As a general rule, if you’re interviewing people after a show has opened, avoiding the subject of reviews – unless it’s a rare case of five stars across the board – is a good idea. The temptation with Edward II, which divided the broadsheets with Marmite proportions, proved too great however, even for its stars John Heffernan and Kyle Soller who had launched into an analysis almost before I put my dictaphone on.
In true representation of the show’s punk spirit, this pair looks unphased by anything, including the show’s use of microphones, live video and Joe Hill-Gibbins’ exhilarating direction, which well and truly shakes any cobwebs from Christopher Marlowe’s classic in a production that sees Heffernan and Soller playing one of the most destructive but passionate couplings you’re likely to see on the London stage this year.
By the time I meet them, they’ve been through not only previews and a week of performances, but rehearsals that included some rather unusual bonding experiences and even a stage do, both of which might go some way to explain how they can now finish each other’s sentences and erupt into laughter just by catching each other’s eye; something that makes for a very fun interview…
This is the first time you’ve worked together. Had you met each other before?
Soller: I heard so many things about John. Some things that made me sick. I couldn’t wait to meet him and slap him around the face [Heffernan laughs hysterically]. No, all I heard about John is that he is an absolutely incredible actor and that he’s an absolutely sweet, amazing person and God dammit if they weren’t right. I’d only seen him on stage. Oh I met you I guess at Dom’s leaving do…
Heffernan: That’s right! We’ve got a very close mutual friend so we both ended up reading at his wedding just a week before we started rehearsals. So we met on the stag do… [peters out as they both look at each other as if this is perhaps a subject best avoided and laugh nervously]
That must have been an excellent bonding situation before starting work together.
Heffernan: And the nature of Joe’s [Hill-Gibbins] rehearsal room is everyone gets to know each other pretty quickly… [both again look at each other and laugh].
Soller: Pretty, pretty quick…
What do you mean by that?
Heffernan: Well…..[at a loss for words]
Soller: Just the nature of his method, I think, is just very playful and very freeing, and [there was] a lot of improvising and you really do get to know someone really quickly that way.
Heffernan: I mean the first day of rehearsal we were being asked to snog everyone in the room!
Was that relevant to the story or just to have a quick snog?
Soller: Just for Joe!
Heffernan: [Pretends to be director Hill-Gibbins as they both break into laughter] “Yes, I’m just going to video this…” Everyone did throw themselves in, which is kind of remarkable because it would have been very easy for someone to go ‘Hang on a minute’, but everyone plunged in the deep end. I think the nature of the production is such that it relies on people being able to take a few risks. I think he has been very clever about how he’s cast it and got actors that are willing to put themselves on the line.
Tell me about your relationship in the play.
Soller: I guess they’re the two people who need each other the most in the world and especially in the world of the play. They’re aware that that necessity and that desire are potentially poisonous and destructive, but it’s full of fun. For Gaveston it’s a little bit of that connection that you can’t quite put into words, you just have that feeling that you want to tear open their body and go inside for a little bit just to root around, so the line between the violence, sex, attraction and flirtation, it’s all kind of blurred.
Heffernan: There is the feeling as far as Edward is concerned, in my opinion, of complete dependency and I’ve always thought that if Edward had written the play it would be called Gaveston. It seems to be there’s so much hatred and cruelty in the play and actually, as you were suggesting, their relationship seems to be the only one where there seems to be genuine feeling that’s not entirely corrupted by power…
Soller: Or greed or anything. I think it’s really simple, it’s love. And likewise for Gaveston, his survival depends on Edward…. he doesn’t want to be king, he doesn’t want to be Lord Bishop and all the titles that Edward gives him, he wants to be the right hand guy, the favourite, the almost equal.
Did you expect it would be such a bold production knowing Hill-Gibbins previous work?
Heffernan: I’d only seen some of his work, but I didn’t quite know which direction it was going to go. There was an inkling of it when in the audition he asked me a question I’d never been asked before. He said: ‘Out of interest, what kind of theatre do you like?’ and because I was desperate to play the part I said: ‘I like all sorts really’. Then he said ‘I don’t think this is going to be a traditional production. Are you alright with microphones?’ And I said [adopts over enthusiastic voice] ‘Yeah’.
