Charles Edwards is one of British theatre’s best kept secrets. Part matinee idol, part Leslie Thomas, with the comic tendencies of a laughter-seeking missile aligned with the ability to make an impact like a shovel to the head, his name, we will continue to say, should be known throughout the land.
You know him. Of course you do. Probably from Downton Abbey, in which he played Lady Edith’s lover and colleague Michael Gregson, who disappeared on a rather unfortunate trip to Germany. Possibly from the BAFTA nominated drama Holy Flying Circus, in which he played Michael Palin. Maybe for his Evening Standard Theatre Award nominated performances in Much Ado About Nothing, The King’s Speech or This House. But you may not know you know him.
In an effort to put that wrong right, we caught up with Edwards after his summer spent playing Richard II at Shakespeare’s Globe as he prepared to lead the cast of the National Theatre’s new production of Harley Granville Barker’s Waste.
The drama, set among the sleazy political elite of 1920s England, follows visionary independent MP Henry Trebell as he tries to push through a controversial bill about the disestablishment of the Church of England. An affair with a married woman is barely a distraction for Trebell, but when she dies following a backstreet abortion the scandal seals the fate of the idealist.
We spoke to Edwards about the topical revival, his summer at the Globe, Downton and being an actor…
When I’m working on something, I become aware of its themes cropping up. The churches and topics that sing out at you from Radio 4 in the morning, that’s just like the play. It’s exciting. It’s great to have a play from the past that shows that nothing has changed, that the world is just as it always was and human beings are just as they always were, no matter how much we try to change ourselves. People always revert to the human instinct. Maybe I’m a bit of a cynic.
Trebell’s an incredibly arrogant, selfish man, but you start to trust in his belief in himself and his scheme. He becomes, in my eyes, admirable. There were similarities between him and Richard II. Richard is shaped by Shakespeare as starting out a real d**k and then hopefully you start to fall for him in a little way. In this also there’s an element of that. Even though he’s an arrogant, full of himself, moody, touched by genius, erratic man, you do start to go with Trebell.
We’ve had Neil Kinnock in to talk to us. It was very interesting hearing his take on how he thought Granville Barker has written the politicians. He thought he’d got it spot on. He really took against Trebell as a character. He really had it in for him. I think mainly it was to do with the fact that Trebell’s an idealist and Kinnock believes there’s no place for that in politics.
When I started being an actor, being here at the National Theatre was always the goal. Doing All My Sons here in 2000 with Howard Davies directing was one of the biggest thrills. Getting a job at the National. The feeling never abates when you come to work here.
It’s amazing the effect that the National Theatre has had on this entire stretch of river. In the summer it’s great because it’s so busy, but in the winter I love it too. I love walking over the bridge coming to work. It just reminds you you’re in London and I feel very proud to be working here.
I didn’t know anything about Richard II before I got the job at the Globe. I still haven’t seen a production of it. I haven’t watched it or seen it on telly, so I feel very much that my version of it was the one that I thought was right, from reacting to the script when I first read it. I’ve never been in a play that has evolved so much throughout the run. I just kept learning more and more about it every time I played it.
Working at the Globe, you certainly learn what an audience does when it thinks it’s not being looked at. You look around doing a soliloquy and some people are looking at you, but some people look bored, some are asleep, some are yawning or looking at the sky. The luxury about a dark theatre is you don’t see all of that, but I’m sure it’s going on. What I love is the proximity, having people right there and being able to touch them. There’s the connection you have with people who are looking right back at you while you’re talking to them is great. That’s what makes that place special.
I noticed people’s obsession with Downton Abbey more in the States than I did here, when I went to do Blithe Spirit over there. The reaction from people was extreme in the street after the show. Lovely, but obsessive. I sort of popped in and out of Downton. We had a good storyline, but we were away from the house. But then came my fate in Germany, which was a shame. I’d have liked to have married Lady Edith, of course I would. It was denied me. I don’t know why.
Who knows why people become actors? I don’t know. I think it was Ian McKellen who said “Actors like to do acting because there’s a script; they’ve been told what to say.” I was quite a shy kid and school was fine, but I think it might have been that. I just remember discovering it at school and loving it, finding it was something I could do and enjoyed doing. People seemed to like me doing it, so it was as simple as that really.
As an actor, being serious about your work isn’t the same as taking yourself seriously. It’s important not to take yourself too seriously, but that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice hard work. To take oneself too seriously is a mistake because there will be a lot of knocks, there always are. The pain of those never disappears.
Waste is booking at the National Theatre until 19 March. You can book tickets through the theatre’s website.