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Double Olivier Award-winning actor Conleth Hill has acquired a diverse fan base throughout his career and remains a much loved West End actor following appearances in productions such as Quartermaine's Terms, The Producers and his breakout stage role in the original Irish, London and New York companies of Marie Jones' acclaimed hit Stones in His Pockets. Equally at home on stage as he is on a film set, the Northern Irish actor has since gained a significant following thanks to his recurring role as as 'Varys' in HBO series 'Game of Thrones'.
“The stage is where I started” he comments, as we speak mid-rehearsal for a new London revival of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in which he's playing George opposite Imelda Staunton's Martha. “I wasn't one of those actors who came out of drama school and went into a big movie or a series. I was working away for a good ten years before Stones in His Pockets came along which I guess introduced me to the West End theatre-going public.”
Returning to the West End following his previous run at the Wyndham's Theatre in 2013 in which he starred in Simon Gray's Quartermaine's Terms, Hill was delighted to be offered the role in this highly anticipated revival. “I knew of his work” he comments, referencing the late Edward Albee who died in 2016 at the age of 88, “but I'd never actually read the entire play or seen it, it was all new to me when I first read it. I think it's brilliant writing, I read it once but then I wouldn't read it again until I was approved by Albee to play George as I thought there was no point breaking my heart and not doing it.”
I wonder if there's something quite humbling knowing that this latest production was the last major revival Albee would come to know, especially having had to be approved for the role by the writer himself. “Yeah” he replied in a darkly comic tone that befits the humour of the play itself, “well as long as I didn't finish him and it was the news of my casting that finished him off. Yes, it was nice.”
Conleth has previously worked with Imelda Staunton who is taking on the explosive role of Martha in this new production, directed by James Macdonald. “I think it was probably Imelda who suggested me” he comments, “although I'm not 100% sure but we have worked together on Victoria Wood and we both thought we should find something that we could do together. Late last year I got a phone call asking if I would be interested in it with Imelda and I said of course I would.”
Coming to the play having never seen it, either on stage or in film, I wondered what aspect of George's character first struck Conleth and continues to delight him in rehearsal. “His intellect is so sharp” he explains. “He's not an achiever in any kind of worldly sense of the world but he's definitely a smart guy and a clever guy. That's his weapon, his intellect.” Rather than get bogged down in Albee's world or the context of the play Conleth chooses to focus primarily on the text itself to find the character. “That's all the audience has got and that's all you've got to tell that story with” he explains. “Most of the jobs I've done over the years, it's been the script more than anything, more than the people involved or the money. If it's a good play then it's hard to resist.”
As an evening of theatre Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? certainly makes demands on the audience, and I can only imagine how difficult that level of intensity is to maintain for all four characters throughout each of the tightly wound acts.
“James [Macdonald] has paced it very well so by next week we'll be running the whole play a few times before tech” he explains, talking about the rehearsal process to date. “He's in charge of the pace of work and how we're approaching it, and so far so good. We won't really know until we've ran through it a few times but it's certainly one of the hardest things I've ever done in terms of lines and similarity of the lines and the repetition. I like the whole evening, it's probably not conducive to light hearted banter – it's almost like dinner with the Macbeths”.
Despite these demands Conleth confirms that it's certainly a play that audiences will enjoy, those coming to it for the first time as well as those who know the piece very well. That said, his own theatrical taste finds an appetite for new work and new writing.
“I have to say I love new plays because you don't know anything about them. As an audience, I love to know nothing or where it's going and having to listen to the story. It's not like movies or television, the audience are required to engage somewhat. That's certainly what would appeal to me as an audience goer, to let it just happen”.
Albee's work has a unique and interesting history having gone from being denied the Pulitzer Prize due to its content to being derided at its first outing for focusing on “morbidity and sexual perversity”. The play is now seen to be one of the greatest 20th century classics and regarded as a piece of high literature aside from just a powerful play. I ask Conleth why he thinks 2017 feels right to revive it in the West End.
“Well his untimely death is a good enough reason if nothing else” he comments. “Also the state of uncertainly in America with the new President, all of those factors I think make it a good time to revive it. When it was written it was a time of change, we seem to be in a time of change now. That was certainly the appeal to me – it's so good at studying society, academia, politics with a small p. How young people won't take advice even though older people give it to them, but they know better. There's just so much in it.”
Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre from 22 February to 27 May 2017.