Casual cruelties

Dennis Kelly's new play is over-ambitious, sure, but it's not as bad as all that.

In last week's issue of the New Statesman (29 March), Andrew Billen reviewed Dennis Kelly's new play The Gods Weep, in which Jeremy Irons plays an ageing businessman dividing the spoils of his corporate kingdom. Billen found the play "outrageous, ridiculous, over the top, confusingly constructed, politically naive, uncertain in tone, by turns portentous and unintentionally funny". Here, our theatre blogger Gina Allum offers an alternative view.

Jeremy Irons takes the lead in Dennis Kelly's ambitious but entertaining new play for the RSC, The Gods Weep. He plays Colm, the ruthless head of a greedy corporation, as he decides his succession and divides the business between two repulsive hirelings (while passing over his Frankenstein's monster of a son). The inspiration of King Lear dictates the structure of the play, which not so much hitches a ride on the original as gets dragged, kicking and screaming, in its wake.

In many ways, a boss such as Colm, wielding overweening power, makes for an inspired choice as natural heir to the absolute monarch. And the notion that multinational corporations can have a potentially malign influence on affairs of state is hardly a new one. But a company and a country are manifestly not the same thing, and this is where the Lear template breaks the play's back.

The first act is on safe ground in the boardroom. The cast, decked out in grey tailoring, negotiates the black and chrome of the table and the slabs of anonymous corporate design. A sad tree, choked by gravel, completes the sterile scene. I enjoyed the opening sequence of office politicking: John Stahl's performance as Castile, Colm's right-hand henchman, is more than a passing nod to the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, even if he doesn't quite have Tucker's genius for the well-placed expletive. Jonathan Slinger as Richard has a pudgy, bespectacled softness that belies the monster beneath, and Helen Schlesinger's Catherine is a study in chilly, chain-smoking ambition.

As for what the suits were arguing about, I'm fairly sure that Belize was significant. Something very bad was going down in Belize. Belize, you understand, was Bad News. But no matter as to the detail, for it becomes clear that the real news is unfolding back at the office, where the backstabbing and sniping, in a wildly metamorphic stroke, become literal: seriously, with armies and everything. Catherine and Richard swap one uniform for another and are now generals of two rival military factions, razing all before them. This is just too much to swallow. To lift a line from the play, "No, no, no, no, no!"

Baulk and boggle as we might at this leap from corporate to state, let us at least grant it a certain nightmarish logic. The casual cruelties of "culling" the bottom 15 percent of the workforce now translate to real deaths, and are subject to a grisly inflation. If nothing else, Kelly points out the inherent violence of much "business is war" speak, but it's certainly not enough of an insight to string out for half the play.

I had high hopes -- you see how I was gamely warming to the theme here -- that the air-conditioning grilles of the office scenes would be ripped open by hordes of crawling commandos, or by rampant vegetation reclaiming the space after the apocalypse. Sadly, this never quite happened, although a couple of the vents did get politely broken. Meanwhile, and more interestingly, Colm is left out in the cold; the exiled king in the wasteland. Jeremy Irons has taken up residence under the sad, institutional tree, which now doubles as the blasted heath. Again, the staging slightly disappoints: the gravel proves to be something of a mood killer, as the bucolic scenes are accompanied by a less than bucolic scrunching throughout.

The final act has Colm painstakingly wooing the daughter of a competitor that he had once finished off. The lovely Barbara, played by Joanna Horton, does eventually concede forgiveness, and the changing relationship between them is genuinely touching. There is a certain doe-eyed fragility to Irons that lends itself well to the newly vulnerable Colm, scourged by disaster, purified by nature. Their attempts to eke out the good life from squirrels, acorns and sheep have a wistful absurdity about them, and there are times when Irons looks like a Beckett clown as he struggles to fully participate in hunter-gatherer activities: "I could hold things. One always needs someone to hold things."

Kelly's script is a masterclass in refusing the big moment or the tragic scene, and the cast handles the colloquial redundancies and repetitions of the text well -- including all the marvelously gratuitous swearing -- as the actors splice pathos with bathos: "Inside I cried my lungs out. Outside I carried on eating the lamb." And the range of the play is breathtaking: Lear, with bits of Macbeth thrown in for good measure; profiteering big business; personal redemption; lyrical wonder at the cosmos. Over-reaching, probably. Over-long -- definitely.

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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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