“It’s all about the audience.” This could be the motto of actor Adam Godley, who stars in the new production of Rain Man playing at the Apollo theatre, as Matthew Amer found out.
“They’re the beginning and the end of it. They’re why we’re doing the job.” Adam Godley holds the audience in very high esteem. They are the reason behind his choice of production, the provocation for months of research into a role and the motivation to throw everything into each performance: “Every bit of effort we make is about the audience, is about providing them with something that’s going to move them and make them think and make them laugh and make them cry, and all of our efforts have to go into that. Of course, I want to do interesting roles, but I want to do interesting roles because I think the audience is going to have an interesting time. I just can’t bear being involved with something that’s any less than that. It’s just too painful to go out there every night and think ‘what are the audience going to say at the end of this: ‘well, that was lovely, now where shall we go for dinner?’’ I just don’t want to be part of that. I want to be part of something where the audience is going to go: ‘Wow, that was just amazing, what an incredible experience!’”
Godley, if it is not already very obvious, is extremely passionate about entertaining. When you examine his previous theatrical credits, which include Laurence Olivier Award nominations for his performances in Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle And Dick, and Mouth To Mouth, it is clear that his devotion to the audience has led to a rather adept eye for picking winning productions in which to appear.
His latest venture is the screen to stage adaptation of Oscar-winning film Rain Man, which originally starred Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman as separated brothers who find a common bond. Godley describes it as a “beautiful sort of fairytale road movie”.
“As soon as I heard about it I started to get that tingling feeling of excitement that’s a barometer for me of whether it’s a role that I’m going to be interested in doing,” Godley says of his initial interest in the production, “and immediately it was.”
"I’m not trying to do something better or worse than [Dustin Hoffman] did, I’m just doing my version of it"
On the stage of the Apollo theatre, Godley takes the role played on celluloid by Hoffman, that of autistic savant brother Raymond, a challenging role for a number of reasons, none more challenging than playing a character with a particularly rare mental condition. “I knew as much as anybody does who’s not directly related to [autism], which is very little,” Godley explains. “I had very generalised views of what it was, I didn’t understand it. I had lots of prejudices and preconceptions about it which anybody would have who didn’t have direct experience of it.” To combat his lack of knowledge, Godley researched the condition over a period of months, immersing himself in as much information as he could find. He spent time with people who are on the autistic spectrum, read up on the subject, watched documentaries and met with psychiatrists and care workers who deal with people on the autistic spectrum on a daily basis.
“I feel it’s my job to fill my mind in the run up to rehearsals with as much inspiration as I can lay my hands on,” he states, explaining his commitment to research. “Then once we’re in the rehearsal room I have that to draw upon.”
Yet it is not just convincingly portraying a distinct condition that sets him a challenge with this role, he also has to compete in the minds of the audience with Hoffman’s big screen portrayal that won the lauded American an Academy Award and is arguably one of the most iconic performances of the 1980s.
“This will be my Raymond, it’s the Raymond in me” says Godley, who is clear that he is not in competition with Hoffman. “That was the Raymond in Dustin Hoffman. We’re as different as anybody else is. I’m not trying to do something better or worse than he did, I’m just doing my version of it and that’s what I’m focussing on. Any time you do any of the classics – Wilde, Coward – there’s a great long list of people who’ve done that role, so I’m trying to put it in that context.”
Of course, this is a challenge for the whole production; many of the theatregoers who make their way to the Apollo theatre to see Rain Man will have fond memories of the film and will be waiting to compare the stage production to its big screen parent. There are many who would ask whether there is even any point in adapting the piece for the stage, whether making it a live event will add anything to the story. Godley was first in line to ask those questions and has found his own answers: “We’re not trying to emulate what they did in the film. We’re taking that story, basing our play on that story and telling it in a new way. It’s a beautiful story, and if we can tell it properly, if we can tell it honestly and truthfully and movingly and humorously and challengingly then I think, hopefully, we’ll have something that will really give the audiences a fantastic experience, which is what you’re always striving for.”
