Over the last few years, Kris Marshall has become one of the most recognised faces on the British screen. A stint in the hugely popular BBC sitcom My Family was followed by an appearance in Love Actually (where he had the arduous task of being seduced by about 17 sex-starved American beauties) and further TV roles in Dr Zhivago, Murder City and the sitcom My Life In Film. In recent months, however, Marshall has returned to his roots, appearing at the Almeida in a revival of The Hypochondriac, and now in Doublethink theatre’s new production of The Revenger’s Tragedy, which opened at the Southwark Playhouse on 7 March. Tom Bowtell joined Kris to find out about revenge, erotic upholstery and the repugnant side of TV fame.
Right, before we get started, I think I should just make it clear that Kris isn’t really like Nick Harper, the charmingly disastrous son from My Family, at all. While there is no doubt that he looks a lot like Nick and also sounds very similar, he is nowhere near as clumsy, not remotely doltish and is far more thoughtful. He does share some of Nick’s general insouciance – but only some – and he is still funny, although it’s a more considered wit which doesn’t involve him accidentally setting fire to things. I just thought I’d clear that up straight away.
The fact that he is inevitably associated with Nick has certainly played a part in Kris’s decision to take the role of Vindici in The Revenger’s Tragedy at the Southwark Playhouse. “Before doing The Hypochondriac at The Almeida, I hadn’t been on stage for about seven years. While I loved working at the Almeida, I was looking for, well, to be f**king honest, I was looking for a larger part – a lead. Also the parts I was being offered for West End shows were a little to be expected; a little too similar to characters I am known for from My Family and Love Actually.”
“I see him like a politician: he sets out with this pure vision but along the way becomes corrupt.”
It is certainly true that Vindici is a fairly different character from that of Nick and that the disasters suffered by his own family – which largely involve them being killed in a variety of interesting ways – are generally more drastic than those that befall the Harper family – which tend to feature misunderstandings involving strippers, rival dentists and precocious ten year olds. Vindici, the Revenger, is a nobleman who opens the play lamenting the murder of his wife, and spends the rest of it plotting and carrying out his bitter and violent revenge against the nefarious Duke behind the crime. Marshall is clearly relishing the role: “I think he’s a really great character because he’s kind of a parody of Hamlet. He’s not as philosophical as Hamlet and I think he’s been left a lot longer than Hamlet to dwell on his problems. Obviously the key with Vindici is that he sets out to become what he has set out to purge [wealthy, corrupt, self-obsessed and murderous] and he actually starts relishing what he’s doing. But it is only right at the end that he realizes this. In a way I kind of see him like a politician: he sets out with this pure vision but along the way becomes quite corrupt.”
Any Kris Marshall fans who are concerned that playing a tortured and bipolar violent Revenger won’t give Kris any scope to exercise his comic roots, may be pleasantly surprised: “He is also darkly humorous: he’s funny. He is very sarcastic, extremely sarcastic. And he’s very dark and bitter: but with a wit to his bitterness.”
One of the characteristics of the Jacobean Revenge Tragedy (or so I remember a university lecturer once saying) is the way that the protagonist, the Revenger, is immutably set upon carrying out his revenge, apparently driven to do so by some sort of over-riding external force, and cannot be deflected from his path by any amount of gentle advice or diplomacy. The great twist of Hamlet is, of course, that Hamlet is cast in the role of Jacobean Revenger and yet he questions the outcome of his actions, which rather halts the flow of things and leads to a lot of soliloquies. Vindici is very much a character drawn from the old school of Revengers, and is totally unfettered in his pursuit of vengeance, something which presents considerable challenges for an actor: “I don’t think there’s an awareness of what he’s doing until right at the very end. This is something I’ve struggled with: I’ve talked to Gavin [McAlinden] the director about this. Hamlet spends his time philosophising and self analysing. Vindici doesn’t. Vindici seems a lot more base: so how can an audience empathise with him? He’s just a driven ar****le in many ways?”
“He’s just a driven ar****le in many ways.”
Chris has asked himself a rather good question, and is answering it on stage by seizing upon what shreds of humanity playwright Middleton has afforded Vindici: “In the opening scene, Vindici gets the skull of his wife, and laments her. That scene has to really see him through, you have to feel that he has really lost something in his wife, that he is really aching, that he is hurt. So that when the play opens, people think ‘oh f**king hell we’re here to see a tragedy, there’s a weeping man’ you know, you have to give him that empathy! I hope it’s enough – but if it’s not in the play then it’s not in the play.”
