Charles Edwards doesn’t like to take himself too seriously, which is why he is looking forward to a summer of love and comedy at Shakespeare’s Globe, he tells Caroline Bishop.
Shakespeare plays in London have a habit of bunching up like buses on a commuter route. No sooner has one high profile production of Much Ado About Nothing been announced than another opens up for business over nearly the exact same period. The result is a delicious summer face-off to be relished like a Mr Whippy on a hot day.
While there are now two chances to catch the sparring partnership between would-be lovers Beatrice and Benedick – one in the West End with David Tennant and Catherine Tate, the other at Shakespeare’s Globe with Charles Edwards and Eve Best – London’s Theatreland is far too English to indulge in any impolite sparring between productions. “You can’t have enough Shakespeare,” said Globe Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole earlier this year, going on to point out that in a city of 11 million people there are more than enough of us to fill both houses.
Fair point, but for critics and avid theatregoers lucky enough to see both, comparisons will be inevitable. But Edwards – the Globe’s Benedick – isn’t fazed. “I think it would be a very tasty proposition to go and see David Tennant and Catherine Tate,” he says generously. “I would really dearly love to see it, but I don’t know if I would like to see it while we’re doing ours.”
Indeed, the distraction might be a little too much, even if Edwards seems a mild-mannered enough chap not to let any comparison get under his skin. “Reviews don’t bother me,” he says. “If they’re nice that’s lovely, if they’re bad that’s crap. But the next day it’s all gone away.”
It is fair to say that the Globe’s Much Ado is the less starry of the two; neither Best nor Edwards have the public recognition that Doctor Who can bring you. Nevertheless, to assume their pairing would be less of a treat than that of their West End counterparts would be a mistake. Best is an Olivier Award-winning actress who followed her success on the London stage with a move to the States to appear in hit US drama Nurse Jackie, followed by the role of Wallis Simpson in Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech, while Edwards’s under-the-radar profile belies a stage career that has seen him play Oberon to Judi Dench’s Titania, be championed by legendary director Sir Peter Hall and wow the West End and Broadway as reluctant sleuth Richard Hannay in the hit stage parody of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps.
“You can take yourself seriously but at the same time acknowledge that you’re being a bit silly”
Though Hannay’s stiff upper lip, meticulously quaffed hair and tweed suit are hard to forget, that image is a far cry from the relaxed, laid back Edwards I meet backstage at the Globe. He folds his tall frame into a chair that seems too small for him and eats a toasted sandwich as he talks about the production which, being his first time at the Globe, presents him with unfamiliar challenges.
Working outdoors, at a venue which has little in the way of technical requirements, on a stage which has minimal set: these are some of the things that must be embraced by the first time Globe actor. “Not only the near 360 degrees layout of the audience but the pillars that everybody either loves or hates can get in the way. You just have to use them, incorporate them. In ours they are going to be trees, which I’m going to climb up at one point; orange trees.”
I can just see it; Edwards shimmying up a pillar as Benedick is gulled by his friends into believing Beatrice has declared her love for him, before her friends do the same to her.
He is bound to pull it off with panache, because Edwards has comedy pedigree. He has excelled in roles including Sandy Tyrell in Noël Coward’s Hay Fever – again alongside Dench – and, just recently, Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night (both for director Hall), while his long-running performance as the moustachioed mystery-solver Hannay shows he can extract a laugh from both outright slapstick physicality and the mere lift of an eyebrow.
“I think I find it very hard to play the hero without comedy in it in some way,” he says. “I find it hard to take myself too seriously in life.” Even the less comic fare in his back catalogue – such as Howard Davies’s 2001 production of All My Sons, in which he played George Deever – shows he is drawn to fully rounded, human characters, rather than cardboard cut-out romantic leads. “I like playing flawed people, some of whom are able to laugh at themselves and some who aren’t. People who cover stuff up are interesting.”
This makes him a good fit for Benedick, the classic male commitment-phobe who uses his razor-sharp wit as a shield against the – wholly truthful – intimation by everyone around him that he is in love with Beatrice. “He feels very safe in the world of the army, the male world, because he’s the funny one, people laugh at him,” he explains. “So like any of those people, they spend all their time talking, making people laugh, [but] there’s a lot more going on inside which he wouldn’t ever want anyone else to see.”
