BWW Interview: Matthew Needham Talks SUMMER AND SMOKE
This spring, Matthew Needham will feature in Summer and Smoke at the Almeida Theatre. Rebecca Frecknall's production marks his third show at the theatre this year, having never previously performed there before.
Catching up during rehearsals, Matthew reflects on his time at the Almeida so far, his journey to becoming an actor, and the career paths less traveled.
What was your first experience with theatre?
I remember being taken to see The Wind in the Willows, when I was seven or eight. And it must have been at the National Theatre, because I remember being wowed by the revolving stage. That was my first memory of theatre.
And what made you want to become an actor?
Well, I didn't actually think I could be one. I didn't know any actors growing up, but I had always liked performing. I think I thought that actors were grown in a lab or something!
I did amateur dramatics as a kid, but acting as a career never seemed an option for me. It was only at college when a teacher of mine called Gillian Roberts whose husband was an actor, David Yelland, suggested that I should apply for drama school.
And because she knew a proper actor (as it were), it sort of legitimised it and made me actually think that this is something I could pursue. So then I went to LAMDA, because I did LAMDA exams as a kid and I just knew the name. I was quite jammy, actually. It was the only drama school I applied to and the only one I wanted to go to.
But until my teacher encouraged me, I had no intention of doing it. I didn't know what I was going to be, really.
Were there any other career paths which you might have gone down?
I was torn between being a marine biologist and a wrestler! Those were my two options.
Alas, you are not headlining WrestleMania. But you have appeared in a number of notable productions in recent years, including at the RSC and the Globe. Do you have a particular love of Shakespeare?
You know, it's grown on me. I'd like to say that I loved it as a kid and thought it was important, but I didn't. As a kid, I didn't really understand what was going on...I still don't sometimes!
But I didn't have a deep affinity. It's only actually from doing it and from learning it that I've realised how fascinating Shakespeare is. And I learned a lot at the Globe, including a deep-seated hatred of helicopters.
Like I said, I never really got Shakespeare and I didn't think it was for me. That was until I was about 17 and I started going to that theatre. And it suddenly seemed to make sense.
And you're now at the Almeida, performing in no less than three shows in your first season.
Yes, it's a bit silly, isn't it? The girls in the office say that I've started the Almeida Rep Company, but just me!
I mean, I was excited for the first time with The Treatment. So this is a sort of embarrassment of riches. I feel very, very fortunate to be here and it's such an exciting place to work at the minute.
And to do such different stuff as well. I can't quite believe that in the space of one year, I'll have done Martin Crimp, William Shakespeare, Rod Serling and Anne Washburn, and now Tennessee Williams. It's quite varied and I like that.
What's it been like performing three very different productions in that space?
It's a bit of a chameleon of a space: every time I go in there, it seems to be completely different. I love that about the theatre. I went in there the other day and they had gutted all of The Twilight Zone setting out, so it was bare. And it looked like a completely different theatre. And I just thought, "I could see any show in here, and it would just fit".
I do love how intimate it is. And that works so well with the audience. With The Twilight Zone, we had a few surprising noises, some gasps and woops and cheers and screams. It was great fun.
On The Twilight Zone, have you ever experienced anything paranormal?
Oh...as a kid I remember I saw a huge coach and horses, which I think might have been ghosts. Although the more I think about it, the more I think I might have just made that up! But I have memories as a kid and I don't know whether it was my imagination or not.
So no, but I do believe in it. I do believe things go bump in the night and I think they do so for a reason.
You're currently in rehearsals for Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke. Were you familiar with his work?
I had read some of his plays very early on. And at the beginning of 2017, I did a radio production of A Streetcar Named Desire. That was the first time I'd sifted through it properly, with an eye on performing it.
And I remember going, "God, I wish we had six weeks on this". Because it's so rich and it's so detailed and there are so many little ambiguities and mysteries that the time doesn't allow with radio work. But I adored it and he's a fascinating writer.
So when this came up, I just jumped at the chance. And I didn't really know much about the play.
Can you tell us a bit about the character you're playing?
I play a young doctor called John Buchanan. He's 25 years old and he's in this small town and he's sort of at a crossroads in his life. I'd say he's quite messed up in that wonderful Williams' way, and quite lonely.
I can't go into too much more, because I'm still discovering it myself in the rehearsal room.
And how have rehearsals been going?
Well, I love working with Rebecca Frecknall, our director. She's actually directed the show before, but you wouldn't know it...and I mean that as a compliment! She comes at it with such fresh eyes, and her ideas are so exciting. And Patsy Ferran as well is just extraordinary.
We're just kicking it around at the minute, and we finished act one today. It was an odd run, because it was the first time we had pieced everything together. And some bits and pieces just went slightly out the window. But it was very, very useful; it opened up a lot more questions than answers.
Finally, why should people come and see Summer and Smoke?
Well, it's got Patsy Ferran in it!
It's a play that not many people know; I don't think it's been performed in London at least since early 2000. And it's an absolutely beautiful play: it's very funny and it's very sad and very moving, I think.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner