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Douglas Henshall in The Coast Of Utopia

First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 21 April 2008

On film and television, Douglas Henshall has acted alongside Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Hugh Grant, Patsy Kensit and Penelope Cruz. But his role in The Coast Of Utopia at the National Theatre is his first stage appearance in six years, and with a nine-hour running time, he’s not doing anything by halves, as he explains to Laura North.

The first thing that strikes you about Tom Stoppard's trilogy is its scale. The Coast Of Utopia spans over 30 years of Russian history and embraces the politics of more than 70 characters. The odyssey sweeps from Moscow to Switzerland, soaking up the sights of many distant countries on its way. Even for a playwright who is famous for the insoluble wit and complexity of his work, it is a hugely ambitious staging. And it is tempting to wonder: would this sprawling trilogy have been commissioned at all, if the name Stoppard were not attached to it? Nine hours of Russian revolution is not something that screams 'box office success.'

One actor who is acutely aware of the "magnitude" of the project is Glaswegian Douglas Henshall. He plays anarchist Michael Bakunin from the age of 19 to 54, "from a young man full of energy, to a very big fat man imprisoned in Siberia." He is one of an eclectic congregation of philosophers, writers and revolutionaries, including the writer Ivan Turgenev (played by Guy Henry), Alexander Herzen (Stephen Dillane) and Vissarion Belinsky (Will Keen), the literary critic. But it is not just the scale of his role, or that of the trilogy, that unnerves him. It's his first stage appearance in six years and the stakes are high: "A Tom Stoppard trilogy. Trevor Nunn's last season as artistic director of the National. Stoppard's first play for five years." Just one of these factors is intimidating; a whole checklist is frankly terrifying. Add to this a gruelling schedule capable of transforming Henshall's tiredness into "a form of hysteria", and a crash course on brain-contorting European philosophy, and you've Heidegger-ed yourself a into hole from which you Kant escape for weeks.

"If I'm going to fail I'm going to stink"

Inevitably, the higher the aim, the harder the fall if it all goes wrong. The plays have been well received but the risk was still the most attractive part of the project for Henshall, who even admires the mountainous proportions of the potential failure. "Stoppard's never going to play safe. If he's going to fail he's going to do it on a gigantic level. Or if he's going to succeed it's going to be exactly the same. And I admire that hugely". Taking a chance is imperative, even if the potential for total triumph is accompanied by the possibility of miserable failure. In fact, Henshall is an advocate for failure, believing it to be an essential educational tool. "I don't mind failure or success on a huge level. You don't learn by playing safe – you just get more scared about it the next time. You learn through failing." So would he mind being unspeakably abysmal in the name of education? He embraces it enthusiastically: "If I'm going to fail I'm going to stink."

The possibility of complete catastrophe aside, Stoppard has given Henshall plenty to work with on a more intimate scale. He captures the smaller quirks of Bakunin's character: the only son of a wealthy family, he is surrounded by an adoring gaggle of sisters, making him spoilt, self-obsessed and capricious. He switches from one brand of philosophy to another at the drop of a hat: first he declares that the Self is non-existent and then announces that the Self is the only thing that exists. Yet his character is oddly engaging, often generous and irrepressibly buoyant. "He's infuriating, very childish, a scrounger, self absorbed," says Henshall, "but he'd give his last anything if he had it." Bakunin's politics develop over the course of the trilogy and he ends up trading in the family fortune for the fugitive life of a revolutionary. Bakunin's determination and enthusiasm offset his faults: "You loathe him, but you can't help but love him."

"This is going to change the way theatre is done for many years to come"

Henshall is extremely enthusiastic about an often underrated theatrical element: the set, which he claims is part of the "breadth of the plays' ambition": "The set-designer, Bill Dudley, is a genius. This is going to change the way theatre is done for many years to come – he's revolutionised what you can do in a theatre. He deserves every award going, every accolade, every superlative." How can scenery have such a dramatic impact? Well, pulling off convincing scene changes in The Coast Of Utopia is no mean feat: the action visits more locations than Michael Palin in a concorde. Dudley has produced a set that transforms the stage at every scene change. A series of films are projected onto screens to create a three-dimensional, visual image of a spa in Salzburg, or the Place de la Concorde in Paris, or Richmond Park in sunny old England. "The countries move with you. You can see from all angles, it's almost like virtual reality." Without the projections, all that remains are a few doors and a couple of tables.

Working for the RSC is like playing football for Liverpool or Manchester United

Henshall's zeal for the set reveals not just an admiration for the stagecraft but his own passion for film. He insists he likes theatre and film equally, yet some of his comments suggest otherwise. He was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company but did not enjoy the experience, and must be the only person to compare the RSC to the Football Premiership: "I suppose it's like playing for Liverpool or Manchester United. You are so aware of the sense of history that has gone before you – Gielgud, Olivier. It's a wee bit like working in a sausage factory." Off the production line, where his offal is his own, he indulges in the big screen: "Film is fantastic because of what you can do, it's the size of the image." He has racked up an impressive number of screen credits and will appear with Hollywood stars Clare Danes and Joaquin Phoenix in All About Love, released next January. One of his co-stars in This Year's Love (1999), Kathy Burke, recently directed a play in the West End (Betty at the Vaudeville) – Henshall says that directing and producing would be a natural progression for him too, although he would stick to film. In fact, he has a producing project in the pipeline: he bought an option on a novel by Christopher Brookmyre, One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night, which The Film Council are developing with him.

"The experience is unique – I have never been through anything like it"

The Coast Of Utopia itself, with all its multiple shifts in location and perspective, is ideal fodder for film. But Henshall rejects the idea that it could translate well onto the big screen. "You can't make a trilogy into three films – that would never happen." What about Lord Of The Rings? (Silence Of The Lambs and Jurassic Park probably don't count in the elevated literary strata of Stoppard.) "Point taken. Harry Potter, sure. But you can't wait a year between them to come out. You'd have to take a refresher course, go back into college." He thinks that the trilogy would work well on television, if it were to be adapted. Although he thinks television is "for the most part banal shit", it would be a perfect medium in this circumstance because the plays are episodic: "it would work a treat."

This epic and challenging Stoppard trilogy must be a landmark in Henshall's career. Surprisingly, he says "as an acting experience it's not that important." He explains, however, that it is a life-event instead: "The experience itself however is unique – I have never been through anything like it."

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