Douglas Hodge is possibly the busiest, hardest working man in theatre. When he is not acting, he is directing, and when he is not doing that he is probably writing music or performing it. In the National Theatre's new production of A Matter Of Life And Death his character is not involved for the first 20 minutes, but instead of taking it easy in his dressing room, he plays the guitar with the onstage band. The actor/director/singer/songwriter even gives up his lunchtimes to talk to journalists, as Matthew Amer found out.
It is a beautiful spring day, and the view across the Thames from the National Theatre terrace is one of the finest London has to offer. Sadly, the terrace itself is in shadow and a biting wind makes it a little too chilly to sit outside for long. This doesn't seem to bother Hodge too much; he is soon laughing, imitating a glockenspiel – another instrument he is playing in A Matter Of Life And Death – and chatting excitedly about working with Kneehigh, the physical theatre company that is co-producing, with the National, this adaptation of a great British film.
For Hodge, who has worked in a very classical, text-based fashion for two decades, the Kneehigh way of creating a show is something entirely alien, both petrifying and exciting. "I'm looking to scare myself a bit really, to be able to keep learning," he explains, before continuing in a laugh. "That's what I said at the beginning of the job, anyway. I'm now just simply terrified."
The Kneehigh way, so Hodge explains, is to dispense with text and improvise the way into a plot, keeping what works and ditching the rest. "I'm used to doing everything in reverse to what they're doing," says the man who describes himself as being "obsessively perfectionist" about the text. He no longer has the chance to get something inch perfect as, on the night, the fluidity of the show means any part of it could change – to an extent – at any time.
"It's the closest I've ever come to being scared that I was going to go slightly off my trolley"
Yet this is the key to Kneehigh's popularity; it is a company that works in that area of uncertainty where things could go wrong. It's a tension and danger that keeps the audience on the edge of its seats. It has a fair few audience members to entertain, as A Matter Of Life And Death is playing in the largest of the National's auditoria, the Olivier. Though this could be a daunting proposition, Hodge, who is upbeat and lively despite a gruelling morning rehearsal, sees it as an exciting opportunity: "Normally the Olivier, which is such a barn of a theatre, is normally filled with design, whereas at least this will be filled with people doing things and bikes going round in the sky and all sorts of tricks."
Hodge, though looking fairly laid back in combats and a t-shirt, lounging on a chair, is a decisive man who knows what he wants from his career. Around 2003, Hodge decided that he would leave television behind unless he really wanted or needed a role and would concentrate on work that would push him and stretch him in ways he had not previously worked. Working with Kneehigh is the latest role to stretch his abilities, but the first was the multi award-winning Michael Grandage-directed production of Guys And Dolls, his first professional stage musical.
The production drew together film star Ewan McGregor, Broadway and American television star Jane Krakowski, musical veteran Jenna Russell and Hodge, who, though an experienced stage performer, had no previous musical credits to his name. The casting had the media and the theatregoing public in a frenzy, drawing all eyes to the production. Yet Hodge, unbeknown to many, was under even more pressure.
The producers had made the decision, on hearing Hodge’s impressive singing voice, to include a song from the Guys And Dolls film – Adelaide's Song – that is not in the original stage musical. This had never been allowed before. At the start of the previews, no-one knew if the song would be included or not, as a representative from the estate of Frank Loesser had to approve it after seeing the show. All this rested on Hodge's shoulders; a refusal, while not being the end of the world for the production, would signal that he was not up to the job. Anyone who saw the show will know that Adelaide's Song stayed in, and Hodge became the first performer to sing it in a professional stage production.
"It was like watching pebbles drop into a lake; you could see people go, then bang, you'd hear their head on the concrete."
"There seems to be some sort of embedded ingredient of goodwill in that musical," Hodge says, reminiscing about Guys And Dolls. The fact that the entire original cast reunited to watch the final performance would suggest that he is right about that.
It would be interesting to know if the same could be said of his subsequent theatrical outing, playing the title role in the much-talked about Shakespeare's Globe production of Titus Andronicus last summer. Those people who might claim that Hodge was not stretching himself by returning to classical Shakespeare would be wrong: "It was a completely different experience to have the audience shouting back at you and to be outdoors and to be acting in the rain…"
"I just used to dread performing it, and then love it when it had finished. It's the closest I've ever come to being scared that I was going to go slightly off my trolley when I was playing somebody." This is how Hodge describes the experience of playing a man wrecked by grief for an entire summer. As the column inches would profess, it was not just him that was suffering.
"There were at least 30 people that would pass out every night. In the last month there were people vomiting while we were doing it. Outside, as you went backstage there were just ranks of girls lying there, and men, actually, all unconscious. The most frightening thing was it was like watching pebbles drop into a lake; you could see people go, then bang, you'd hear their head on the concrete." Although Shakespeare's Globe has always had a history of fainting patrons, the sheer gory horror of last season's Titus Andronicus saw to it that if the venue had been keeping records of such events, they would have been broken like a mother's heart on discovering she has just eaten her sons. Hodge looks back on it now and can laugh – while doing impressions of people vomiting – but at the time it clearly took its toll on him.
"It was completely schizophrenic"
It was lucky then, some might say, that during the start of his run in Titus, he was also acting as director for World War Two farce See How They Run, rehearsing the cast for a London run. "It was a completely schizophrenic thing," he explains, "where I'd be going 'okay, the vicar comes on here and the other vicar comes on here… and then the third vicar comes on here', and then, at 18:00, I'd go and play Titus, with his 21 dead sons and his daughter with her tongue cut out." A master of understatement, Hodge describes the experience as "a bit mad". It's a phrase that could also suitably be applied to See How They Run, and the choice to stage it in the first place.
It is unlikely that when asked what they would really like to see, a modern audience would unanimously respond 'a wartime farce'. Farce is not the most fashionable of genres, but place it in the 1940s, with 1940s sensibilities, and it doesn't really fit the bill to entertain a cosmopolitan London audience. Hodge saw it another way: "I really liked the idea that there were nine people in a room with no other agenda than how to make people choke with laughter." Laugh, they did, and the show became one of the summer's biggest hits, though I'm not sure Hodge's dream that "someone crawls choking to the stage and begs you to stop because it's just killing them" was quite realised.
Still, performing and directing simultaneously in London is not enough for some people. To prove his hard-working credentials, once See How They Run had opened, Hodge continued to spend his evenings playing Titus at the Globe, but spent his days filming Mansfield Park in York, sleeping in a car travelling between the two locations when he wasn't performing.
He is also directing again later this year. Absurdia, a collection of British absurdist plays, is presented at the Donmar Warehouse, where Hodge is now an associate director, from July.
Yet Hodge still finds time for a parallel career that he managed to keep quiet for a long time, the truth only really coming out when he opened in Guys And Dolls. When he is not acting, directing, or travelling between jobs, Hodge is a singer/songwriter with an album, Cowley Road Songs, to his name. He describes it as a "kind of secret life" that he has been leading ever since he was 16, sending songs to record companies.
Far from playing the actor card, pulling strings and landing a large, slightly embarrassing record deal, Hodge started playing in clubs around Oxford about five years ago, just enjoying performing live music for people. More recently he has gone up in the world, performing at the Trafalgar Studios with the string section from the Guys And Dolls orchestra, who just turned up with arrangements of his songs.
So it is interesting to know that Douglas Hodge, actor, director, star of Guys And Dolls, Titus Andronicus, Mansfield Park, Redcap, Capital City and numerous other shows and series would "probably, secretly, rather prefer to be in the band for the whole evening, just playing the piano or guitar, or whatever, than actually playing my part." I'm not sure the production is quite that fluid.