Oscar Wilde famously said that we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars, but he didn’t say anything about what happens when stars get put in a dustbin, which is what’s currently happening to Geoffrey Hutchings on a nightly basis. Hutchings, a sprightly veteran of roles ranging from the RSC to Peak Practice, is currently playing the part of Nagg, Hamm’s decrepit father in the acclaimed production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame at the Albery Theatre. Tom Bowtell caught up with Geoffrey, just after he had emerged from the unglamorous confines of his waste disposal recepticle.
“Liz is 82 and claustrophobic so we’ve got these hydraulic lifts”
It is testimony to Beckett’s exalted status that spending an hour and a half stuck in a dustbin in one of his plays could easily be considered the pinnacle of an actor’s career: although, as Geoffrey Hutchings’ stiff, sweaty and slightly dishevelled appearance suggests, the role of Nagg is never going to be a luxurious one… “The norm up until now is for the actors to stay in the f***ing dustbins all the way through – but those were the sort of actors Beckett had – if he said stay in the dustbins, they stayed in the dustbins.” For this production, and to his evident relief, the kindly producers have taken pity on Hutchings and his partner in refuse Liz Smith: “Well it’s better than the alternative, and Liz is 82 and claustrophobic so we’ve got these hydraulic lifts…”
The decision to plonk Hamm’s parents in poubelles is one of Beckett’s more outlandish and has triggered reams of debate about its deeper significance. Such earnest rumination about Freudian IDs and egos annoyed Beckett who felt that they were over complicating something simple, but what does dustbin denizen Hutchings think? “I reckon it’s basically what Beckett said: it’s how most people later in life treat their parents. They put them into a place and give them the minimum treatment to keep them alive for as long as possible”.
While this rather bleak imagination of family values may not be particularly hilarious, Hutchings goes on to point out that he does think that Endgame is a comedy: “It’s like Beckett says, ‘there’s nothing funnier than unhappiness.’” So does this production make a concerted effort to draw on the comedy of the play? “I think the humour is organic, if it’s done right, the humour is there. I think a lot of it is hilarious. And because Beckett was so fond of vaudeville, he put four or five classic routines in there. Some of the patter he puts in between Clov and Hamm is also very like a two-handed music hall routine, something to keep them going and give them security”. While the overall outlook of the play remains “totally nihilistic”, Hutchings feels that these linguistic and physical structures provide some pricks of hope in the play: “everything that’s said is another crampon or a crutch, something they can cling onto to survive”.
“Everything that’s said is another crampon – something they cling to to survive”
Hutchings obviously has his own carefully thought-out understanding of Endgame and when I mention the “babble” between the characters he quickly says “it isn’t babble – everything has its meaning”. He does feel, however, that anyone searching for the answers to the mysteries of humanity in Endgame are going to be disappointed: “one of the critics wrote that the play is a poem which dramatises a moment of despair which everybody knows at some point in their lives: it’s not a total summation of life and the world – it’s just that within it, there may be something which everyone can latch on to in some way – Beckett always said that he was only interested in individuals, real people.”
Beckett famously commented that Endgame was the play of his that he “disliked the least” but the rest of the world has always looked rather more kindly on his body of work. Recent months have seen a revival of Happy Days, the establishment of a permanent touring version of Waiting For Godot and Calico, a new play about Beckett’s mysterious affair with James Joyce’s daughter. Why does Hutchings think that, if anything, Beckett’s plays are currently more popular than ever? “I have absolutely no idea – I mean obviously it is very relevant with the apocalyptic headlines we get every day – but I think that, if it is a pessimistic play, people relate to it. I don’t think we live in a very optimistic age. Even the youngsters seem quite disillusioned.”
Trying to rouse things from a very Becketty type of despair, I introduce the avuncular spectre of Sir Michael Gambon (seen right, as Hamm) into the discussion. Hutchings and this modern day Falstaff appeared together in the Maigret films but never, before now, on the same stage. Hutchings effuses that Gambon is “wonderful” to work with, but from his experience thus far, can he confirm that Sir Michael is indeed the greatest on-stage corpse-inducer this side of Haiti? “It’s not a myth I am prepared to destroy” says Hutchings suggestively – “although I’ve not yet been on stage with him with a live audience so we’ll have to wait and see…” Gambon’s reputation is legendary – my research for recent piece on thespian pranksters threw up about ten Gambon tales to every one about Shane Ritchie and Hutchings does add that “Matthew [Warchus – the play’s director] said he’s been lucky that the last two productions he has directed Michael In have involved him spending most of his time sitting down where he can’t cause too much trouble”.
