Behind the stage of the Trafalgar Studio 1 is a corridor-like space packed with chairs, props and a couple of radiators; a scene reminiscent of a church jumble sale or a well-loved attic. Though everything there seems to have been scattered willy-nilly, for those in the know it is probably all in perfect order. It is here, among the theatrical mish-mash, that Matthew Amer meets Timothy West, veteran of the English stage and star of current Alan Bennett hit, The Old Country.
The location for our interview seems somewhat appropriate: after years touring on stage and appearing on television screens, West, like much of the paraphernalia that surrounds us, has become part of the British theatrical furniture. Like a comfy armchair, audiences know where they are with West and that they won’t be disappointed. His is a presence that can be trusted.
West toured with The Old Country for six weeks before bringing the show to the Trafalgar Studio 1. The tour, he says, has gone well and the show has been playing to packed houses. For an actor who isn’t as young as he used to be, he looks none-the-worse for life on the road. “It has been a very easy tour,” West explains, “none of your rugged Bradfords and Aberdeens.”
West plays ‘retired’ spy Hilary in The Old Country, a man who has left his country for a reason, namely that he betrayed it by giving away official secrets. In his new Russian home, he has created a world with a smorgasbord of reminders of the England that he left behind: he listens to Elgar, reads The Times, sings his favourite hymns and surrounds himself with the literature he loves. When his sister and newly knighted brother-in-law come to visit, his new life in his new home is called into question.
The idea of Englishness is a strong theme within Bennett’s play. Hilary has his own set idea of the England he left, and has been keeping up-to-date with news and happenings – such as the closing of Lyons Tea Shops – through the Times. Duff, the constantly lecturing Sir brother-in-law, still lives in the old country and, similarly, has his own view of it. The two don’t always match, yet both lament the passing of an old England. “I share a lot of Hilary’s feelings about an Englishness which has disappeared and which he misses and loved,” admits West, whose seven decades in England have seen him also rue the passing of key characteristics. Among the traits he would see reinstated are Routemaster buses complete with conductors and Welsh Rarebit available at half past six.
It is hard to say what The Old Country is ‘about’. Though the plot is fairly simple, it is in the dialogue that the heart of the play is explored. There is the discussion about Englishness, time spent contemplating irony, feelings of home, of betrayal, of class. West sees ambiguity at the centre of the piece: “It’s difficult to answer your question really, and say what the play is about,” he admits. “The play is about making up your mind what the play is about. It’s asking audiences not to come down on one side or the other.”
Ambiguity and having to think can, on occasion, be stumbling blocks for some audience members after a long, tiring day at work. There are times when we all struggle to stay with a story. West, with his years of experience, is aware of this challenge. “When you’ve been around a bit of time, like I have,” he explains, “you get to know the difference between a silent audience that is a bit confused and wants to be unconfused, and an audience that is so confused that they’re getting bored. They don’t make the same silence.” The key tip for any aspiring actor is this: “you’ve got to say to them ‘Come on, this is intellectually a bit demanding and if you keep up with me, you’ll enjoy it’ and hope they will.” Slowing down, West says, will eventually lead to everything grinding to a halt.
This production marks the fourth time West has teamed up with English Touring Theatre (ETT). In the past he has appeared in King Lear, The Master Builder and Henry IV Parts I and II. The draw of the company, explains West, is that its productions are “very clear and very energetic, very well spoken and very truthful, and, we hope, exciting. [ETT] is not in the business of finding wildly alternative ways of directing things, because they have a responsibility to show it to new audiences and, particularly the classics, to school audiences.”
I have a suspicion that ETT’s touring remit may also have a certain draw for West, as he has, over the years, made no secret of his belief in the importance of touring theatre. “You can’t expect people to come and see you if it means making a 350 mile journey,” he explains, “you’ve got to go and see them sometimes. There’s a huge audience out there who are critical, enthusiastic, worthwhile, and I love playing to them and meeting them.”
West’s passionate belief is that everybody should get the chance to experience the finest plays. While London often gets many versions of classic texts, other areas of the country, which don’t have such a high density of theatres, suffer in comparison. It is the democratic chance for everybody to be touched by the world’s greatest plays that West is most interested in: “Essentially I want people to go away not saying ‘that was a wonderful production’ or ‘that was a wonderful performance by Timothy West,’ I want them to say ‘that was a great evening that’s really made me think.’” The play, as Hamlet might say, is the thing.
West is a very passionate man where his theatrical beliefs are concerned, and, in addition to his commitment to touring theatre, he has also been vocal about the loss of repertory theatre and the range of experience it gave to young actors. “In a good rep,” West says, “at the end of the year you’ve done Shakespeare, Shaw, Rattigan, Agatha Christie, Moliere, Chekhov, Ibsen, O’Casey, the lot, and that was a wonderful training that you can’t get anywhere else; even in drama school you don’t do that amount of performance work a year. That’s a shame.”
Outside the theatre, West’s other great love, apart from wife Prunella Scales, is travelling, “I’ve always got itchy feet,” he admits. Train travel is a favourite pastime – he has experienced the luxury of both the Orient Express and the Blue Train – but he also has a narrow boat in which he likes to “potter about on canals”. Having never set foot on a narrow boat, I’m not sure what the fascination is, so West explains: “If you think of a river as the thoroughfare of a town or village, the canal is the service road. You find bits of history and aspects of life that haven’t moved on very much because nobody’s been there much, except for you, and that’s fascinating.” Proving that he is good with his own words, as well as those written by others, he poetically describes the process of moving at 4mph through the canal’s waters as “stretching England”.
“I like talking to people generally; I like talking to anybody,” West confides as we come to the end of our short time together. The rest of the cast are warming up their vocal chords on the stage behind West’s head and it is about time he joined them. “But just occasionally you meet people who have done no homework and you think ‘just go away and do your bloody job!” West refers, of course, to lazy journalists which, it seems, are a pet hate of his. “If I did my job as badly as you’re doing yours, I’d be out on my ear!” He is not, as it may seem, referring to me – I hope – but to the imaginary hack sitting beside me. Still, the visage – which merely hints at vitriol – that emerges at this point, for just a short amount of time replacing the otherwise sprightly, often mischievous face, is enough to convince me that Timothy West’s wrong side would be bad place to find yourself.
With that, the amenable, smiling and perfectly happy West returns and leaves behind the jumble for the calm of the stage.
The Old Country is playing at the Trafalgar Studio 1 until 6 May.