Rhoda Koenig – Sunday Telegraph Magazine
Actor Roger Allam is one of Britain’s most successful actors,
but he proves the point that nobody now can be a star
without a television career. Rhoda Koenig interviewed him
He has been called the best ever Jack Worthing (in The Importance of Being Earnest) and the definitive Brutus. In 1985 he impressed critics as the original Javert in Les Misérables, and eight years later did so again as the Bogart-like private eye in City of Angels. But, to most theatre-goers, Roger Allam’s last name is still “‘Who?”‘. The reason says a lot about the current state of the theatre: it is no longer possible for an actor to become a star by appearing only on the stage.
In all the parts mentioned, as well as his highly praised Benedick opposite the late Susan Fleetwood, Allam portrayed what has become his speciality: the honourable man alone in a corrupt and confusing society who will not be turned from his ideal by the threat of death or ridicule. “He would have fitted on the stage in the Twenties quite well,” says Irving Wardle, éminence grise of theatre critics. “He’s the upstanding English gent. He’s very good at conveying an exasperated incredulity at people not understanding the truth of what he’s saying.” But Allam doesn’t simply play the balked idealist for laughs; beneath his comic frustration, there is the melancholy of the outsider who sees other people breaking the rules but having more fun.
The National Theatre has been collaborating in the general conspiracy to keep Allam well-known and well-liked but only within the business. Ten days ago The Way of the World, in which he plays Mirabell, opened with little to no advance publicity, thanks to a director and two co-stars who would not give interviews. “That play is a bag of eels,” says Allam. “You think you’ve got hold of an idea, and it slips out of your grasp.” Allam has to hold the audience’s interest through Congreve’s elegant 17th-century periphrases and a notoriously static and convoluted plot – not that this is too difficult for an actor who, in ten years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, was considered one of their finest speakers of verse. The director Bill Alexander says, “Roger is a master of complex classical language. He can get at the thoughts underlying it with great clarity.” Mirabell is not one of Allam’s virtuous characters, but he is the least corrupt man in a corrupt society. “Mirabell has in the past been something of a rake,” says Allam. “But the reason he is obsessed with Millamant is that he believes marriage will bring out the best qualities in both of them.”
In person Allam, 41, is rather restrained, perhaps more so than usual during a week that is not only the last one of rehearsals but one in which Fleetwood and another actor friend have died. He is attentively well-mannered, so old-fashioned he even smokes. The quality of “sexy imperturbability” that one reviewer noted in his acting has its counterpart in a physical stoicism. One night, in the middle of Importance, he ruptured a calf muscle, but, says Barbara Leigh-Hunt, “altered his movements slightly, so that very few people in the audience knew anything was wrong”, and then continued, since he had no understudy, to play every performance.
The son of a London vicar, Allam went to Christ’s Hospital school in Sussex, “an Oxbridge forcing house for the lower middle classes”, founded by Edward VI. “We still wore 16th-century uniforms – long cloaks and clerical bands and knee-high yellow socks to keep away the plague. Oh, it was very camp.” He first became interested in the theatre on hearing a recording of Paul Scofield as King Lear and soon became a regular at the Old Vic – “You could see Olivier then for 15p.” After leaving school, he went on to Manchester University and did a stint at the city’s Contact Theatre – “I was quite good as Angelo. I was crap as Macbeth but I was getting experience.” Allam’s first job was as one of two men in the Monstrous Regiment. The feminist company, which performed new plays by Caryl Churchill and Claire Luckham, was an education not only in theatre but in fortitude (“There were times when the audiences didn’t get the irony”) and consciousness-raising. “I’m amazed when I see all the things accomplished by someone with a lot of energy, like Kenneth Branagh. It’s as much as I can do to get my washing done,” says Allam, who lives in north London “with my lover” (female).
Theatre in England, Allam feels, has become less important to the public for several reasons. “There was a lot of rhetoric at the time the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company were founded about making the theatre more democratic. The Barbican and South Bank theatres may have been constructed so that everyone has a better view of the stage, but neither is a beautiful acoustic instrument, like the Old Vic. And though the people in the cheap seats can now see better, those seats are so much more expensive than they used to be that a lot of people can’t go at all.” Deteriorating educational standards, Allam says, have made classical language unfamiliar to players and audiences: the former have difficulty delivering archaic words and subordinate clauses with conviction; the latter “lose the ability to hear what is being said”.
Television, though another cause of passive listening, is necessary these days to the serious star. The last classical actor to become a star without having a hit in TV or films was Ian McKellen, 15 years older than Allam. The careers of Michael Gambon and Derek Jacobi have shown that screen success is more important than sex appeal. Programmes such as The Singing Detective and I Claudius respectively represented a commitment to drama that – witness the BBC’s recent cheap and silly adaptations of The Buccaneers and Pride and Prejudice – is slipping away. “You can see how the BBC has been changing its allegiance from theatre to film just in the names of the programmes,” Allam says. “For instance, there used to be Play for Today. Now it’s Screen 2.”
Allam is certainly aware of these problems and of the limits imposed by his dignified style. “I don’t think Théâtre de Complicité are going to call me up.” But he does not share the indignation of some other people in the theatre world that he is not a star. He has the best sort of life an actor can possibly have,” says Michael Blakemore, who directed City of Angels. “He’s always in demand, and he doesn’t restrict himself the way some actors do who become stars and start saying, ‘This is not right for me’.”
Allam raises his voice only once, when talking about the tension involved in playing in a talky comedy several times a week (The Way of the World is his fourth in a row, after City of Angels, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, and Importance). “You tend to amalgamate all the audiences, the ones who laugh in some places and the ones who laugh in others, into one ideal. When they don’t laugh when I expect it, I suffer frustration, neurosis, anxiety, rage, and deep embarrassment.
He smiles. “So I’d like to drop comedy for a while.” The job he’d like best would be good frustration therapy. “I think something like Titus Andronicus. I’d like to just get on that stage and chop away.”