“Lee Evans keeps saying ‘look – this is Beckett!'”
Another cast member who would appear to be a potential troublemaker is the rubbery funnyman Lee Evans, yet Hutchings (with even more of an eye twinkle than usual) feels that the opposite is actually true: “he’s a very disciplined actor. He’s doing very well and is resisting any adlibs – the part is very physical and that really suits his style of comedy. In fact, he takes it very seriously – we’re all continually taking the piss out of him and he’s saying ‘look, this is Beckett!’”
Hutchings has been something of a fixture on the West End stage over the last couple of years. He also starred in See You Next Tuesday, the previous show at the Albery (“I’m even in the same dressing room!”) and last year he appeared in Trevor Nunn’s production of The Lady From The Sea at the Almeida. Hutchings previously worked with Sir Trevor at the RSC, where he spent the first half of his career, making a name for himself playing many of the Bard’s quirkier roles: “I did all the clowns, which was great fun, although I’ve always had a hankering to play Richard III”. As well as a pleasingly steady run of theatre parts, Hutchings has also been active on screen, particularly on television. “I don’t enjoy the screen stuff as much as stage work – I mean I love it, but I suppose on stage there is a chemistry going on, it’s live and also you have more control over what’s going on. I mean it’s interesting working with people who haven’t got a strong theatre background who are baffled by the repetition – they say ‘how do you do this night after night?’ and they don’t understand that every performance is different and that if you are working with an excellent script you can never get it right – you are always finding something else”.
“If you’ve been in The Archers, you’re alright”
There is one part on Hutching’s richly varied CV which dwarves all the rest and having completed the formalities of questions about Endgame, Beckett and the RSC the discussion reaches its crucial theme: Geoffrey’s time on Radio 4’s The Archers: “People always ask me about that! I played a character called Bill Roberton who was a vet – and he was the last proper vet. Immediately after me they brought in a vicar who was also a vet.” Although he doesn’t say anything, it is clear that Hutchings considers this decision to have somewhat cheapened the show. “I only keep the Archers on my CV because of a very famous composer called Steven Hollander who did the music for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He once read the programme and said ‘Geoffrey! I didn’t know you’d been in the Archers! You’ve gone up in my opinion a thousand fold!’” Hutchings pauses before adding laconically “sometimes, no matter what you’ve done, if you’ve been in The Archers you’re alright.”
Another highlight of Hutchings’career was his appearance in Cleo Camping Emmanuelle and Dick – Terry Johnson’s Olivier award-winning biographical comedy about the legendary carouser Sid James. While Hutchings has a smattering of crags in the right places, his portrayal of the Carry On rogue was generally considered to be astounding. He glows at the mention of the piece: “the whole thing was pure luck – if I’d realised what it entailed I wouldn’t have done it. It was just one of those things – it just came about.” The usually undemonstrative Hutchings is obviously chuffed at the memory of this National Theatre Production and adds, a touch wistfully, “yeah, I was quite proud of that.”
Hutchings is also bashfully proud of his double-Olivier Award nomination in 1982 (for Poppy and a Midsummer Night’s Dream) and he wasn’t at all upset at only going on to win one award (for poppy) “to be honest I didn’t expect to win any although-“ (at this point he assumes a Sid Jamesian grin) “It would have been nice to say that I won an Olivier Award for my Bottom….”
“It would have been nice to say that I won an Olivier Award for my Bottom”
Hutchings is without doubt an actor of substance and class, so it comes as something of a surprise to see that his career television credits include an appearance in programme with the intriguing title Phillipino Dream Girls. “Ooo yes” he says wickedly “it was actually written by Andrew Davis – who’s now king of the adaptations and it was about six people from Wales going over to Manila to meet prospective brides…” So not quite as salacious as it could have been “no, not quite…” If nothing else Phillipino Dream Girls highlights the magnificent range of Geoffrey Hutchings career which, if viewed from the side, looks a little like the Andes: “Well, I started at school and I’ve managed to keep going and yes, I suppose it has been pretty diverse.” With that, Geoffrey Hutchings stubs out his cigar and returns to rehearsals for his classiest and most trashy role yet.