As Owen Teale exacts revenge in Creditors at the Donmar Warehouse, the actor has a pleasant chat with Caroline Bishop about finding success in London, on Broadway and in North Wales…
I wouldn’t like to be in the cast of Creditors (luckily, director Alan Rickman never called). David Greig’s new adaptation of Strindberg’s little known and rarely performed tragi-comedy is playing at the Donmar Warehouse hot on the heels of the venue’s acclaimed revival of Piaf, which transfers to the Vaudeville this month. Up the road at the Wyndham’s, the Donmar’s West End season kicked off in September with Ivanov, which opened to five star reviews. No pressure then.
Happily, judging by last night’s opening night reviews, Creditors is not going to be the production that ends the Donmar’s ever-extending run of success. The hard work of the three-strong cast, which includes Owen Teale, has paid off.
“It’s much harder work than I was expecting” confesses Teale, with a smile, when I meet him for a chat during rehearsals for the production. “But ultimately much more enjoyable, much more challenging.”
Written in 1890 and reportedly based on Strindberg’s own marital experiences, Creditors is a dark and disturbing 90-minute play about human relationships and the power struggles within them, which centres on a trio of characters – newlyweds Adolph and Tekla and Teale’s character Gustav, a stranger who befriends Adolph and, says Teale, “wreaks havoc” on the couple’s marriage.
As the villain of the piece, Teale plays a man “who has been damaged by life… He has been deeply, deeply wounded by love… and so has become over a period of years deeply focused on revenge.”
Gustav’s pursuit of revenge and the revelation of his true identity provide the dramatic tension in a play which, says Teale, is dialogue-based rather than plot-driven. “I think it’s an extraordinary play because I actually think that rather than there be three clearly distinct characters, they are more three parts of himself [Strindberg]; it’s like a stream of consciousness, it’s a war within himself.”
Though a dark and intense play, Strindberg wrote Creditors as a tragi-comedy, finding humour in the tragedy just as great stand up comedians extract laughs from their own failings. “There’s a lot of humour to be mined from people’s pain, and I think that that is part of human nature, that we do laugh at someone else’s appalling bad luck or weakness in the context of a play, or a television programme or a film,” considers Teale. “You sort of think thank God that’s not me. And then along the way you might sort of think well actually it’s rather a lot like me.”
Teale stars alongside Tom Burke as Adolph, the younger, insecure second husband of Anna Chancellor’s dominant Tekla. They are directed by someone who knows a thing or two about acting – Rickman. “From the moment Alan phoned me,” Teale recalls, a smile widening across his amiable face, “he said oh I want you to do this play and I said that sounds really exciting and he said [Teale swaps his soft Welsh lilt for Rickman’s deep, regal tone of voice] ‘well you haven’t read it yet’.” He laughs. “I said, well I can’t imagine you wanting to do something that wasn’t interesting.”
"It’s like a stream of consciousness, it’s a war within himself"
The pair had previously acted together on a 2001 film called The Search For John Gissing, but Teale had never been directed by his colleague before; Rickman has only turned his directorial talents to a small handful of productions, including The Winter Guest at the Almeida in 1995 and My Name Is Rachel Corrie at the Royal Court and Playhouse a decade later.
“It’s quite an interesting dynamic,” says Teale of the actor-director relationship. “He doesn’t make it difficult, he’s incredibly honest. Every criticism is simple, truthful and I’ve never felt that it’s not been without love of a fellow actor and with enormous respect actually, otherwise he wouldn’t be asking you to try something.”
However, being directed by a fellow actor means Teale can’t get anything past his friend. “He understands, but he also knows your tricks and where you cover yourself by time and where you think well, I’ll be impressive here or, this has worked before, I’ll do this bit here. So it’s been a really good rigorous working process to this point.”
Teale is also well aware of the fact that he is playing a villain in front of someone who has perfected the art of playing villains. From the evil German in Die Hard and the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, to the ambiguous Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films, Rickman and his expressive eyebrows have portrayed some memorable baddies over the years. “I have to put that out of my mind,” acknowledges Teale, “and develop my own and let him fashion me and not try and be him.”
