Preparing a two-handed play about music icons Sid Vicious and Kurt Cobain is an intense process finds Matthew Amer, when he talks to Kurt And Sid stars Danny Dyer and Shaun Evans.
In a dark, cavernous Hackney rehearsal room, Shaun Evans is bouncing a table tennis ball on a bat while reciting his lines with director Tim Stark. I can’t really hear the words – they are not for me to hear at this stage – but the unrepentant knocking of plastic on rubber in this windowless room with emotionless black walls is enough to have me balancing a deep sense of discomfort with a feeling of awe towards the testing task.
Evans has come in early to practise the dexterity-challenging scene from Kurt And Sid, the new play by Roy Smiles in which he stars as Kurt Cobain on the night the Nirvana frontman took his own life. Danny Dyer, who strolls in just after I arrive, plays Sid Vicious in this piece that brings these two icons of youth culture together.
The pair, who had not met before this production, have only been rehearsing for 13 days when we meet, but are already half way through their rehearsal period. At the beginning of proceedings, both were concerned about having only three weeks to piece together a new work for the West End, but both are now delighted with the decision.
The intensity of the rehearsals – just three men, Dyer, Evans and Stark, working together on the piece – has seen the trio grow in trust and confidence with each other’s ability.
“Two actors out there,” Dyer says in his East London accent familiar from his many films and documentaries. “You’ve got to have some sort of connection. Even if you don’t get on, you’ve got to have a good actor in front of you that’s going to make you raise your game, go f***ing toe to toe and make you want to be better. My worst nightmare was getting someone in who was just a famous name for the sake of it.”
“You’ve got to have a good actor in front of you that’s going to make you raise your game, go f***ing toe to toe and make you want to be better”
The connection between them is obvious during the interview; Dyer often takes the lead, with Evans happy to interject afterwards, and there is already a shorthand of banter between them.
“What you realise as well,” Evans adds about the intensity of the rehearsal process, “is there comes a point, because it’s a two hander, half-way through the day, where there’s kind of no point in doing any more because your head’s just kettled anyway.”
The rehearsal space, which Dyer succinctly describes as “a s***hole”, may be vast, but in its centre is a small rectangle marked out with masking tape and decorated with scattered dolls. It looks tiny, but represents the size of the stage at the Trafalgar Studio 2 in which the pair will perform.
“This is what you do as an actor,” Dyer passionately explains, “you need to test yourself. It is a major test, for both of us; it’s so intimate in there. There’s nowhere to f***ing hide and you’ve got [the audience] studying every move you make, so you’ve got to be on the ball. That’s why you’ve got to put the work in first; you’re only going to be shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t, because when you walk out there you’ve got to feel 100% confident. It can always go wrong at any point, but that’s why we do it. It’s about setting your standards high. We’re both going to come out of this as better men and better actors.”
“Hopefully when the audience leaves,” Evans offers, “they’ll have really felt part of the experience as opposed to sitting back and watching it. They’ll feel involved because of the size of the space.”
It may be the dark, oppressive room, the memories of the metronomic ping pong thump, but there is a real feeling of deep intensity about the interview. Both men, but particularly Dyer, speak with total commitment and devotion to this piece. Evans describes the short project – three weeks of rehearsals and four of performances – as the ideal length: “You get obsessed about it and then it’s done. You don’t have a chance to start hating the sound of your own voice.”
While it may be a short process from rehearsal to stage, Kurt And Sid has been gestating for the best part of a decade. Back when it was first mooted, Dyer had been due to play Vicious, the iconic Sex Pistols’s bassist, in a film which fell through, leaving the actor “devastated”. A year later he was asked to do a reading of the play. “It seemed to go well,” he says, “but I never heard a thing about it.” It was last year that the project finally started coming to fruition.
“We’re both going to come out of this as better men and better actors”
Dyer has always wanted to play a figure from reality – his tone of voice gives away how disappointed he was when his first chance to play Vicious disappeared – but, they both confirm, this performance will not see either of them step into the realms of imitation. “If an audience came to watch this play and they were expecting a Kurt Cobain or a Sid Vicious impression,” Evans says, “they’re going to leave disappointed. There comes a point where you have to approach it like a character, like anything else I would approach. If you want the audience to leave having been affected by what you do, then you have to make it important to you and important to the character that you’re creating.
“If I was to just copy a walk or copy a talk, copy a look, you’re only going to get a copy of something, which is going to end up being a not very gratifying experience for me or for the audience.”
