Robert Glenister

Published June 2, 2010

The Hustle star talks to Matthew Amer about distracting audience members, avoiding typecasting and his latest London appearance as a troubled piano teacher in The Late Middle Classes.

What a peaceful way to begin an interview, watching Robert Glenister exquisitely playing Moonlight Sonata on a grand piano. He is squeezing in a few minutes of lunchtime practice before we begin our chat. As Beethoven’s lilting notes drift across the large London Bridge rehearsal room, it sets a calm, relaxed tone for the following 40 or so minutes.

Glenister is not playing for fun, though he is clearly enjoying himself. His latest stage project, Simon Gray’s The Late Middle Classes, finds the actor – who is best known for his ongoing role in TV’s Hustle – playing a piano teacher in 1950s England. His pupil has a special talent, but parents with their own problems.

“It’s quite a complicated play,” he tells me while tucking into a tasty looking sandwich. “There’s a lot in it. It’s very dense. Simon’s very subtle, all good writers are; they don’t give it to you on a plate. There is an element of the play that, if you went down the wrong path, perhaps would be misunderstood. The piano teacher, Brownlow [who Glenister plays], is probably in love with Holly [the young boy], not necessarily in a paedophilic way; he has a passion, an adoration. He adores him.”

Such a fine line forming the boundary to the most emotive of topics must make the role more challenging; a glance or touch at the wrong time could push his portrayal over the edge. To complicate matters further, Glenister is working with not one child actor in the role of Holly, but three. Rehearsing has been “a much slower process than one is used to, I think”, as every scene has had to be run through in triplicate, giving each boy a chance to explore his role. “It gives you a chance to absorb and solidify what you’re doing,” Glenister says, adding that all three boys are “highly intelligent, highly talented. It’s quite a tough call for a kid of that age to hold the play together.”

The Late Middle Classes, which is being staged at the Donmar Warehouse, is the story of a young boy growing up surrounded by oppressive love in the 1950s. It premiered in the late 1990s in a production directed by Harold Pinter at Watford Palace theatre. Following a tour, a West End transfer was planned.

“You don’t want to be the bummer of the season”

“At the last minute, it was pulled and there was outrage,” Glenister explains. “A musical called Boyband was put into the theatre it [The Late Middle Classes] was meant to go into. It didn’t last very long. Harold Pinter was outraged. Simon was outraged. I don’t think it’s had a production in this country since then. In a sense, it’s like doing a new play, and new plays are always exciting to work on because of the process of discovery.”

The plight of that premiere production does not sound entirely dissimilar to Glenister’s last stage performance, playing Tesman in a touring production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler which starred Bond girl Rosamund Pike in the title role and also featured Tim McInnerny.

The production, directed by Adrian Noble, received a five star review from the Sunday Times and four stars from the Telegraph and Guardian. Its high profile cast and strong notices hinted heavily at a London transfer that never materialised. It still confuses Glenister.

“Why we didn’t come into the West End I will never know. It was always supposed to, that was the point. I don’t think any of us would have leapt at doing a tour with nothing at the end of it,” he says, his disappointment apparent. “It was a bit of a shock. I’m not sure if I can talk about it, because it’s still ongoing. I think there are plans ahead, hopefully, to bring it in towards the end of the year. The trouble is, if you leave that long a gap… I think it would be a shame, because I thought it was a great production. I think it would be a shame across the board, but I think it would be a shame if Rosamund didn’t get a London view, because she was astonishing.”

Annoyed as he clearly is about Hedda’s lack of London exposure, he also understands the concerns of commercial theatre and the strain of staging Ibsen in the West End. He is quick to point out that, had the drama made it to the London stage when it was expected, he would not have been available to appear in The Late Middle Classes at the Donmar Warehouse. Every cloud…

The intimate Seven Dials venue has, in recent years, seen its reputation for producing theatre of the highest quality grow and grow. Its West End residency at the Wyndham’s theatre, award-winning productions including The Chalk Garden, Piaf and Red at its home venue, and Broadway transfers of its work have secured its place as one of the most highly regarded institutions in UK theatre, if not worldwide. “One is aware that it’s a centre of excellence and one is aware that you want to get it right,” says Glenister in between mouthfuls of sandwich. “You don’t want to be the bummer of the season. I suppose there’s a pressure on that score, but anywhere people are paying to see it, you’ve got to give your best.”

