It is a somewhat depressing subject for a summer’s day but given Toby Stephens is starring in a play called Danton’s Death it is inevitable that mortality comes up more than once in his conversation with Caroline Bishop.
There is something quite rock ‘n’ roll about Toby Stephens. It is there in his roguish smile, the laughter lines around his eyes and the wavy hair that he frequently runs his hands through. It is there in his aviator sunglasses and the double espresso he orders as though suffering after a late night. It is there in his wheezy laugh and well-spoken yet drawling voice, which, when I listen back to my recording, makes him sound strangely like Lloyd Grossman. Managing to be both louche and debonair, Stephens seems to suit the line-up of ladies’ men and adulterers he has played on stage over the years, his current role being no exception.
But the actor’s reality couldn’t be further from that picture. Married to actress Anna-Louise Plowman, Stephens has two young children and a third on the way. His sunglasses and the double espresso are there to combat the tiredness caused by being kept awake by Spanish football fans – we meet a day after the world cup final – celebrating near his East London home. Stephens, no doubt, was tucked up in bed. “Now I have children I live the most domestic mundane life,” he laughs.
He may not be living a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, but he likes to think the writer of his latest play did. Georg Büchner wrote Danton’s Death, which Stephens is starring in at the National Theatre, in 1835 when he was just 21 and then died two years later. “He wrote in such a vivid way and such an intense way, it’s sort of like one of those people you can’t imagine growing old; that sort of Jim Morrison, James Dean energy to him that was so intense.”
I get a sense that the play, adapted for this new production by Howard Brenton, is allowing Stephens to revisit the youthful excess that, as a 41-year-old parent, he is no longer experiencing. “It has a young man’s vivacity in it,” he says. “It’s got this energy and drive and almost anarchic nihilism. It’s full of disillusionment, optimism, sex, death, anger, spleen, it’s got all of these things, which gives it this amazing quality.”
“Death is an abstracted idea until a certain point where it begins to become more focused and more real and more concrete”
Set in 1794 after the overthrow of the monarchy during the French Revolution, Danton’s Death centres on the rebellious, charismatic revolutionary leader Danton (Stephens) who is struggling with guilt over his part in the mass executions and political purges carried out in the name of the revolution: the so-called Reign of Terror. Part historical drama, part political thriller, Büchner’s play gives a snapshot – Brenton’s version is under two hours – of the wheeling and dealing of the revolution as it charts the events leading up to Danton’s execution at the hands of his former ally, the puritanical Robespierre.
There is an admiration in Stephens as he talks of Danton as a “tragic hero”, disillusioned by his cause and stewing in a malaise brought on by guilt, trying to find solace in sex and booze. “You see this man who at one moment is sort of longing for death and for everything to stop and for him to be able to forget what he’s responsible for. And at the same time there’s this person who desperately wants to live and has this life force.”
“It’s something that I totally empathise with,” adds Stephens. “I think we all as human beings go through periods of disillusionment with life, with humanity. I think if we’re honest we all have moments where things don’t turn out the way we want them. And then at the same time one can have great optimism, you can turn a corner and go, actually, it’s all fantastic, I want to live and I want to carry on. I think Danton sort of encapsulates that in his character and it’s something that I find very real and very moving.”
The play, says Stephens, examines the difference between the abstract idea of death and the reality of actually facing your life’s end, and “how you deal with that mentally and spiritually, how you come to terms with it.”
Danton’s death – which isn’t giving anything away, the clue is in the title – is recreated on the Olivier stage in a fascinatingly realistic fashion; four actors seemingly lose their heads, only to reappear in one piece at the curtain call. Stephens says he finds the process of replicating public execution fascinating. “To have that event happen, to be that person who is executed in front of people – some will be crying because they were supporting you and some will be shouting stuff at you – it must have just been the most horrific event.”
“If you don’t like that kind of theatre, take responsibility rather than just moan about it”
Does he think about death himself? “It’s an abstracted idea until a certain point where it begins to become more focused and more real and more concrete. I think the older you get, certainly in our civilisation here, the more people [you] experience dying. It’s just the way it is. And so it makes it much more real.”
Stephens, sadly, has experienced more death than a 41-year-old might expect; his father, the actor Robert Stephens, died of an alcohol-related illness in 1995, while Beverley Cross, the playwright second husband of his mother Dame Maggie Smith and the person he called dad, died three years later. Then, in 2008, the idea of mortality inevitably darkened his thoughts when the Laurence Olivier Award-winning actress Smith was diagnosed with cancer. “When we found out about it, it was… I mean obviously you immediately go ‘oh my God, that could mean, you know…’” he says, dancing around the word. “Luckily it wasn’t, she is in the clear. But obviously you go, that is one of the possibilities and she must have gone [through] that process as well.”
