Matthew Amer talks pongy paraphernalia with one of this year’s hottest awards tips, Bertie Carvel, as he gets beneath the skin of Matilda The Musical’s Miss Trunchbull.
Some might think it unwise to question the odour of a Kung Fu black belt’s attire, or not entirely sensible to refer to the whiff of a martial artist’s underwear. But this is the stinky elephant in the dressing room when I meet Bertie Carvel, the actor currently playing bullying headmistress Miss Trunchbull in Matilda The Musical.
The gross garment, Carvel corrects me, is in fact not the padded fat suit hanging carcass-like in his wardrobe, draped next to the fetching checked number sported by his Matilda co-star Paul Kaye. The unwashed padding that helps the 34-year-old actor transform from dashing young man to terrifying teacher is festering upstairs awaiting its next opportunity to aid Carvel’s monstrous morphing.
“If you’d really like to smell it, I can probably arrange that,” he offers, amiably. He seems deadly serious, so I quickly turn down the kind offer. As enlightening as it might be, the opportunity to thrust my nose into the armour – Carvel currently uses a breastplate created by the RSC’s armoury – that has remained happily free of any soap or water since the show first opened in Stratford-Upon-Avon last December, is one I feel obliged to decline.
“My present assets,” Carvel explains as the aroma of coffee wafts around his intimate Cambridge theatre dressing room, “have the character of armour, which is great. I always said that I wanted her chest to enter the room before anything else. It will be interesting to replace armour with weak flesh [Carvel and “superstar of padding” Phil Reynolds are currently creating a new suit]. Maybe it will have more bounce to it, which is lovely. Phil and I spent a lot of time discussing what material he was going to use such that the sports bra had to do its work properly.”
This, I’m aware, is far too much talk about masquerading mammaries than is appropriate for what is an award-winning performance. Carvel has already collected a Theatre Awards UK 2011 accolade for his performance and is nominated at the forthcoming Evening Standard Theatre Awards.
“I always said that I wanted her chest to enter the room before anything else”
The actor, whose previous credits include the Almeida theatre’s Rope, Royal Court’s The Pride and National Theatre productions of Coram Boy and The Man Of Mode, is very clear that this is far more than a Dame performance: “You have that in the armoury, but you use it at your peril. That gag would be over in five seconds.” In fact, he argues, the outer shell of his costume has very little to do with his performance. “The transformation that’s difficult, that means you’re a success or a failure in acting terms, in my view, is an internal one. You get all these external things that are really there to help the audience, to help tell the story, but whether or not you’ve really done your job well is something that happens on the inside.”
Talking to Carvel, it is easy to see how seriously the actor is taking the role. He might joke about his unwashed costume, but when it comes down to the nitty gritty of delivering a performance that has wowed both the critics and the public, he is a picture of blinkered focus. Maybe it is a focus that comes from his martial arts training, maybe the focus was always there and it was that which aided his move from complete novice to Kung Fu black belt in just four years. Either way, it is obvious that if he had felt the rest of the team behind the conversion of Matilda from much-thumbed children’s book to all-conquering stage musical had not been taking the project as seriously as him, he would not have joined the production.
Universally, the critics that made their way to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s home in Stratford-Upon-Avon last year sang the praises of Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book. One year on, and Carvel, who between stints as Trunchbull starred in Damon Albarn’s opera Dr Dee at the Manchester International Festival, is still loving it.
“It’s a huge joy,” he says, “because you know that what you’re doing is going to give people enjoyment. It’s a great thing to go in to work to do every day. You can be feeling jaded or tired and know that if you do your job well the likelihood is that 1,000 people are going to be cheering and go out of the theatre feeling a lot better than when they came in. You can’t argue with that.”
Yet for all the plaudits, accolades and Carvel’s own confidence in the production, he punctuates his optimism with fears about “jinxing” the show. I’m not one for counting chickens before they’ve hatched either, but in this case, when the eggs are already more decorated than the contents of the Easter Bunny’s finest basket, I think he can afford himself a little breathing room. “I’m really pleased to be in something that’s thought highly of. It’s horrible when the opposite happens… I imagine,” he laughs, before attributing his off-the-cuff gag to former colleague Simon Russell Beale.
“There was always a Deputy Head or someone who was sinister or had something of death about them”
The son of a journalist, who was himself the son of a journalist, Carvel didn’t fancy going into the writing game as his family had already been a success in that field and he would only be striving to live up to previous generations. But acting was not his plan either until he reached university, where he studied English Literature and tried it for the first time, catching the bug after landing the lead role in a student production of Murder In The Cathedral at his first attempt.
He was not even a great theatregoer as a child, citing only the annual trip to the Windsor pantomime, where rock ‘n’ roller Joe Brown would often be found playing Buttons. He hopes many of Matilda’s patrons share similar experiences to those he had each festive season: “I think that experience of coming to the theatre as a family and all coming away excited and with your imagination buzzing somehow taps into some kind of idea of Christmas that has a fond place in my heart.”
He is also intrigued by exactly what audience Matilda collects. “Tim and Dennis,” he says, referring to the creative team of comedian/musician Minchin and playwright Kelly, “are both very much grown up writers. They have a kind of dark wit, both of them, that suits Dahl down to the ground but also has a lot to offer grown ups.”
It’s true, of course, that Matilda The Musical is based on a novel aimed squarely at children. But so was War Horse, the National Theatre’s Michael Morpurgo adaptation that successfully enchants audiences of all ages. Like War Horse, which explores the horrors of the First World War through the story of a boy and his horse, Matilda, though originally aimed at children, has a tough tale at its heart. “It is a grotesque comedy and all of those things,” Carvel explains, “but it’s also a serious musical about child abuse. This little girl gets treated awfully by her parents. She goes to school and she gets bullied by this awful, awful woman. These are serious issues.”
“One of the reasons I’m sure it appeals to kids,” he continues, “is every kid knows what it feels like to be frightened at school, to be terrified. My teachers weren’t evil or horrible, but there was always a Deputy Head or someone who was sinister or had something of death about them. You construct these fantasies in your head as a child and it’s really frightening. It’s not enjoyably frightening, it’s really frightening, because you don’t know the world yet.”
Carvel knows much of childish imagination. Growing up an only child – he now has a much younger half-brother – he used to “live in my imagination,” creating his own worlds, games and characters. “I get to do that for a living now,” he says with a sense of satisfaction. Though I bet as a child he never imagined himself a towering ogress of a teacher with questionably scented hosiery.