"By the end of it we certainly all needed to have our heads be in a different place, like a bucket of cold water"
It helps to have a bona fide Hollywood heartthrob to step into the metaphorically large shoes of Tom Cruise. The stage production has Josh Hartnett, star of films including The Faculty, Black Hawk Down, Pearl Harbour and The Black Dahlia, making his London theatre debut in Rain Man. It is always a nervous time when a screen star takes to the stage; will they have the presence or the craft to produce their best day after day, filling a gaping auditorium with their performance? Godley, whose CV suggests he is a fine judge, has been nothing but impressed with the debutant Hartnett. “[It is] very very inspiring to work with him,” he acclaims. “He’s so passionate and so disciplined and so demanding of himself. He’s just got this energy and passion about him which is so perfect for the role, and there’s such complexity there as well.” Godley has worked with many of the finest talents around; I would imagine it takes a lot to impress him.
Godley’s appearance in Rain Man marks the actor’s first return to the stage since early 2006, when he took the eponymous lead in Howard Brenton’s play Paul at the National Theatre. Though two years is not a great length of time, it is a rare period of theatrical barrenness in a very fruitful decade for the performer. It was also far from an accident.
Godley describes his performance as the Roman soldier whose vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus changed the course of religious history as “walking through a hoop of fire”, not necessarily because of the contentious content of the play and the possibility of real controversy surrounding it – Brenton’s play suggested that Jesus survived the crucifixion and that his followers’ visions were of a very live man rather than a resurrected saviour – but due to the nature of his arrival in the production. Godley replaced the originally cast Paul Rhys as the title character once previews had begun. The production was suspended while Godley swiftly acquainted himself with both play and character, but he admits “I was battling a lot of fear around being able to do justice to that role in the time allotted.” In fact, the exertion he put into it left him burnt out and desperate for a break from theatre to recover his passion and enthusiasm.
The stage interlude was time well spent. Since closing Paul, he has worked on films including low-budget Brit hit Son Of Rambow, Elizabeth sequel The Golden Age, the new X-Files film and Salomaybe?, in which he was directed by one of his acting heroes, Al Pacino. “I had to keep pinching myself,” he laughs as he thinks back over the experience.
Godley’s time away has served its purpose and, while he has now moved his home to the United States, the prospect of being back in the West End, “in front of a live audience, is terrifying and exciting at the same time”.
"Nothing is more thrilling than being on stage and knowing that the audience is just enraptured"
“I’ve acted since the age of nine,” Godley tells me, explaining his passion for performance, “it’s what I know, the environment of rehearsals is where I feel most comfortable and most myself. I’m just really fortunate that I got into something that I get an enormous amount of satisfaction from and have been fortunate enough to get work in and to be able to earn a living doing.” He doesn’t know what else he would be doing if he weren’t performing, he admits; it has always been his life.
Maybe this longevity of career in someone who is still only in his forties is what affords Godley such good taste in projects; possibly he has the experience of one much older, or maybe he just knows what will make audiences tick. Martin McDonagh’s extremely dark Laurence Olivier Award-winning comedy The Pillowman, which ran at the National’s Cottesloe theatre in 2004, is one such example of his smart choices. In it, Godley played Michal, who was abused as a child, inadvertently providing the inspiration for his brother’s violent stories. Even by McDonagh’s dark standards it was a comedy of the very murkiest nature. “Each night we’d be backstage and think ‘Whatever the audience think of this, they’re not going to be bored.’ They may have had issues with it – and I think if those issues of child abuse have touched you in any way, of course you would have difficulty with it – but it was an interesting and provocative and exciting hour and 50 minutes in the theatre.
“That was just such a pleasure to do,” he continues, “but I think by the end of it we certainly all needed to have our heads be in a different place, like a bucket of cold water.”
Happily for Godley, Rain Man should be a less harrowing but equally rewarding experience. Certainly it has everything he looks for in a piece. The possible upheaval of a change of director – David Grindley was replaced by Terry Johnson early in the process – has been seamless, he is effusive about his co-star and rehearsals have been going well. But once again, it will not be about what Godley thinks, but about his greatest concern, the theatregoers: “We’re all in that room trying to create something that is going to entertain the audience to the maximum possible point. That’s the job. We want people to come in, pay their money and get their money’s worth; be taken on a journey and laugh and cry and be moved and thought-provoked. Nothing is more thrilling than being on stage and knowing that the audience is just enraptured; those moments that you hear a pin drop or when the audience just cascade into laughter. You think: ‘We’ve done our job.’”