Kris’s pragmatism in the face of this tricky situation is impressive – he admits that “Hamlet is probably a better play” but he is also aware of the qualities of Middleton’s romp, and he is clearly enamoured with Gavin McAlinden’s direction and Meredith Oakes’s streamlined adaptation, which both are clearly sharpening the play’s status as the Jacobean equivalent of a Quentin Tarantino movie: “I think what we’ve got is a spectacle, it might not make you think too much, but what you’ll be treated to is a bloody good story, a what-happens-next kind of thing. It is also a difficult play, as it hasn’t been done for so long. Of course there are holes in it: but it has a place. I think that Middleton was a lot darker than Shakespeare in many ways: he’s a nice dark writer. And even if the play doesn’t have many levels, the writing is fantastic.”
A further argument for the quality of the play is the way that it has so obviously fired Marshall’s own imagination: “Vindici’s like a hitman: he’s dressed in Armani, it’s black and white with a tie. And I suppose every hitman – not that I’ve met any! – I guess they are driven by a pureness, they think that they’re being pure, purging the world. He’s also a megalomaniac. He’s also driven by a vision of a utopic future.” An Armani-clad megalomaniac hitman driven by a vision of a utopic future? Who said Vindici was shallow?
While the depth (or lack of it) of The Revenger’s Tragedy provides fertile grounds for debate, there is absolutely no doubt that spectacularly gruesome deaths are of fundamental importance: Kris wasn’t making a pun when he mentioned “a bloody good story”, but he might as well have been: “We’ve got asphyxiation, broken necks and plenty of stabbing with daggers: the neck breaking is pretty realistic, but I can’t tell you any more than that… trade secret.” (If violence isn’t your thing, then it’s possible that The Revenger’s Tragedy won’t be entirely up your street, although Kris does promise that the masque which concludes the play is going to feature “some auto-eroticism involving cushions”.)
“The neck-breaking is pretty realistic.”
When I last saw The Revenger’s Tragedy (at the equally bijou Old Fire Station Theatre in Oxford), the play was made all the more entertaining by the liberal dousing of the audience in the fake blood spilled by the merry rampage. Kris assures me that this is unlikely to happen on this occasion, “I don’t think the front row will be in danger of a dousing, except, perhaps from spit.”
Mischievous saliva-spraying aside, Kris has, up to this point, lived up to his Nick-inspired stereotype of being an extremely amiable type of chap. While this is obviously a good thing, it is an intriguing and not entirely unwelcome surprise when he begins speaking with vehemence about the negative aspects of sudden TV stardom: “I became sick of people in the street shouting at me, it was a bit like the Rodney syndrome, and I was very aware of it quite early on. When you’re a kid and you think ‘Oh I really want to be an actor’ and you think how great it would be to be well known – and I defy anyone to say that they don’t want to be famous, that’s bullsh*t as actors are complete megalomaniacs. But when it happens, especially through being on British television, I found it generally quite repugnant.”
He falls silent for a moment, a look of genuine distaste on his face, before going on to expound interestingly about the fall out of doing a show like My Family. On the one hand, he is in the enviable position of receiving regular offers (“keeping working is the main thing”) yet on the other, he is all too aware of being terminally pigeonholed: “What you think will happen is that if you get a part which makes you well known, choice will widen, but what actually happens is that it narrows, people go oh ‘such and such would be good for this’ but people go ‘oh no’ because they want to be seen as original.”
Marshall is obviously grateful for the opportunities that his screen appearances have afforded him, but he is also clear that he is now being increasingly judicial about the type of roles he takes. He knows that he will be offered numerous parts which will require him to play slight variations on the characters he played in My Family and Love Actually, but he is keen, above all, “to keep scaring himself”. This, perhaps, is why he has exchanged the luxurious world of blockbuster cinema for the slightly less salubrious environs of his current rehearsal rooms in Clapham: “Not wishing to sound too w**ky, it’s very easy to lose your sense of who you are and what you’re doing when you’re sat in a trailer in a freezing field in Yorkshire and doing four pages a day. I mean it’s a great part of the job – I love filming – but you’ve got to mix it up. I don’t have a plan or anything; I just do what feels good at the time. To have a plan is a bit sycophantic.”
This comment sums up Marshall: he is just about the least pretentious actor I’ve ever met: when I posit that he has a chance to become ‘the next Hugh Grant’ he looks fairly unimpressed, while he describes his victorious visit to the British Comedy Awards (where he picked up Best Newcomer) as “appalling”. During the course of our conversation, I’ve been formulating a cunning theory that Kris’s rather lengthy seven-year apprenticeship in the acting trade (despite the boyishness, he’s actually 33) means that when the breakthrough came, he was more able than most to remain grounded. Does he think that this may be the reason for his lack of pretence? “I dunno about that, I’ve never really thought about it.” There is a pause before I realise my error and ask if my theory itself is perhaps ‘a bit too w**ky?’ He grins before confirming “Well, perhaps a little…”