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American actor Matthew Maher has not only had the pleasure of starring in Annie Baker's 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Flick on both sides of the Atlantic throughout three different runs, but also has the pleasure of knowing that his character 'Sam' was written specifically for him. Following two productions in New York, the hit play has transferred to the National's Dorfman Theatre where it officially opened last week to strong reviews once again.
I meet Matt at the National's Stage Door directly following a matinee. Having seen the production just two nights before, I'm aware of the weight of the play that must feel like a marathon for any actor, given the run time of around 3 hours 15 minutes. I half expect him to be fully exhausted, having just finished a gruelling week that's included the official press night. “It's not tiring!” he laughs as we meet, “it's just 'durational'...the only thing that's tiring is just the actual amount of time that you have to be present. It's so long to have people looking at you, especially on a two show days – I feel like I have a part time job as a movie usher...”
Like his character, Matt is relaxed and extremely easy to speak to. Sitting in the Dorfman bar whilst the National's tech team change the set, we're both in awe at how the space manages to transform into a completely different production. “I kinda wanna look but I'm scared it'll be like staring into an alternative reality” he laughs. "This building is like an optical illusion – it's like an Escher painting.” Whilst the physical structure of the National Theatre is certainly something that confuses even the most frequent visitor the work that's going on behind every door is also something that takes many, especially Americans, by surprise. With a lack of non-profit theatres in New York and practically no public funding for the Arts, I'm keen to hear Matt's instant impressions of London's most valued theatre space. “It's insane!” he replies instantly. “That's why I wanted to come out here. To have a place that's not for profit that's about the artists and about the work and to have the resources, everything you'd want in a theatre all in one building – it's just amazing. There's nothing like it in New York, there are institutions that are trying to be like this, but in America art is just not valued in the same way.”
I'm interested to see that The Flick is co-produced in London by Scott Rudin, one of Broadway's most formidable commercial producers and EGOT winner behind hits such as 'The Book of Mormon'. I ask if that's made a change to the production or not. “I'm not necessarily interested in being in a commercially successful play” Matt replies honestly. “It's not what I look for, because if it's what you do look for you'll be disappointed. Most commercially successful plays are really really boring. I would rather see a movie. Whereas plays that are interesting that are taking risks are more fun to be in, more fun to watch, and attract an audience that I'm more interested in connecting with. To kill yourself you want to work with people who are really cool. That's my whole ethos working in theatre, trying to work with people who I really admire – people who are changing things.”
“In Boston and Massachusetts there is a culture that's very divided against itself and very discontent” he explains. “The thing that The Flick gets at is the massive under-served working class and the lack of communication between different types of people. In NYC you'd never have two people not understand how racism could take a part in someone's firing – Rose and Sam just know at a base level that racism is bad, they don't really understand how it all works. And then there's someone like Avery who is middle class and wouldn't understand at all why Rose and Sam just couldn't quit their jobs. That's a very human, American thing – but it rings true of Massachusetts. There's a lot of race differences and class differences and you have these people of different classes sliding up against each other in a slightly awkward way.”
A lot is left unsaid in The Flick, and part of the play's strength and power is how Baker manages to say so much with relatively few lines of dialogue, for a play of that length. My main questions is about the rehearsal period, and how director Sam Gold managed to shape and channel such incredibly natural performances. “We had three weeks” Matt answers, “and we did almost no work on the script, the script was 97% done when we started. It was about learning about the timing – how to manage the pauses, learning the blocking, the choreography, everything. Once you start blocking a show you start to realise that everything gets choreographed. Every single moment that happens on stage. 'It' or a variation of 'it' happens exactly the same every night. It's a very tightly conceived play – it's not loose. Even if I'm not engaged I feel my body doing the same thing – look over there, now I'm sad etc. It's all in our bodies. It doesn't need to be thought through”.
The acting style is extremely specific and also very unique to this style of play. I tell Matt I've never sat in such a silent auditorium, with an audience so focused on the pauses and the moments of stillness. “I think London theatre audiences are so trained” he responds, “everybody in the audience has seen a shit-load of other plays. It's not always the case in America. I could be wrong but I feel that the audience is responding to the sense of rigour. Nothing here is accidental. Every moment has been designed in a certain way, and I feel like audiences respond to that. When audiences really click into that it's great.”
I can't help feel that this style of acting must be quite counter-intuitive, and I press Matt for more examples of how director Sam Gold managed to strike the right tone and level of performance required. “I think he emphasised rhythm. He emphasised timing.” Matt replies. “We didn't really discuss the psychology of the characters very much. I can only really remember one discussion about Sam's psychology, when we were discussing the scene over table work and Sam Gold said “I think he has a difficult relationship with his Mom. It was things like 'don't worry too much', 'don't act too much', 'you're sad and miserable but don't play it here'.”
As impressive as that hyper-natural style of acting is, I wondered if it was something that has always been met with positivity by audiences. “We were curious about how this would go over because it feels very 'American'” he replies. “It's like a photo negative of acting values. Mark Rylance is my idol – I love doing acting like that. But Jerusalem was about “we're big people and we're here” and they take over the whole space. With The Flick it's the inverse, you have to bring people in to you. You have to reign them in and make yourself as big as the theatre. You want everyone in the space to come to you – it's some energy thing where you have to reach out to all of them but not bring them, invite them. In another play you can just go out and be “I'm talking to you people up in the balcony”. But you can't do that here, you've got to do it physically. Some people love that, and the people who do – really love it.”
London audiences and critics it seems have certainly responded to this toned down approach, and as I wish Sam best of luck for the rest of the run, I can't help wonder if it's a style we will begin to see more of in the West End. It may be a marathon of a play, but it's a wholly fulfilling and thought provoking experience.