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David Troughton

Published April 17, 2008

David Troughton looks like a Shakespearean lead, which is a good thing, because he is one. Nestling somewhere in between craggy and handsome, with a not insignificant dollop of rugged shrewdness thrown in, he has just the sort of face to play the imposing heroes, kings and villains that dominate Shakespeare’s more brooding plays. Tom Bowtell caught up with him to chunter about Measure For Measure at the National's Olivier, Doctor Who and, obviously, cricket

Despite the experience of nearly 35 years acting, most recently with the RSC, Troughton has never before been involved with a project quite like this one: Simon McBurney and Complicite’s Measure For Measure, their first ever production of a Shakespeare play. When I ask him how the production is going Troughton puffs out his cheeks, and I notice that he is looking rather exhausted. “Well I can tell you that it is all going: there’s a week to go, but with Simon it’s always work in progress, we won’t ever finish – he keeps saying that we’ll just keep evolving – I’ve never worked like this before…” his voice trails off eloquently: breaking the habit of a lifetime of RSC practices is clearly proving a challenge. Having said this, it is obvious that Troughton is totally compelled by the McBurney’s intricate methods – even if he doesn’t (yet) entirely trust them. “Well you’ve got to remember that it’s pretty new for Simon too – he normally creates works from scratch – but it is strange for me to approach it from a completely different angle, from outside in if you like. Very early on we were shaping scenes, not blocking them, but shaping them from the very essence of the scene – this was very interesting – and we were doing this before I’d even thought about who the Duke was. Eventually you get a pattern evolving for the different rhythms of the scenes, he really goes down to the basics of the tangential thoughts about the scenes. Then he very religiously builds layer upon layer and does what the text says – the words are what you are – and he keeps holding you back, holding you back and saying ‘don’t make any decisions’”.

"I've never worked like this before… "

David admits sheepishly that he has often found himself straining at the leash during this process “I’m the sort of actor that likes to go somewhere very quickly, find that I shouldn’t be there and then come back and go somewhere else very quickly And that’s how I like working – I like throwing a pot of paint at a blank canvas and then going no, that’s rubbish and start again. Simon does that in a way but in here [David points at his temple] he knows what he wants, I think, and then he spends a lot of time getting you there”.

While details remain sketchy about stylistic elements of the production (it isn’t that David is being cagey, it’s just that the details are sketchy) he does confirm that the production experiments with “electronics and filmic images” and that it will be updated to a rough approximation of the present: “it’ll be now – but not like most Measures, that try and set in some sort of recognisable state like a police state or a third-world country or whatever… It’s an odd play, I mean it just is… I mean Shakespeare said it was Vienna, and I suppose it has to be Catholic – but it could be anywhere, really”.

Troughton’s character, the Duke of Vienna, is one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic protagonists (which is saying something). For little obvious reason, The Duke takes the unprecedented step of handing over power to Angelo, his puritanically hypocritical deputy, and then (disguised as a Friar) watches in dismay as the city gradually descends into chaos. What does Troughton make of this notoriously bemusing character? “Simon told his young nephew the plot of Measure For Measure and at the end of it he said ‘is the Duke a good man or a bad man?’ and Toby Jones [who plays Lucio] told his three-and-a-half-year-old the story of Measure for Measure and at the end the child said ‘why did the Duke do it?’ So from the mouths of babes… those are the two basic questions that emerge from the play: why did he do it? and is he good or bad? At the moment we’re just playing around with it and leaving it very open: we haven’t reached any decisions but what we are saying, in a way, is that the journey that the Duke takes, in this play, maybe, happens in his mind. It’s for him. So overall, I’d say it’s the Duke examining himself, but there are so many ways you can do it – layer upon layer.” Aware that he isn’t perhaps being 100% clear at this point, Troughton adds “Measure For Measure, when you’re rehearsing it, throws up more questions than you could dare answer!” Which seems fair enough.

"It's a dark, black comedy… fairly weird"

Although Measure For Measure is down in the annals as one of Shakespeare’s comedies, Troughton points out that much of its content rests uneasily with this classification: “it’s a dark, black comedy: a comedy which includes hanging and hangmen! I mean there’s a man who is a whoremaster who gets arrested and then to save himself becomes a hangman’s assistant: so if the clown becomes a hangman’s assistant, that is a fairly weird comedy. I mean a large part of the play takes place in a prison: down deep dark dungeons at the bottom of which is this man Barnadine (played here by Johannes Flaschberger) who has been on death row forever, who owns the jail and no-one can do anything with him. It’s deep: a very deep dark mysterious play this”.