In some shows, those with large casts or flashy scenery, it might be possible for a performer not to perform to the very peak of their ability at every performance, to take a breather while someone else carries the show. At a large venue, with the audience further away, they might just get away with it. At the Donmar Warehouse, with its seating almost on the stage and it circle peering down from above the actors, it is certainly not an option. Nor was it an option in Glenister’s last London performance, Wrecks at the Bush theatre.

“It’s nice to have the opportunity to do something different where you don’t look the same and you don’t sound the same”

Glenister performed Neil LaBute’s one-man show in the bijou West London venue early last year. The auditorium was transformed into a funeral home, with the audience perched around the edge and a coffin, holding the body of Glenister’s character’s wife, dominating the central area. “It scared the crap out of me,” he laughs.

The piece featured Glenister explaining his life to the audience, drip-feeding biography and plot points until a twist caused a vast re-evaluation of everything that had gone before. Strangely it was not the disturbing nature of this twist that caused consternation among theatregoers, but the fact that he smoked six cigarettes during the performance. “People would actually consciously put their clothes in front of their mouths and cough when you lit up. Everybody was warned when they booked tickets. There were notices all over the foyer saying there was smoking in this show, but they still had to make the point. It pissed me off a bit actually,” he admits. “I just thought ‘Go and see The Sound Of Music. I’m not knocking The Sound Of Music, but they don’t smoke in The Sound Of Music. If you’re warned about it, don’t go.

“It’s funny, I’ve worked at the Bush a few times and what you come to realise is that people think that if they’re in a darkened space you can’t see them. That’s partly true in a big-ish theatre, but in a small theatre like the Bush you can see everybody. It’s interesting; they nod off, they text. It’s like they’re watching telly really. It is a weird phenomenon. They think that you’re not aware of what’s going on. Talking irritates me more than anything, people having a conversation. It affects everybody else, that’s the problem I have. People might want to be there. They might have switched their phones off. They might want to listen and concentrate and find out what’s going on!”

Along with The Late Middle Classes, Hedda Gabler and Wrecks, Glenister’s more recent theatre credits include Never So Good at the National Theatre and The Winterling at the Royal Court. He has been a regular stage performer over the last five years, something he puts down to the security he feels having a regular TV series, and income, to return to in the shape of BBC con drama Hustle.

Glenister has played series regular Ash Morgan since the hugely popular show first parted a despicable character from a large portion of their cash in 2004. With Robert Vaughan, he is the only cast member to have appeared in every one of the show’s episodes. He is returning to film the seventh series as soon as the curtain comes down on The Late Middle Classes in July. Fans of another hit BBC drama, Spooks, in which he has played the Home Secretary since 2006, will be interested to know that even though he is no longer in office, Glenister will also be reappearing in the spy drama.

“What you come to realise is that people think that if they’re in a darkened space you can’t see them”

Both series are produced by Kudos for the BBC –“They’ve been very loyal to me” – and Glenister is grateful for the opportunity to have a couple of very different high profile television roles on the go.

“What tends to happen on television is you can get bracketed in one particular type of part or one genre. It’s in people’s living rooms, so they do, perhaps, identify you with one particular thing. It’s nice to have the opportunity to do something different where you don’t look the same and you don’t sound the same.”

Glenister is unsure whether once series seven of Hustle has been filmed, they will commission an eighth series, with the world’s economic situation also impacting on the industry’s finances. Though, as he says, “If it’s still pulling in between five and six million people, which it is…”

So far I have steered clear of asking the question which every other interviewer to have met the actor in the last five years seems to have posed, but I am weak and finally cave in. The answer is still the same, there are no plans at the moment to work on anything with his brother – Philip, star of another hit BBC drama Ashes To Ashes – mainly, it turns out, because no-one has approached them about it…

… which is my cue to end this interview and head back to the office to write a television pilot about two brothers.

MA