Best known for the morally vacillating character David in ITV comedy-drama Cold Feet, Robert Bathurst is currently appearing in a very different sort of drama, Chekhov's Three Sisters , at the Playhouse Theatre. He told Richard Embray about his television and theatre career – and his desire to play someone other than an "emotional retard"…
On television, Robert Bathurst has seemed most at home in comedy drama, in high-farce sitcom Joking Apart, romantic comedy of errors Cold Feet and teatime childrens show My Dad's The Prime Minister. But despite never intending to make a career of comedy, that's where he started, in the Cambridge Footlights, with contemporaries Douglas Adams, Clive Anderson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Griff Rhys Jones, Emma Thompson, Simon McBurney and Nicholas Hytner. As President of Footlights, he went on to perform such shows as Botham – The Musical, but he followed a very different career path to those of his contemporaries who carved out a series of sketch shows in the 1980s.
"I did three years of it – too much of it for my director of studies' taste. But I'm glad I did and it did provide a way in, because I then did a revue show on radio. But it took a long time to shake off the tag of a university comedy trouper. I think I've served my time doing enough fringe and rep theatre not to be marked down as that, but that was a fantastic training of sorts. I went to law school and I did carry on doing comedy shows with people who were there. But as soon as I could I got into the National and held a spear and was utterly miserable doing it. Although it did give me an understanding of the wider world of theatre – how it worked."
His early experiences in theatre were occassionally tricky: "I did Judgement at the Man In The Moon which I think was the hardest work I ever did – It was a Barry Collins play. It was a two hour monologue about someone who had eaten all the people he’d been in prison with and was being tried for it by the audience. And sometimes the audience were only three people – they were meant to be twelve good men and true, but sometimes we didn’t have a quorum. That was very hard work, but that confirmed to me that I could do it!"
But given that he's best known as a comic actor, doesn't he find it strange that his most recent stage appearances have been in Hedda Gabler (a regional tour) and Three Sisters? "Well, yes, Ibsen was a strange thing for me to do, I thought. And I've never done Chekhov before, so it was great to be offered it.
"But there's still a few laughs here – bizarrely: it's packed full of really good ironies. The audience are having a good time. Partly it may be seeing other people having a worse time than they're having. That may be part of the appeal, I don't know! These people are miles from anywhere, not being in the centre of life, not being in the house they want to be in, not being in the town they want to be in. It's a serious play, but, Chekhov called it a high comedy and it's high because it's heightened. In Solzhenitsyn, for example, in the gulags, there's great comedy in that. People manage to find humour despite their situation and [director] Michael Blakemore has allowed laughter in, which I think some productions possibly don't."
Although Bathurst has never seen a production of the play before. "Its a gap! But, yes, it was quite good because I wasn't burdened with the weight of history and other people's performances. But Michael Blakemore said 'don't be too reverential'. Of course you're very alive to every last phrase and nuance in it, but in terms of playing as a hackneyed classic – rip that up and play it your way."
Bathurst's character in Three Sisters, Vershinin, is far from the most sympathetic of characters and – let's be honest – it seems to be continuing a tradition for the actor, who, while charming and softl-spoken in person, is most famous for his role as David in Cold Feet who is also a bit of a bastard. "Well, you never judge them, that's the key," he explains. "Otherwise you only play one facet of the character – he's a shit! But people are more complicated than that. There's much to despise about him, but on the other hand, he believes in what he's saying and he entertains Masha in some way. But it's for the audience to judge."
"Well, I'd like to play someone who isn't an emotional retard one day!"
But didn't he find it odd playing another bastard straight after David. "Well, I'd like to play someone who isn't an emotional retard one day! I got sent a script recently and yet again it was someone who's illiterate emotionally and I thought no, I'm going to play a good person. It's more interesting, actually, to try and make interesting dramatically someone who's a good person!"
Three Sisters is at the Playhouse theatre until June 29.