Desmond Barrit is no veteran actor. But he certainly is an actor, though he nearly wasn’t. He talks it through with Caroline Bishop.
Desmond Barrit is about to replace Richard Griffiths in the cast of an Alan Bennett play directed by Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre. There is a distinct sense of déjà-vu about this prospect, because in 2005 Barrit replaced Griffiths in the cast of a Bennett play directed by Hytner at the National Theatre.
That play was the multi-award-winning The History Boys; this one is Bennett’s latest, the multi-layered drama The Habit Of Art, which premiered last November with Griffiths and Alex Jennings leading the cast. Both productions have given Barrit a plum role in a hit play on the National’s Lyttelton stage: in The History Boys he played maverick English teacher Hector, who had a predilection for fondling his students; in The Habit Of Art he plays actor Fitz, who is rehearsing the role of poet W H Auden, portrayed as a great, but unhygienic, artist with a fondness for rent boys. But the question has to be asked, after playing second fiddle to Griffiths in the first one, would he have liked to originate the role in the second?
“I would have loved to have done it,” he says with enthusiasm. He launches into an anecdote about a telephone conversation he had with Hytner just before Christmas. “I said ‘hello Nick, I know what you’re going to ask me.’ He said ‘what?’ ‘You’re going to ask me to take over from Richard in Habit Of Art.’ He said ‘how did you know that?’ I said ‘because every person I know who has come to see it has said to me, ‘why aren’t you doing that part?’”
“I watched other people, that’s basically how I learnt. I watched what other people were doing and I tried to copy them.”
This is said with knowing humour. Barrit doesn’t do bitter. From our animated conversation on a breezy roof terrace at the National Theatre it is clear that Barrit is a mild-mannered, amenable chap, just the kind of reliable, uncomplaining sort who would take over a role without a thought for his ego, unless in jest. And he sees no need to compare himself to Griffiths. “Richard and I, we’re more like each other now because Richard has lost a lot of weight!” he says, shortly after expressing concern at the load-bearing properties of the flimsy director’s chair in which he is sitting. “But I mean, we’re not similar actors. Richard did Auden according to Richard Griffiths, I’m doing Auden according to Desmond Barrit.”
We meet during rehearsals for this re-cast, and Barrit is a mite worried at the wordiness of his part, which he expresses with amusing melodrama: “It’s getting to the stage when all the books are down but we are all still fighting for lines and making up lines and all that. But halfway, two thirds of the way through rehearsal there’s always this terrible dip, and you think to yourself, is life worth living?” Said in his soft Welsh lilt, it puts one in mind of Rob Brydon. “This script is an appendage,” he adds, gesturing to the thumbed tome he has with him. “It’s with me because the minute I walk out of here and I get in the lift to go back down [to rehearsals] I start looking at lines again.”
“There’s two authors where it’s terribly important to hit the nail right on the head,” he continues. “Shakespeare is one; you can’t really make up Shakespeare. And I think it’s important with Alan’s scripts to actually say all the words in the right order and not to make up too many hopefully. So that’s what is problematic about it; Alan has got such an extraordinary control of the English language that you have to sort of meet him some way.”
Barrit likes to talk. Listening to him it is clear why he is known for his comedy performances including Bottom, Falstaff, Toad in Bennett’s Wind In The Willows and the Antipholus twins in The Comedy Of Errors, which won him a Laurence Olivier Award in 1992. He is naturally funny, and I see no need to interrupt his sometimes lengthy, yet always entertaining, storytelling. “In my experience,” he adds of Bennett, “he normally comes into the rehearsal room with a little pencil that’s about three inches long and then halfway through he’ll take out something like an envelope and he’d write something on the envelope and you’d think ‘oh God he’s saying Desmond Barrit is bloody awful in the second scene’, but normally it’s something very simplistic like you’re mispronouncing a word or a place name. And when Alan does come up to you and say ‘that was very good’, it’s like God coming up to you and saying that was very good. Suddenly you feel life is worth living after all!”
Both his amusing self-deprecation and his good-humoured attitude to being Griffiths’s takeover man may spring from the fact that Barrit counts himself lucky. He was never meant to be an actor. He used to be an accountant. The near legendary story of his transformation goes like this: during a party to celebrate the graduation of an actor friend from drama school, Barrit declared he thought anyone could act. The friend bet him he couldn’t get a job as an actor, so Barrit scoured The Stage and answered an ad, promptly landing a job with a children’s theatre company. “I was bet on the Saturday, I got the job on the Sunday and I handed in my notice as an accountant on the Monday. And that’s how I became an actor.”