Complicite is known for making ingenious theatre inexpensively: In Mnemonic a simple chair became Oetzi, the famous Austrian iceman, while in the Elephant Vanishes they managed to create an entire elephant (before it vanishes) using only four chairs and a blinking eye – so what has McBurney conjured for the Duke’s transformation from Monarch to Friar? “Well, at the moment we are playing around with a host of things. I don’t want to give it away but we could go from one extreme to the others: I mean I could just put a hat on and I am a friar because the play is about seeming. Alternatively we could go completely the other way and have voice modifiers to change my voice.” He pauses, before adding in a tone of exasperated admiration “with Simon, you see, you never really know – he may know himself what the result will be, but he never lets on!” Is this exciting or frightening? “Both! It’s testing me to the full – which is one of the reasons I wanted to work with him, because I knew it would be demanding and as an actor I think you should always go and test yourself. What happens if it’s a failure? So what? Life will go on and at least I will have tried it”.

David Troughton is one of four Troughtons who have acted professionally. Along with Troughton himself there is his father Patrick, who died in 1987, his brother Michael and his son Sam (who recently appeared in the film Sylvia). Somewhat demurely, Troughton (David) plays down any talk of him being the lynchpin of a dynasty: “Well, it’s only the third generation, but it started with my father, who became an actor when he left the navy after the war.” Was it inevitable that David would become an actor? “Well, I think that if your father is an accountant there’s a good chance you’ll become an accountant – unless you rebel, and I didn’t. For a while I didn’t know what to do: I think we are expected to make up our minds about what we want to do far to early: we are being educated when our bodies are full of hormones: they don’t want to have to learn: I think we should be able to learn later in life. But in the end that’s what I wanted to do: dress up in funny clothes and say other people’s lines.”

"I wanted to dress up in funny clothes."

Troughton broke onto the acting scene in the 70s with some leading roles in TV drama, before appearing in a number of cult theatre productions in the 1970s – including Hal in Loot during the Joe Orton season at the Royal Court directed by Albert Finney, which had a seminal impact upon his development: “Finney gave me a wonderful piece of advice at that time: he said ‘whatever you do in the part that is the part – you are the character – it says so in the contract: David Troughton is… Whatever you do with it, you are unique with it, and never really think about what other people have done with it.’ With Shakespeare, that is wonderfully good advice because if you think about all the famous people who have played the part you’re about to embark on, you’ll go mad. When I played Richard III everyone was saying ‘what about Larry? What about Anthony Sher? What about Simon Russell Beale?’ Bollocks to them! I’m doing it now and this is me.”

While one of Troughton’s sons (Sam) has followed in his father’s footsteps and has established himself as a successful actor in his own right, his other, Jim, has found success in rather a different field: a cricket field. So was young Jim (who plays for Warwickshire and made his England debut back in 2003) consciously rebelling against the family trade? “Did he rebel? Not completely – I think he auditioned for a Munchkin once at the RSC but he came back and said ‘I don’t want to do that again’ and he was very hand-eye coordinated, so he was always going to do something sporty. Sam was always very into fantasy and pretending so he was always going to be an actor and Wigsy – our youngest – doesn’t really know yet, which is good”. Is Troughton himself much of a cricketer? He coughs demurely “well, I like to think I’m alright… I’ve played a bit of actors-type cricket and I played non-stop in the garden with them all”.

While three generations of Troughtons have achieved success as actors, the family name will always be associated with Dr Who – the part David’s father, Patrick, played between 1966 and 1969. It is clear that Troughton (the second) occasionally becomes tired by the obsessional nature of Dr Who fans “I never go to the conventions, although they keep asking me, because I know that all they are going to do is ask me about my father!” David Troughton has fuelled this interest by appearing three times in Dr Who, and provided a delicious moment for the legions of Dr Who fans when he appeared alongside his father in the episode called Wargames: “Yes, that was very early on, in my school holidays really.” Troughton had a far larger role in another episode of the series “Jon Pertwee was the Doctor and I played Peladon and I still get fan letters…[he assumes the squeaky voice of a Dr Who fanatic] ‘oh we did think you were lovely as Peladon’ they say and then they go on to tell me the whole episode and quote back to me everything I said. I mean it’s extraordinary – what do these people do?” Did Troughton ever harbour a hankering to play the scatty Timelord himself? “No.”

"It's good to be King!"

While he may not want to play a dimension-hopping Doctor with a pretty umbrella and no PHD, Troughton has played a hefty number of Monarchs over the years, of which the Duke is but one. “It’s good to be the King! Yeah, I’ve played Henry IV, I’ve played Richard III and of course I’ve played King George in All The King’s Men. I don’t know, maybe it’s my age that you come to Kings. But it’s great, something else Albert Finney said, ‘you don't have to do anything, because it’s other people who make you the King’ – just a tiny little gesture and everyone else falls down – because you are King. It’s brilliant!”

David Troughton isn’t a demonstratively emotional man, so the two issues that rouse him (along with the glories of being King) are telling. The first is cricket and the current make up of the England One Day International side and the second is the Travelex £10 season at the National: “It’s brilliant, everywhere should do one. What’s the point of having half empty houses and £30 a seat when you can have full houses at a tenner a seat? It’s the ten pound season so we have a tiny budget: which is great. We have a bare stage, nothing but chairs – great that’s fantastic! Lack of money makes your imagination have to work in the right way. I mean we have nothing, just our bodies and the Olivier is a marvellous space to do this in: a space just filled with actors.”

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