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The Importance of Being Earnest
Stella Gonet and Jeremy Swift in
The Importance of Being Earnest

Jeremy Swift is well known to TV audiences as Septimus Spratt on Downton Abbey. On the big screen, he's appeared in Polanski's Oliver Twist and Altman's Gosford Park, and will shortly be seen in Mary Poppins Returns.

He's currently playing Reverend Canon Chasuble in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Vaudeville Theatre, which opens tonight.

With your parents being music teachers, were the arts a big part of your life growing up?

Yes, there was always music being played. And I grew up in the late Sixties, early Seventies, so it was a time when everybody made things - my dad made a guitar from a kit. It was a real artisan period.

My mum was in a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan, and I used to go watch from the age of about six. I remember going backstage and seeing the make-up the ladies had on during The Mikado. Then I started going to theatre more in my teens.

When did you start to consider acting as a career?

I enjoyed doing it - I certainly had more concentration on acting than academics, though you do come to realise there is an academic element to approaching and interpreting scripts.

When I was 16, I didn't go to sixth form. I went to a technical college with a drama course, and the guy who ran the course fed students into drama schools - so it was always on the cards.

What did your parents think?

My parents thought "Let him do it". They knew I didn't want to go to university particularly. But it's funny, back then we didn't know any actors in the North-East! There weren't many drama schools either. My parents did know it was an unpredictable career choice, but they were sweetly supportive.

The Importance of Being Earnest
Stella Gonet, Jeremy Swift and
Fiona Button in The Importance
of Being Earnest

What was your first professional job?

It was with a company called Stirabout, that went round to prisons and borstals. We did a cabaret - the woman who ran it wanted everyone to play an instrument, and you had to be good at comedy too, because the audience would shout stuff out and you had to fire something funny back. It was a brilliant first job - I've never been afraid of anything since!

Did Downton Abbey make a big difference in terms of career options?

Yes, it's definitely made a difference - I'm doing the new Mary Poppins film, and that's a real bounce from Downton. It's so big in America - it's like being in the Beatles. The movie's great fun - it's a whole new story and new songs, so that's very exciting.

But I did lots of work I'm proud of before Downton too, like playing Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist for Polanski, working with Robert Altman and the Wachowski siblings, playing all sorts of different characters.

I read you quite enjoy playing the lovable idiot 'P' roles - pompous, pretentious... Does Chasuble in The Importance of Being Earnest fall into that category?

Chasuble is actually rather naïve - there's an innocence about him. So I think his pomposity is quite low level, maybe a bit of vanity. Really, if I play that too high, when Miss Prism has this vinegary, dour quality, it doesn't work, because you need a back and forth between the two of them that builds into something.

Did you create a backstory for Chasuble?

It's interesting, there aren't many references to their lives before the play, which is incredibly well made - as a comedy, the architecture is just amazing. Today, everyone applies pop psychology to everything, but even in Shakespeare, sometimes it's not clear why he's killed that person and so on. Sometimes it's in the text, sometimes you build enough so you can play it with conviction.

So I've had to think about when did Chasuble come into the area, what sort of class is he, and do my research of the clergy at the time. One thing we do know is that quite a lot of eccentric characters went into the church. For a certain class, it was going into politics, the army or the church, and that's what Wilde's having a go at.

Also there's a hierarchy in the church that mirrors the British class system. So even if Chasuble's a canon, there's always someone above him - and he's very aware of that. It's a part of his make-up.

The Importance of Being Earnest
Stella Gonet and Jeremy Swift in
The Importance of Being Earnest

Is there pressure doing a play that's so well known?

There's a good half-dozen quotes in it that people will know, but a lot of great stuff that they might have forgotten, so it's lovely to remind them of that too. The vital thing is that drama has to move and be properly motivated - and all actors want to make it their own, even if it's a much-revived play like Hamlet or Lear.

I did see the Parker movie, which was very golden and frothy. Actually coming to the text, it's a very technical play - that's partly why I wanted to do it. I've done period drama, but in a theatrical setting, with this very tight language, you really have to rattle it off naturally while hitting these key words, and if you add or subtract a syllable it takes away from the comic rhythm. There's not even the slightest margin for error.

Are you using your natural accent?

No, I'm doing a more middle-class accent for him. I did toy with Belfast, thinking "Nobody's done that!". It kind of worked, but I worried it would be distracting.

How has it been working with this cast?

It's a fantastic company - there's nobody you think "Oh, well, shame about that". Sophie Thompson, this is the fourth time we've worked together: sitcom, film, radio and theatre. I hadn't worked with Stella Gonet before, but she's adorable, just fantastic.

The Importance of Being Earnest
The cast of The Importance
of Being Earnest

What's the tone of your production - is it purely comic?

No, more of a mix. There are these individual moments where Chasuble's thinking "How well do I know Jack really?", and in way he's a father figure to him, so those elements mean it's not just a superficial, frothy thing - there's definite emotional content.

George Bernard Shaw, when he saw it, said it was Wilde's "first really heartless play", but I disagree - it must have been how they played it then. But even though it's hugely funny about manners, etiquette, snobbery, social hypocrisy, there's also this adoption story and a real search for love and belonging. I hope ours does have that, so it touches your heart as well as making you laugh.

What's the response been like so far?

It's got such a lift at the end - you can see people leaving with a spring in their step. It's what we need right now. Sometimes a play comes along at the right time, and I think we need some escapism and light relief.

What other projects have you got coming up?

Obviously there's Mary Poppins, and I'm working on a second album too - hopefully I'll bring that out next year. It's strange, I didn't start off in my career doing leads for the National or the RSC - some people do that and then their career recedes. Mine's got up and up incrementally, and Poppins is probably the biggest job I've ever done.

Any news on the Downton movie?

Well, the news for me is I'm not in it! I was in the original script and then they changed it. I may not be alone in this - some subsidiary characters now aren't appearing. To be honest, I'm fine and I wish the film well.

A lot of people went into Downton doing one or two episodes and I ended up doing 16. It was a great thing to do - I'd never played a character like that before, and I had these fantastic scenes with Maggie [Smith]. He was a great flavour in the show, because he wasn't a 'plot' character. I like introducing someone like that who you don't expect.

And off the back of that, I've got Mary Poppins and I'm also going out to America to try for some castings there. I've got an American agent because of Downton, which is just such great exposure.

Finally, why should people come to see Earnest?

It will give you a boost, get you laughing and crying, and it will make your heart dance with happiness.

The Importance of Being Earnest at Vaudeville Theatre until 20 October

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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