Talk of gratifying stage experiences leads to discussion of Dyer’s last stage project, the 2008 production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming at the Almeida theatre. Though he loves Pinter’s work – he has also starred in No Man’s Land and Celebration – his last outing wasn’t the most enjoyable: “I could have done it a-kip; it didn’t challenge me in any way,” he complains. “I’m the only one who ain’t got no speeches in it. I flit on, I’ve got a few lines, I f**k off again, then I come back on. It was great to be working with people like Kenneth Cranham and Nigel Lindsay and that, but I’m a young actor – well, semi-young – I want to f***ing express myself. I love the Almeida. I’ve worked there a few times, but for three months it just started to get me down towards the end.”
Does it sound a touch arrogant? Maybe. I am guessing there are hundreds of actors who would have happily donated body parts to star in a Pinter piece at the Almeida theatre, but it is also truthful and exposes a side of Dyer that isn’t often seen. Behind the cheeky, cockney wideboy image that has seen him filming ‘dangerous’ documentaries and writing for lads mags, is an actor fully committed to his art, who wants to be pushed and produce the very best work he can. Though neither Dyer nor Evans think it is financially viable to spend too long treading the boards, they do recognise the benefit of returning to live performance. “When you come out of this and you start your next job, you’re f***ing finely tuned,” Dyer explains.
“All you can do is what’s put in front of you,” he says of the screen roles that have seen him typecast as a laddish rogue. “You can try and sit back and be as cool and cult as you want, but it doesn’t work like that. Sometimes you have to do these jobs, these earners.” He sees Kurt And Sid as another chance to break that mold, to work on his technique and to return to acting at its most live and vital.
Music idols Vicious and Cobain, it could be argued, were precursors to the current age of celebrity; stars and icons who were worshipped by millions of fans, who caught the imagination and spirit of a generation, but in doing so invited media intrusion and press speculation. As actors in an era that is obsessed with fame, Dyer and Evans must understand some of the pressures the men were under.
“I’m a young actor, I want to f***ing express myself”
“On that level, no,” says Dyer. “You can never understand on that level until, I suppose, you’ve got it; someone like Britney Spears or Amy Winehouse. I get a tiny tiny fraction of what they get and it f***ing drives me insane.
“To have photographers sitting outside your house all day… When you go down the shop to buy a f***ing ice-pole they follow you and take pictures of you, I just don’t think I could deal with it, I just think it would drive you insane. They’re dying to see you f**k up, that’s what they want. We are living in a world that’s obsessed with f***ing celebrity at the moment. The idea of building somebody up and then knocking them down to the point that you want to see them lose everything so you can fill a f***ing page of newspaper is f***ing around with people’s lives, and it’s petrifying.”
To an extent, they decide between them, image doesn’t help. Vicious’s stage persona invited intrigue, and playing on that persona only made things worse. “You play up to it in order to get your record sold,” Evans suggests, “or to push your films. It’s part of it, without that kind of profile people aren’t going to be watching.”
I wonder whether this might have happened to Dyer, whether he has played up to the cockney lad image so much that now it is all some people can see; hidden is the actor who has enormous respect for those around him who really graft for their art, but isn’t afraid to open his mouth and call out those who don’t cut the proverbial mustard. He doesn’t flinch when describing Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Vicious in the film Sid And Nancy as “irritating. He’s a fucking brilliant actor, don’t get me wrong, but he wasn’t very interesting as a character.” He speaks his mind and, provided you are not offended by his opinion or his language, the plain, honest truthfulness of it is endearing.
Both Dyer and Evans, in fact, have a charisma about them, a look and a feeling that holds sway over your emotions. Dyer is already somewhat of a poster boy for the lads mag generation, regardless of the fact that he married his childhood sweetheart and has two daughters. Whether it is the effect of rehearsals or a natural gift, there is already something iconic in their eyes, their stances.
“Listen, baby, it’s my West End debut,” Evans beams in his broad Liverpudlian accent as the interview draws to a close.
“It’s my f***ing West End debut an’ all then,” Dyer replies, not wishing to be outdone, before working through his previous London appearances. “The Almeida, that’s not West end. The National isn’t; across the drink, innit?”
For a moment there is pure excitement for the upcoming run.
As I leave, the ping pong ball falls from the table and bounces across the floor; the tension and intensity descends once more.