Matthew Amer catches up with former History Boy Jamie Parker, and, unexpectedly, his co-star Samuel Barnett, as he prepares to open Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead in London.
You know the old saying ‘Two’s company, three’s a flippin’ nightmare if you’re trying to do an interview’? No? Just me?
I wouldn’t normally mention it, but I suspect Sir Trevor Nunn has also experienced the same feeling while working with Jamie Parker and his former colleague in The History Boys, Samuel Barnett.
On his own, Parker is witty and intelligent, chatting charmingly about performing Stoppard, the revelation of performing at the Globe for the past two years and coping with a West End transfer while being a new dad. When Barnett arrives in the pair’s new dressing room, they play off each other like cheeky school kids. Barnett even cajoles others into the room to join the Parker-distracting revelry.
To be fair, though it makes interviewing difficult, it also makes me laugh. This chemistry between the two is probably what won them the leading roles in Stoppard’s Hamlet-based comedy Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead in the first place. They auditioned together, and although they also read with other actors as part of the process, they were brought back together in the final casting, which is lucky, because if only one of them had been offered a part it could have been the end of a beautiful friendship.
The pair were initially concerned that even though their chemistry could win them the leading roles, their profile might not have been big enough to headline a West End show. “We were convinced that we weren’t money enough to get the job,” Parker tells me before Barnett makes his entrance. “People in theatre, people in the industry know who we are, but we’re hardly household names.”
While both Parker and Barnett are forging careers and building reputations, the ‘name’ originally attached to the production was Hollywood star and original Frank N Furter Tim Curry. Sadly illness forced the star of Annie and IT to withdraw from the production. Rather than drop in another headliner, the producers stuck with the team behind the show, promoting understudy Chris Andrew Mellon, who, Parker says, is doing “a stonking job” as The Player.
“We were convinced that we weren’t money enough to get the job”
It has not, then, been the easiest of times previewing and performing the show in Chichester before bringing it to London. While Parker clearly has a soft spot for the Sussex venue – it is where he met his wife – I get the feeling playing Stoppard for its audience wasn’t the easiest of gigs. It is, he says, “the exact opposite of Glasgow. In Glasgow, traditionally, unless you’re transcendently amazing you have glass bottles thrown at you. In Chichester, unless you’re transcendently amazing, it does tend to be rather quiet, though not unappreciative. But when you’re doing comedy, that can be a little unnerving.”
There are those who have said Stoppard’s work can be a little cerebral, that it is too clever for its own good and that it requires prior knowledge of Shakespeare’s tale of a disenchanted Danish prince. Parker, unsurprisingly, disagrees; “It’s a wonderful night out and a good time and funny and stupid and silly and at moments profound, which is what I think a night at the theatre should be. If you’re willing to take part and if you’re willing to be front-footed and if you’re up for a bit of pyrotechnical stimulation and you want to try and catch things as they’re firing out of the stage at you – ideas and thoughts and jokes and gags – then you’re going to love it.”
It is about here that Barnett makes his Machiavellian entrance with a “Hello darling” and a mischievous look in his eye that wouldn’t be out of place on a schoolboy.
But if Barnett is the more obviously troublemaking of the pair, Parker is far from squeaky clean, admitting he spent rehearsals encouraging Nunn to name drop. “You don’t meet people who’ve operated in quite those circles all that often,” he says of the director who can drop meeting Michael Jackson and Princess Diana casually into conversation. Parker sounds a little like the child in the class who will do anything to lead the teacher off on a tangent. This, he assures me, is traditional in an English rehearsal room.
“It’s possible to be terribly passive in this culture and in this industry”
I imagine Middlesbrough native Parker is enjoying the luxury of performing with a roof over his head this summer, especially as the weather has decided to conform to typically British drizzly standards recently. His last two summers were spent in the roofless glamour of Shakespeare’s Globe, performing in productions of As You Like It and A New World, and taking the title role in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2.
The experience had a profound effect on the RADA graduate, who tells me “I do feel like a massive penny has dropped, just from doing that. My whole notion of performing Shakespeare was turned upside down, to the point that I now find it very difficult to contemplate the idea of doing Shakespeare to an audience that’s sitting in the dark. The Globe is the most exciting theatre I’ve ever stood in and it’s also the most frustrating and annoying because of aeroplanes and helicopters and occasionally disinterested audiences that walk in and out in the middle of a big speech, but when it happens, it’s magic. In every theatre you have to be open to whatever’s going on, but more so in the Globe than anywhere else because the list of variables is just that much longer.”
Performing at the Globe, where anything can happen, could even be seen as good training for being a new parent – expect the unexpected and then react to it as best you can – which is handy, as Parker’s son William is barely a month old. “It’s weirdly normal,” he says of being a new daddy while also transferring a show to the West End. “Our worst fears lie in anticipation; once you’ve got something to deal with, you just deal with it. [The play] is frantic. It’s quite a sweaty play for us. At the end of a two-show day, you get home at one o’clock in the morning and you are flagging and at that stage you’ve got to whack out a bottle and change a nappy.”
“I now find it very difficult to contemplate the idea of doing Shakespeare to an audience that’s sitting in the dark”
Looking after a newborn is never easy, but Parker’s schedule sounds gruelling. Still, like so many actors who make it to the top, he is not averse to hard work. It’s unlikely you’ll find him frittering away his spare time. When not performing, Parker writes, and has previously had work staged professionally.
“I don’t see myself just sitting by the phone for the rest of my career,” he says. “When I was younger, growing up, the only way I could make projects happen was to make them happen myself. I had to do everything. I had to direct and build the set and focus the lights and make posters, all that kind of stuff. It’s possible to be terribly passive in this culture and in this industry. So much of our culture is based on the fallacy that’s getting peddled all the time at the moment, which is that it’s possible to win the lucky dip and become rich and famous and successful and happy, which is quite a dangerous lie.”
It is a profound and serious statement, and is treated in the way it deserves by Barnett, who reappears with a disparaging cry of “Are you still talking?”
With that, the fire alarm sounds.
“It’s the heat of our talent,” Barnett suggests.
“When we’re in the same room it sets off the fire alarm,” Parker adds.
And so I leave the pair to whatever new mischief might be in the pipeline.