so many guest parts where you go into an established programme and, sometimes, you don't have the easiest time. In Holby, you need the patients, you need the stories, 52 weeks a year, so you get a lot of guest actors coming in and I'm proud that people think it's the nicest show to work on.

Holby seems to be something of a finishing school for British stage actors

And vice versa. Simon Harper is a theatre man himself (and knew me from theatre stuff). He's always said that having a Holby actor at a great theatre company reflects well on the show, because, obviously, there can be a snobbery about "television continuing drama".

Of course, it's not always top brilliant. It's 52 hours of drama every year, so the writers - poor sods - have to come up with 26 feature films annually. And all on three sets and a windy car park!

Peter Gynt
Waiting for the Devil in Peter Gynt

Peter Gynt isn't quite 52 hours, but it is long - tell us about your role in it

We've got it down to three and a quarter hours with two decent intervals. I don't see why people should be wary of spending three hours in the theatre, especially if you're spending £68 for the seat!

What surprises people is that it's very funny and entertaining - not an accusation often levelled at Ibsen. David Hare has written a wonderful, extraordinary, weird evening. Some people love it, some don't; but those who do, really, really like it.

We have the best leading man I've ever worked with. James McArdle is fabulous and delightful, on stage and off.

He is so brilliant that he dominates the stage - does that make it easier or more difficult for the rest of the cast?

He never shuts up! I've played far larger parts than I do in this show, but I was delighted to work with Jonathan Kent when he asked me to join the cast, and I'm so glad that I've had this opportunity to work with a director who is first rate.

I've loved working at the National Theatre in the past - the crew, the stage management, everyone is second to none. And it's handy for Streatham, where I live!

It's quite nerve-wracking to come on and do vignettes - there's a real onus on you to get it absolutely right, because you don't want to go on and cock it up for James, who's acting for hours on end.

You're in the third section?

And I play a French businessman in the middle act. In the third act, it's coming towards the end of Peter Gynt's life and I play the The Weird Passenger - The Devil, basically.

He and The Button Moulder, played beautifully by Oliver Ford Davies, are the two strange incarnations who lead Peter Gynt to the end of his days. It's a really showy little role and I love doing it.

We had fantastic audiences in Edinburgh, and not just because the majority of the company are Scottish. They were bright and funny and enjoyed the show very much.

Peter Gynt
Trolls in Peter Gynt

David Hare is in his 70s, a Knight of the Realm for two decades - is the National Theatre the right place for his work? Should it be looking for the next generation?

I don't want to misquote him, but he has remarked that some people consider him a "bed-blocker". I'd say that there's room for all and there are lots of productions (and always have been) that will not be helmed by The Great And The Good. There's all sorts of talent to be nourished and the National is the place to do it.

I also think that David Hare is one of the greatest playwrights we have, that he's still got a lot to say, that he's still quite angry - there's a lot of topical jokes and satire in Peter Gynt. I think it's perfectly right that he should be at the leading theatre in the country.

The play has a political standpoint - in this febrile climate, does that cause any issues for the cast and creatives?

I think the Scottish members of the cast are proud of their homeland within the British Isles and they think that the appalling political machinations going on are unfair on their country. I shouldn't put words in their mouths, but I can see the anger about what Westminster is leading us into. And there's anger too amongst those of us brought up on the south coast of England!

The trolls in this production are the The Bullingdon Club, with one of the most aggressive and unpleasant characters clearly Mr Johnson.

At the moment, you'd have to rewrite it every day to get it truly topical, but the anger is burning bright for sure.

What's next for you?

We have the final run of Peter Gynt until 8 October, so anyone who wants to be intrigued by this beautiful play should come along. Then I go back to Holby and my pretend doctoring, cutting up bits of rubber!

Peter Gynt is at the National Theatre until 8 October

Read our review of Peter Gynt

Photos Manuel Harlan

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From This Author Gary Naylor