Teale’s dark debut at the Donmar Warehouse comes at the same time as his wife, the actress Sylvestra Le Touzel, is appearing alongside Kenneth Branagh in the Donmar’s production of Chekhov’s Ivanov at the Wyndham’s. Coincidentally, Teale also played Ivanov at the National Theatre in 2002. When we speak, Teale is looking forward to seeing Branagh – with whom he worked on 2001 TV film Conspiracy – in the role he once occupied, and harbours no sense of competitiveness whatsoever. “My wife can’t believe it!” he laughs. “I think that it’s because I’m involved in such an interesting project myself, with this one, that my ego is alright.”
The acclaim that greeted this production of Ivanov when it opened at the Wyndham’s in September is not unfamiliar to Teale either. He experienced similar critical adulation, on both sides of the Atlantic, when he appeared in another 19th century Scandinavian classic, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, in 1996. Anthony Page’s production, which played at the Playhouse before transferring to Broadway, starred Teale as Torvald Helmer and Janet McTeer as his wife and the heroine of the piece, Nora. Such was the success of the production that both lead actors picked up Tony Awards, with McTeer also winning the 1997 Best Actress Laurence Olivier Award.
“I’ve thought a lot about it while we were doing this. I don’t know why exactly but it has made me think about that a lot,” says Teale in the considered, pause-laden manner with which he responds to questions. “When it started it wasn’t a hugely expected production. We toured the country, we worked on it a lot…and then it grew, and then you have the thing that happens, you become a hit, and the excitement in the room before you even walk on stage is enormous, people coming to see you thinking it’s a hit. We were going to New York and it was pretty good to start with and then the reviews came out and it just went – like success can in America – it just was crazy. People can’t get tickets and you extend the run and everybody wants to come and see it, including Hollywood, and famous actors come and see you, and a lot of them feel that it’s the form to come backstage afterwards even though you’ve never met them before.”
"We were so celebrated. You go to restaurants and people would stand up and applaud you and things like that"
A smile sparkles in his eyes as he relates a particular backstage encounter that demonstrates how refreshingly unaware this British actor was in the sea of celebrity he found himself in, even if it did leave him red-faced. “I was convinced I’d been introduced to a student and I was talking to her for about half an hour. She got so much out of this play and I said well you’re clearly going to do very well if you can get this from this writing. And my mate said as I left, Peter [Gowen], who was in the play with me, he said you don’t realise who that is and I said no, who is it? A student? And he said it’s Holly Hunter,” Teale laughs heartily at the recollection. “So I ran after her and I said Holly? She said yes… I said what’s your surname? And she laughed… she was so down to earth about it.”
Teale would love to go back to Broadway and has been asked since, but as yet “It’s never been the right thing.” Much like the pressure of following a success at the Donmar, achieving a hit on Broadway only seems to up the stakes for next time. “The danger is, I’d never been to America before and I went and it was such a big hit, you almost want to leave it like that. We were so celebrated. You go to restaurants and people would stand up and applaud you and things like that.”
But Teale’s career fulfilment doesn’t rely only on the big West End and Broadway successes. He gets just as much pleasure from returning to his native Wales to play Macbeth in Terry Hands’s production at Clwyd Theatr Cymru in Mold, which he did earlier this year, reviving his performance from 1999. “I get a huge kick about going to play Macbeth in North Wales in this theatre that seems in the middle of nowhere and you sell out, it’s extraordinary. You get 500-600 people a night, it’s fantastic.”
Born in North Cornelly, near Bridgend, Teale has come a long way since he began his performing career dressed as a bear at Barry Island fairground. It might never have started at all if it wasn’t for a teacher who spotted that science A Levels weren’t really floating his boat and told him about a job going in Barry. “I went and auditioned as a magician’s assistant. I was crap at that, and they gave me a bear suit and said you can be the bear,” smiles Teale. It may not have been an illustrious start, but it was a fortunate one, as at the fairground Teale met other entertainers who had trained as actors. “That was the first time I had the concept that you could go to drama school.”
It was a long way from bear to Broadway, but Teale’s love for his chosen profession has brought him to where he is now, starring in the Donmar’s latest hit. He says he won’t push his children – two young daughters with Le Touzel and a 22-year-old son from his first marriage – to follow him into acting, but he will advise them to do what he did and choose something they love: “I think it’s got to be something that you have a degree of love, a huge amount of love for. If you can find something in your life that’s that then it’s got to be better, because whatever you do is going to be hard work, that’s part of life, so it’s great to make it something that you love.” And if you can be successful at it in the process, then so much the better.