It was inevitable, like the ever onward movement of time, that when Ed Stoppard decided to appear in his father Tom’s most famous play, he would become the focus of attention. Like a strange, media version of Groundhog Day he would repeatedly be asked the same questions on loop, quizzed about working with his father, on his father’s material, never entirely being free of his close association with the piece’s author.
But there is not a hint of apprehension or boredom about the process when we meet during technical rehearsals amid the labyrinthine innards of the Duke of York’s theatre, where Arcadia is currently playing. In fact, open, honest, jolly even, he welcomes the questions.
When I tentatively ask whether he ever thought about distancing himself from his father’s work, building his career on the works of other playwrights, he responds, without a pause for thought, with a clear, concise, deliberate “No”.
“It would just be stupid and counterproductive to ignore that particular elephant in the room,” he explains. “But secondly, it’s a very inviting elephant for an actor.” Stoppard is in the fortunate position of being a fan of his father’s writing. “Any actor worth their salt would want to play these roles,” he says, referring to Arcadia, which recently opened to universally good reviews.
One of the defining plays of the early 1990s, it is set over two centuries at a Derbyshire country house; a mystery being researched in the present day unfolds simultaneously in 1809. In bridging romanticism, chaos theory, determinism and landscape gardening it never loses sight of the emotion that makes the characters so irresistible. As Stoppard asks, why would you avoid such a play? Well, to distance yourself from accusations of nepotism that may come from the media, your peers, even yourself maybe.
“When you’re doing the fluff, you think, they’re absolutely not going to stick this in some metal canister and fire it into space”
“There’s no way on God’s earth that my Dad would pressure David [Leveaux, Arcadia’s director] to cast me over someone else if I wasn’t David’s first choice; that simply wasn’t going to happen.” This isn’t an angry response, but one delivered with complete assurance, yet confidence in a lack of favouritism did not make the audition process any easier: “It would certainly not be filed under ‘Ed’s easiest auditions’, but for this simple reason: it was a job I really wanted to get and when you’re auditioning for a job which you really want it ratchets up the pressure. There are some jobs we go up for where frankly you’re relieved that you didn’t get it. But this was definitely one of the ones that I wanted to do, therefore it was a tricky audition.”
His father may not have been in the audition, but he has worked with the cast during rehearsals, where he has been “a very benevolent presence”. Benevolent he may have been, but having his father’s input made this a very unique experience: “There was a certain frisson having him in the rehearsal room. In my mind, what was there to be won or lost was that much more magnified every time we ran a scene or every time we did a bit of work. Obviously he’s come to see me a lot and so in that respect I’ve done my schtick and let him judge like everyone else does, which is fine, but never his own work, be it in a rehearsal room or in a theatre as we now are. So yeah, there’s a few extra butterflies fluttering around my tummy this time.”
He is very good at hiding any nerves he might be feeling. Dressed casually in jeans and a jumper, he speaks confidently and eruditely but without ever appearing superior. He is your well-educated friend, the one who may know a little more than you, but never makes you feel intimidated. He is, however, worried about coming over a touch on the pretentious side and finding something he said appearing in Private Eye’s Pseud’s Corner. I shouldn’t worry, I doubt Ian Hislop reads Official London Theatre.
He describes himself as “a bit of a snob” when it comes to the jobs he chooses. A quick glance through the CV turns up a lot of serious drama and not a lot of fluff. The colloquial term for light, frivolous work brings a smile to Stoppard’s familiar jaw line, tickling him as if he had not heard it before.
“I don’t know how to do fluff,” he says, half laughing. “That might sound a bit up my own arse or something, but I kind of don’t. I can do a job on it, but actually someone else will come in and do it much more convincingly and much better than me… I’m just not very fluffy.”
“There was a certain frisson having him in the rehearsal room”
Hamlet, he laughs sarcastically, is the “one fluffy job on my CV! Simply put it was the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s the thing that I enjoyed doing the most. It’s the job I least wanted to end. It’s the job I miss most. It’s the character I miss most.”
Hearing him talk about Shakespeare’s Prince has the feeling of a lost lover about it or the moment in time you look back on so fondly but will never be able to recreate, even if you had all its constituent parts. “As a rule in this job,” he continues, “when it’s good, it’s great, but with that role when it’s good it’s unlike anything else. When you stick your plug in the wall of the character or the play, as it were, you hope you get 240 volts; occasionally you get 25 volts. There’s more voltage in that character than any other I’ve played or read or seen. It’s why you become an actor, simply. It’s why you become an actor, to feel that connection with a character.”
He says of Val, his character in Arcadia, that he thinks he will become very fond of him; very fond, I suspect, does not come close to describing his affection for Hamlet, though I also suspect there is not another role written that could draw such a response.
Hamlet, presented by English Touring Theatre in 2005/6, was the last time Stoppard took to the road in a production. It is not that he won’t tour any more, but that, with a young family at home, the tour has to be special and financially viable for him to consider. As we discuss the issue, he takes a big breath, weighing up his options before committing to a response. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” he begins. “If I’m going to be away from my wife and my three girls for a period of time, I want/need to be paid enough money so that after it I can be with them for a period of time. That comes from all five of us; me, Amie and my three girls, we all feel the same way.”
He thinks about what he has just said for a moment, before adding: “When they’re teenagers and have no interest in me or their mother, then maybe I’ll be gagging for a touring job and I’ll take Amie with me and I’ll tour with my wife and we’ll go to some beautiful far flung parts of the United Kingdom and just let the kids microwave dinners for themselves.”
“I’m just not very fluffy”
Stoppard never goes long without poking a little fun at himself, never remains serious for too long, never lets the smile slip. Like some kind of happiness radiator he emanates a sense of joy and well-being, of everything being right with the world. When he says he gets cross with the kids I find it hard to believe, though, actually, I wouldn’t like to see him when annoyed. It is clear he is enjoying life at the moment; working with his father in rehearsals, performing with a cast that mixes the experience – “I was about to say ‘been around forever!’” – of Samantha Bond and Neil Pearson with relative newcomers such as Jessie Cave, Hugh Mitchell and Lucy Griffiths, and spending time with his young family.
He was also in one of the most lauded films of recent years, triple Oscar-winner The Pianist, written by Ronald Harwood – whose Collaboration and Taking Sides are currently playing at the Duchess theatre – and directed by Roman Polanski, whom Stoppard describes as “a bit of a hero”. He recalls watching Polanski work, noticing his genius in controlling the minutiae which “reflect light on something else larger down the way”.
Like Hamlet, it is a project that he truly appreciates having worked on: “When you’re doing the fluff, you think ‘Jesus Christ, they’re absolutely not going to stick this in some metal canister and fire it into space in the hope that some alien civilisation will come across it and think ‘We must find these guys, they look really interesting.’’ But occasionally you do something where if the canister was big enough then you might think ‘Oh well, we’ll shove in a copy of The Pianist as well, sod it.’ Occasionally you do something where you think ‘There’s some worth to this beyond just putting food on the table’ and it’s nice to turn up at work and think actually there’s a certain level of importance to this one way or another.”
So, when you throw in the consistently strong reviews Arcadia received, why wouldn’t Ed Stoppard be happy? “I don’t mind if I don’t do anything for a while after this,” he smiles, about to head back into the bowels of the Duke of York’s theatre. “After not putting the kids to bed six nights out of seven for four months I’d actually quite like to put the kids to bed seven nights out of seven for a month. Thereafter, I want someone to pay me lots of money to do some filming within the M25, please, on a worthy project which would be fired into space for some distant civilisation to discover.”