Daniel Evans has a voice that sounds like a warm breeze working its way idly through a grassy valley where sheep casually graze; a musical Welsh lilt to which you could doze off in the knowledge that you would be safe until you woke. The Welsh actor is currently reprising his dual roles in Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday In The Park With George, which transferred to the Wyndham’s after a successful season at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Matthew Amer spoke to the musical star.
“As an actor, it is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Evans says of Sunday In The Park With George. “There were moments in the rehearsal room where I really did think ‘I am never ever going to be able to get it.’ I actually thought ‘Do I need to resign?’”
It is fortuitous, for both Evans and the production, that he didn’t, as the Sondheim show, inspired by the work of pointillist artist Georges Seurat, received fantastic reviews during its time at the Menier Chocolate Factory, selling out the intimate London Bridge venue throughout its three-month run. Following this success, and the awards that went with it, the production has transferred to the larger Wyndham’s theatre and gained a new cast member, Jenna Russell, who replaces Anna-Jane Casey in the role of Dot. “It’ll be nice for us to have a new person to play with,” comments Evans, possibly referring more to the idea of acting with a fresh face than using Russell as some kind of musical toy.
"That is my history and it’s a history that I am proud of"
Sunday In The Park With George’s old home and its new are two very different venues. While the Menier holds an audience of around 200, the Wyndham’s holds more than three times as many. The Wyndham’s stage is also deeper and has more height for the show’s award-winning design team to play with. The greater expanse of stage excites Evans – his voice lifts and takes on a little more urgency when he talks about it – as it offers “a great opportunity to improve on what we had before, which was pretty good, but now we have to try and get things even better”.
It has been a busy and thrilling year for Evans so far. It began to rapturous applause, much cheering and daily standing ovations at the Menier, before he donned his directorial cap for only the second time in his career to take charge of a new touring production of Esther. “I’m really proud of what we’ve got,” Evans says of this new Welsh language production. “The actors have worked really hard and it’s an amazing play.”
Having grown up in the Rhondda Valley, a production such as this, with Theatr Genedlaethol Cymro, Wales’ national Welsh language theatre company, is very important to Evans. “I’m very proud of where I come from,” he says. “My education was in Welsh and Welsh is my first language. I come from a small valley, which has a great history of coal mining; both my grandparents were miners. That is my history and it’s a history that I am proud of, and something I feel very passionately about.”
Evans’s first directing credit came only last year when he directed a double bill of Peter Gill plays for the Young Vic. Though he is best known as an actor, directing is a skill he had been waiting to try, to challenge and push himself a little bit further; a theme which, it becomes apparent, is central to Evans’s way of thinking and working. “The luxury about acting,” he says, “is you just look after your own part. That’s your job for the rehearsals and for the length of the play. As a director, you’re responsible for the whole thing; everyone’s part, how it looks, how it sounds, how long it is, where you set it, all those things. Even though it’s exhausting, it’s very rewarding because you have more artistic control.”
"I like difficult things and this has undoubtedly been one of the most difficult"
It could be even more exhausting now that Evans is performing in London again, as from time to time he will have to nip off along the M4 to track down Esther and run his directorial eye over proceedings, before heading back into London to take to the Wyndham’s stage. As he wisely states, “There’s never any chance of getting bored or getting cabin fever.”
As gruelling as this schedule sounds, Evans is unfazed by it and is truly excited at the prospect of getting back on the West End stage for the first time since starring in Michael Grandage’s production of Grand Hotel at the Donmar Warehouse in 2004.
Though he found the rehearsal period of Sunday In The Park With George challenging, his experience of another Sondheim production, Merrily We Roll Along, which, like Grand Hotel, was also directed by Michael Grandage at the Donmar, helped him come to terms with the work in the end. “For some reason with Sondheim it comes together right at the eleventh hour,” Evans explains. “I like difficult things and this has undoubtedly been one of the most difficult.”
Sunday In The Park With George has a reputation for being difficult for audiences as well as performers. The two halves of the show are linked, but the story jumps a century at the interval, and there have been accusations that Sondheim’s musical is all head and no heart. The usually cheerful Evans gets a touch more serious in the show’s defence: “You have to use your head for a long time; you have to really concentrate for maybe an hour and a bit, but God, it really pays dividends towards the end. Somehow in this musical Sondheim takes us to a place that’s not explicable, beyond words. Somehow the music takes over and I think it’s very, very moving. It moves me!”
"I screeched my way through auditions"
Evans began his theatrical career in the classical arena of the Royal Shakespeare Company as a youthful 21 year old in 1994. It was not until five years later, during which time he had already notched up credits at both the National Theatre and Royal Court, that he attempted his first musical. “I screeched my way through auditions,” he laughs about the process of landing his role in John Caird and Trevor Nunn’s Candide. Before that production he had never sung professionally but, in a typically Evans-esque move, fancied the challenge. It helped that Caird and Nunn had decided to cast actors that could sing rather than singers who might be able to act.
As part of the preparation for his musical debut, Evans was given singing lessons to hone his raw technique. Seven years on, with awards for his performances in musicals adorning his home and a reputation as one of Britain’s brightest musical stars, Evans still attends the lessons. “It’s like when you use a car every day,” he explains, “you have to keep putting petrol in and you have to keep oiling it. That’s the same with the voice really.”
Though it was his first foray into musical theatre, Candide saw Evans receive a nomination for Best Actor in a Musical at the 1999 Laurence Olivier Awards. He was suitably excited when he was informed of this accolade by the National Theatre’s press office. “If you can imagine,” he says with a huge smile, “I almost had a cardiac arrest!” The very next year he went one better and won the same award for only his second musical, Merrily We Roll Along. “Bizarre, isn’t it? Bonkers. Weird really,” Evans says, as he struggles to get his head around it even now. “Winning the award was a very special moment.”
As Evans is best known for classical work and musicals, it is somewhat surprising to hear that he actually prefers to work on new plays. His CV boasts relatively few sojourns into this area, though his work at the Royal Court has had a lasting impact on him. Having previously been directed by both Dominic Cook and Richard Wilson, and having enjoyed the experience, he would love to work at the Court again, though “it depends on the play and the part and the director and a million other things”.
More recently Evans has appeared on television in a number of guises, from adaptations of classic literature such as Great Expectations and Daniel Deronda, to more contemporary fare including Spooks and Doctor Who. Though he is enjoying his small screen work, an alarming pattern is starting to form. “I always die in television!” he laughs. “In the last few things I’ve done, I’ve blown my head off, I’ve been zapped by an alien and – what’s the other one? – I died of shame in my own sh*t!”
If anyone’s producing a musical costume drama with an elaborate death scene, I think we’ve found your star.
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