“I think it’s important with Alan’s scripts to actually say all the words in the right order and not to make up too many hopefully”
He says he was willing to take the “enormous” salary drop because he thought acting would be fun. Later he admits that he wasn’t happy being an accountant, and others certainly didn’t see him as a natural nine to five man. “People would say ‘you’re a bit of a surprise as an accountant’ and I’d say why? ‘You’re just different to everybody else’. I don’t know what that means but there we are.”
He turned actor when he was 35. Now, at 66 – “my playing age is 30,” he grins – he has the kind of career other actors envy; he must be the only one I have interviewed to say he usually has the next job lined up before the present one ends. “Strangely enough it’s always been very kind to me,” he says of his acting career. “Every time I do a job I keep on thinking I’m going to be found out this time. But luckily, touch wood, they haven’t so far.”
He puts it down to luck, but there is more to it than that. Among his anecdotes is proof Barrit has made his own luck to some extent. Following that first job, he applied a mischievous cunning to get the second. “I wrote to another theatre about a job and they didn’t reply. Then I rang them up and said ‘oh apparently you’ve been trying to get in touch with me.’ And they said ‘have we?’ And I said ‘yes!’ So I blagged my way in, they offered me a job and didn’t realise that they gave me my Equity card.”
Along with his talent for blagging, he must have had some natural acting ability to get these jobs. Had he harboured ambitions to be an actor whilst sitting in his accountant’s office? “No not really!” he says brightly. “I watched other people, that’s basically how I learnt. I didn’t go to drama school but I watched what other people were doing and I tried to copy them. And after a while you get a library of effects: number one rage, number two rage, number three rage… I just applied myself, kept my mouth shut and learnt.”
One definite piece of luck arrived in the form of Habit Of Art director Hytner. Barrit met the future Director of the National Theatre when Hytner was directing a production of The Scarlet Pimpernel in Chichester in 1985. Barrit auditioned and was cast as “somebody who made rat soup and served it to the baddie”, appearing alongside Alex Jennings, Michael Simkins and Michael Grandage – then an actor rather than the hugely successful Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse that he is now. Barrit’s role “captured the imagination”, and his name made the reviews in Chichester and London, to where it transferred. He has remained on Hytner’s Christmas card list ever since.
The career that followed has encompassed drama and musicals, classical roles and contemporary. That his CV stretches from Shakespeare’s The Tempest to popular American musical Wicked via Sondheim and Stoppard indicates that, on paper at least, Barrit hasn’t smelt even a whiff of pigeonholing. “People have tried to pigeonhole me,” he protests. “Sometimes I’m described as a veteran classical actor. I don’t mind people calling me classical, but veteran?!” Indeed, as he tells me about going clubbing with the young cast of The History Boys it is clear Barrit doesn’t suit the veteran label.
“Halfway, two thirds of the way through rehearsal there’s always this terrible dip, and you think to yourself, is life worth living?”
If there is any box to put him in, it is the one labelled comedy. “I know one critic interviewed me, he said ‘Des you’re a great comic actor but does that make you a great actor?’ I said ‘well, in my opinion yes’. Because with drama, you respond to the actor opposite you, which is not easy but it’s not all that difficult. With comedy, you approach a show technically – I get the laugh by doing that – so you know technically how everything works. And then you have to put on top of that the reality of the situation, and that’s harder to do.”
For several years he has been applying his comedic talents to pantomime, which he writes and stages in Norfolk through his aptly-named production company Ohyesitiz. “If we want theatre to keep on going when I’m dead and gone, then we have to cultivate the audience now. And the way to cultivate the audience is to get the kids when they are four and five,” he says, adding that he has seen too many pantos with star names but no story content.
His barometer for success is whether the kids are in the toilet or not. “I write stories that kids can relate to. And then I certainly watch the first performance, and then if the kids are going into the toilet after 25 minutes I think what’s wrong there? and I rewrite that bit.”
“I just think it’s important that kids are given something that’s worthwhile to see that’s going to attract them and keep them occupied,” he adds. “And then hopefully when they get older they will continue going to the theatre and they will bring their kids to the theatre and theatre will continue.”
Perhaps then some of them will choose acting over accountancy a little earlier in their lives. He recalls going to see a pantomime in his native Swansea as a child and being enchanted by the colourful set. “The curtain went up and the sky was bright blue and the buildings were orange and yellow and bright green, and there was this water feature. I remember thinking as a four-year-old, I want to live there. It got me when I was young.” He pauses. “So perhaps I would have been an actor at the end of it anyway.”