That said, there wasn’t much hidden underneath Hannay. “Not much, no!” he grins. “That was just out and out fun. But if you look at Hannay, he took himself terribly seriously but… you can take yourself seriously but at the same time acknowledge that you’re being a bit silly.”
“Physically I couldn’t do it anymore, it was just knackering! It’s a great show to lose weight on”
This acknowledgement of silliness is something he feels the Globe lends itself to well. “The theatricality of going to see a play is so heightened; everyone knows they’re there to see a play, they all know you are actors. I think the more you share that feeling out the better time people have.”
Having a good time is something he is anticipating at the Globe. Edwards’s colleagues in Twelfth Night, which he appeared in earlier this year as part of Hall’s 80th birthday celebrations at the National Theatre, urged him to make the move along the South Bank because they’d enjoyed their own time at the Globe. Then there’s the venue’s repertory schedule, which allows for plenty of time off during what will hopefully be a balmy summer, such an appealing prospect that Edwards turned down the chance to be in a further production, The Globe Mysteries. “I’d looked at the schedule and thought actually this is really quite cushy, a lot of time off. You have three performances in August and you think actually I’ll probably be happy to just pop in for those three!”
Edwards intends to enjoy the relaxed schedule while he can, because it’s not always the case. Though appearing in The 39 Steps for two years was enormous fun, the hilariously fast-paced nature of the show – in which the four-strong cast recreated every scene and character from the Hitchcock film – made it physically demanding. “At the interval I was just dripping wet [with sweat]. In subsequent productions I asked for two suits, because at the Tricycle I had to put a wet suit on for the second half. I used to take my shirt off in the break to try and get some air, and all my veins all over my chest [would pop up], it was like a race horse.”
He watched it again in the West End just recently and was struck once more by its demanding nature. “Physically I couldn’t do it anymore, it was just knackering! It’s a great show to lose weight on.”
Nevertheless, the hard work paid off. Following the show’s initial London run at Kilburn’s intimate Tricycle theatre in 2006, director Maria Aitken’s production transferred first to the West End, where it won an Olivier Award and is still running, and then to Broadway, with Edwards along for the ride. “I loved doing it,” he says. “I was absolutely over the moon that Maria took me with her and did it over there and the best thing about it was that they loved it just as much as they had here.”
“I think I find it very hard to play the hero without comedy in it in some way”
It is something of a surprise in these commercial, star-led times that someone unknown to Broadway producers and audiences should be asked to lead the cast of a show on the Great White Way, even after its success in London. Edwards agrees. “[I’m] not a major star anywhere!” he smiles. “She [Aitken] worked very hard on my behalf and I’m forever in her debt for that. They were going to cast it all-American, but I think she felt that the backbone of the show, the Hannay Englishness, should remain.”
I would think an experience like that would open up opportunities for an actor, but Edwards isn’t the driven type. “I’m not the kind of person that sticks around and goes out and meets people for the sake of furthering myself in any way, I’m not very good at that,” he says. “It’s much more rewarding when, like this job, someone’s seen you in something and rings you up and says ‘do you want to come and do this?’ To remove the audition process entirely would be bliss. I loathe auditions. So in terms of LA and [getting an] American agent and all that… I was there and having a good time; I didn’t really pursue it perhaps as a more career-minded person might have done.”
He may not be a go-getter, but with people like Much Ado director Jeremy Herrin and theatrical royalty Hall offering you opportunities, perhaps you don’t need to be. So it’s no surprise that Edwards doesn’t have any specific career plans for the future. “I’m very happy with the way things are at the moment, and thrilled to be here now,” he says. So he should be. Having worked at the National Theatre, the Royal Court, in the West End, on Broadway and now at the Globe, he’s not done badly for a non-careerist. Currently, his only aim is to enjoy his relaxed schedule this summer and see what happens next. Pleasingly, the production’s final show falls on his birthday, 1 October. “Apparently they have a big fancy dress party,” he says, adding with a twinkle “for me – for my birthday!” He may not have the public profile of David Tennant, but being Charles Edwards seems very pleasant indeed.