I think we all knew to a certain extent what we were getting into, but it has felt genuinely very creative and collaborative. That’s what’s really struck me. I’ve always got the sense that we’re discovering things together and I think it would have been a very different feeling in the rehearsal room if Joe had said ‘We’re doing this and this is how it’s going to be’. [He’d have had], I think quite legitimately, a company of actors going ‘Woah, hang on a minute’.
Were rehearsals fun?
Soller: The most amazing thing for me was that Joe somehow enabled people and gave them this strength and confidence to just jump in and kind of say ‘F*ck it’. He has a lightness about him that is very infectious and so I had a lot of fun. But that’s probably because my character doesn’t give a f*ck about anything, so I can have fun!
Heffernan: He’s a very easy presence to have in a rehearsal room, I never got the sense that he was panicking and this is a big gig for him. He’s obviously done big things before, but this is the Olivier. I imagine there must have been quite a temptation to say ‘My first job in the Olivier, maybe I should do it in wrinkly tights and play Greensleeves’ but he obviously hasn’t gone down that road.
The show uses video screens and microphones. Is it exciting to work with technology as an actor?
Soller: I think we’ve been encouraged to ignore them and speak like they’re not there. I don’t really get affected by them, I think the people who probably would are the royals and barons who go into Parliament and get filmed; if they didn’t have microphones you’d never hear them.
Heffernan: In all honesty I sometimes worry because I have no idea when we’re all being turned up or turned down, so you never quite know if you’re whispering something, if it’s coming across like Big Ben or the opposite! So that makes me slightly nervous. The other thing is because the screens are so huge, there’s a scene I have when I’m [lying] on the stage and when I look up I can see myself on a great big massive screen! I do think it’s exciting though, it’s great to be working with all those gizmos.
Soller: Especially in the Olivier, it just feels really cool to really be subverting everyone’s expectations on this project.
Speaking about subverting expectations, do you read reviews when you’re working on a show?
Heffernan: I read them I’m afraid, do you read them?
Soller: This is the first time I’ve read most of them because for some reason I don’t really care what they say! I’ve never felt that way before… I think it’s the ethos of the show, which is so anarchic and different, and I think everybody believes in it.
Heffernan: They do, and I think that’s the difference. Joe is such an amazing director, so passionate and everyone’s really got behind it, which is just as well because it is quite out there and I think a lot of the traditional audience members who come here sometimes maybe doubt what’s going on [laughs].
Do you think it’s important for the NT to shake things up like they have with this?
Soller: Hell, yeah. It’s the National Theatre and if the only way you can see things like this is to go to the Barbican…? I think it’s great that we sometimes get people who walk out because it’s too loud or it’s not to their liking or their taste. It’s f*cking brilliant that Quentin Letts hates it!
Heffernan: A National Theatre should be what it says it is; it should be representing all kinds of theatre for all kinds of audiences. If people don’t like it, then fine they don’t like it, but there seemed to be a subtext, in my mind, to some of the reviews that if this was happening at the Young Vic or somewhere like that it would be acceptable, but not at the National.
Kyle, this is your National Theatre debut. Is that a particular goal you wanted to achieve?
Soller: It’s surreal. I never thought I’d be able to be on the Olivier stage because it’s the National British Theatre! I had a couple of goals when I was graduating, I wanted to be at the Globe and I really wanted to be at the National and the Royal Court.
And this is your first leading role at the National Theatre John, have you picked up any tips from watching other people lead productions you’ve worked in here?
Heffernan: God yeah, all of them. I’ve been so lucky with people that I’ve worked with. I was [also] ushering here when I was at drama school, which is just the best job in the world because I got to watch night after night people like Simon Russell Beale, Alex Jennings, David Tennant, Helen Mirren. It was just brilliant because you could sit and soak it all up.
Have you enjoyed working on a Marlowe play?
Soller: The language is really, really great. It’s really muscular, it demands a lot from you, it doesn’t have as many adjectives as Shakespeare! I find it really fun to play with, so I really like it.
Heffernan: I’ve really warmed to him and I’ve becomes sort of fascinated by all aspects of his life really. I went up to Cambridge to see the portrait of him. The portrait’s amazing because it’s kind of inspiring for our production because it’s kind of like ‘Yeah, who the f*ck are you? Come on then?’ It’s really punkish. You feel sometimes with Shakespeare you can come at it from bleak angles whereas Marlowe is so straight down the line, people really mean what they say and say what they mean.