With Smith in the clear and a new baby on the way for Stephens, life should be preoccupying him right now, not death. Certainly, associating with Michael Grandage, Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, seems to coincide with new life in the Stephens family. His two children, Elijah and Tallulah, were born when Stephens was working at the Donmar on Betrayal and A Doll’s House respectively and now, as he teams up with the director at the National, he awaits the birth of his third child in September.
It is the first time he has actually been directed by Grandage, however – Roger Michell and Kfir Yefet directed him in the Donmar productions – and also the first time both Stephens and Grandage have worked for the National Theatre. This fact surprises me. Given Stephens has been knocking around the London theatre scene for more than a decade and the not unnoticeable fact that his parents were founder members of the NT under Laurence Olivier, surely someone would have asked him before now? “It’s never come up,” he shrugs. “I had wanted to work here for years. This is where I came to see theatre [growing up], I’ve been coming here for years and years and years and I love it as a venue. I don’t know. It’s just the way circumstances have been, I’ve never been asked.”
Though he has worked in theatre ever since as a LAMDA graduate he played Coriolanus for the RSC in 1994, Stephens’s delayed NT debut means he now comes to the venue with the benefit of his recent performances at the Donmar Warehouse, a place he feels has “allowed me to develop as an actor.”
“She really is amazing. I’m so immensely proud of her as an actress, she is extraordinary”
“I think before working at the Donmar I was a different type of actor and I think what happened to me when I worked at the Donmar was revelatory really,” he says. “Because there you can’t hide, the audience is on top of you. I think a lot of actors hide behind various smokescreens of affectation and there you can’t. The difficult thing is letting go of it… and the Donmar is the perfect venue to do that.”
Between the Donmar and the National he starred, earlier this year, in a critically-lauded revival of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing at the Old Vic, where Olivier’s National Theatre company first began. He was not sentimental about his parents’ history there and nor will he be at the National itself. “I don’t look at it that way. I really don’t. I wish I could say, [he adopts a plummy voice] ‘oh it’s so moving to be here when my parents were here’. But I don’t think of it like that at all. I see it as bigger than that. I see it as this great engine of theatre and it’s very moving to be here because it’s a great place to work. My parents’ time was another time and they forged this place in its youth when it was starting. I’m here in a different time and I’m really grateful to be here. I just hope it’s something that’s a good piece of work and people enjoy it.”
He is not, however, sniffy about talking about his family; rather, he is “totally cool with it”, particularly now he is older and has his own body of work behind him. “I chose this profession. I think I entered into it naively, thinking it wasn’t going to be a preoccupation, but inevitably it is because they are in it and my mother is very much evident in this industry and I can’t hide from it. Turning up to interviews and saying ‘yeah you know what, I’m not talking about my parents’, it makes it into some sort of issue like I’m embarrassed about it or ashamed. I’m not, I’m immensely proud of it.”
I wonder if he considered taking a stage name, as his brother, the actor Chris Larkin, did. “My brother only took a stage name because there was a male stripper in Holland who was a member of Equity who had the name Chris Stephens, so he was forced into choosing another name,” he grins. “No, I didn’t. I certainly didn’t want to hide away from it.”
Nevertheless, he finds the idea of working with his mother on stage “naff”. He says he thinks it would become more about them being mother and son than about the actual work. It is a shame, because, as an actor, he would love to benefit from working with her. “She really is amazing. I’m so immensely proud of her as an actress, she is extraordinary.” Perhaps, he adds, he would like to do some filming with her, but acting on stage together remains distinctly unlikely. “Also what I love is that I have two separate lives. I have my professional life and I have my personal life and I really like that separation.”
“I think we all as human beings go through periods of disillusionment with life, with humanity”
It was perhaps inevitable that, given his background, he would become an actor, though he says “it was basically the only thing I could do.” He adds: “It was also the way I, strangely, could express myself, through other people’s writing. Giving voice to these characters, making these characters into human beings that are believable, that was what I was fascinated in doing and I still am; I love doing it.”
Perhaps one day the acting dynasty will continue with Stephens’s own kids, I suggest. “I sort of dread them doing it,” he says. “I guess my parents must have been the same about me; there’s no guarantee you’re going to be any good at it or that the industry is going to be kind to you. My instinct is to protect them and say, do something else. But then if that’s what they want to do I’m not going to stop them.”
Before that time comes, Stephens will continue to forge ahead with his own career, which he hopes will progress into directing. “There’s a lot of theatre I really like at the moment, and there’s a lot that I don’t like. If you don’t like that kind of theatre, take responsibility rather than just moan about it,” he says by way of explanation.
It is thankful, then, that the domesticated, teetotal Stephens is doing his best to avoid a rock ‘n’ roll end. He has far too much to do. But given our earlier conversation I have to ask: if he were – heaven forbid – to go the way of Danton and Büchner, what would he want his epitaph to be? “I suppose I would like to be remembered as a decent human being who represented humanity truthfully,” he says seriously, and then the roguish grin is back. “In a nutshell!”
Danton’s Death is part of the Travelex £10 Tickets season