Interview with Britten in Brooklyn star Ryan Sampson

This September the world premiere of Zoe Lewis' play Britten in Brooklyn will run in London in the stunning environment of Wilton's Music Hall in east London. Based on true events, this passionate and thought-provoking play explores the bohemian lifestyle of Benjamin Britten, WH Auden, Carson McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee who are living in an artistic community in Brooklyn during the Second World War. As composer Benjamin Britten finds himself exiled to America for his beliefs he finds his conflicted political ideals constantly challenged alongside a hedonistic lifestyle of constant parties and doomed affairs.

Directed by Oli Rose the cast includes Ruby Bentall (Carson McCullers), David Burnett (John Dunne), Sadie Frost (Gypsy Rose Lee), John Hollingworth (WH Auden) and Ryan Sampson who plays the central role of Benjamin Britten.

We caught up with the 'Plebs' and 'After You've Gone' actor to hear more about the production and his methods at creating such a unique and challenging role on stage.

David Burnett, Ryan Sampson, John Hollingworth
(photo Darren Bell)

Dom O'Hanlon: What drew you to Britten in Brooklyn and the character of Benjamin Britten?

Ryan Sampson: The character is really interesting – I like a bit of his music anyway, I've listened to a few pieces over the years. Then you read up on him and realise he had a very interesting life and he was quite an odd man. Some bits of which are outside of the realm of this play, but there are some really unusual aspects to his character and his life.

DOH: What's it like being in a production at Wilton's Music Hall? How does the piece respond to the space?

RS: It's such a beautiful place, I thought it would be so harmonious for the play to be here. It's all set in a great brownstone mansion, so there's a great deal of synergy, the link between the text and the space. It's like the world of the play and the theatre has no boundaries, one flows into the other amazingly actually. Sometimes when we're talking about this incredible crumbling house and someone touches some plaster along the edge of the stage and you just think – this is it, the room that they're staring into it's really beautiful actually, it's very rare to have that feeling, it's quite immersive in that respect.

DOH: How has Zoe Lewis approached telling this unique story in a theatrical way? Do you find it more of a character sketch than a direct narrative?

RS: In a way, it's not narrative driven – it doesn't tie up nicely at the end as such. For me at least it's very character driven but there is a nice arc throughout it. Her dialogue is so particular, sometimes you feel everyone is speaking in subtext and it's sometimes interesting to hear what the characters are saying and what they actually mean under the surface, what they're hinting at. In that sense it's very atmospheric rather than narrative driven. It's not abstract but you feel the oddness about everyone playing against what is really going on. The world is at war in the background, conscription and such - and they have all these different ideas going on. For me it's a play that benefits knowing about the context of these characters before you see it, because I didn't know much about their life. There are certain lines for example people saying “why don't we all just spout random opinions about things because that's the fashion, that's what we're all doing anyway, we're all just saying anything to cover up the fact we don't know what's going on”. There's a panic, that sort of assertive way similar to Noel Coward that's controversial and rakish where people are talking at odds with what they're feeling or what is actually happening.

DOH: The play features a string of conflicting personalities – is it a difficult juggling act to keep the piece and the personalities balanced?

RS: My character has a strong opposite drive to the rest of them. You've got these people who are incredibly hedonistic and he is more reluctant but ends up being drawn into it, so for me that's much easier I think. When you break it down in terms of the other characters in it, they're all decadent and have different extremities. For example you've got Carson McCullers, she's very contrary and oppositional, going against the grain and rubbing people up the wrong way because she has a chip on her shoulder. She refers to herself as a cripple and a lesbian so that stays with her and drives her character quite a lot. Then Gypsy Rose Lee has a very different manner – more 'here's who I am, I take my clothes off, what of it?' They've all got their very different niches.

DOH: What has been your particular 'way in' as an actor getting inside the character of Benjamin Britten?

RS: I don't know if it's that straightforward really. What I always do is first go through the script and see everything that someone else says about the character and what the character says about themselves. As you go through it you realise he's a man who is riddled with guilt, guilt about his sexuality and guilt about him not contributing to the war effort in his own country. When you place that guilt a lot of the lines make more sense to you, not sense maybe, they just chime with you. I've only realised quite late on that he's doing anything he can to get away from it. There are hints here and there about how he feels about the outside world and how much he's trying to get away from it, but as an actor I think that's something you need to find for yourself and then bed it in and work from there.

DOH: Do you find it easier or more restricting to play a historical character rather than one of complete fiction?

RS: I don't really think it's much use playing anything that isn't on the page, unless it's something that is either very pertinent or something that everyone knows anyway. If you're playing Benjamin Britten you're not beholden to a lot of things, people don't know a great deal about how he walked or how he spoke, so I don't feel incredibly tied to that sort of thing. If you're playing someone who everyone knows – Michael Sheen in Frost/Nixon for example – then the audience knows exactly what they are expecting. If I tried that with Britten it would belie the play a little bit and I don't think it's completely necessary as people aren't familiar with him as they are with his work.

Ryan Sampson and John Hollingworth
(photo Darren Bell)

DOH: How much research did it take – do you stick just to the script or do you look beyond?

RS: For me it's what the script says. I've tied myself in knots with this before. Unless you're going to see it on the stage, unless it influences something on the stage it can be unhelpful. I would rather look at stuff and discard it if it's not of any use. Mostly it's like any other play, if it's there for you on the page you can work it out, but if it's other stuff it's not always helpful to know what size house he's living in that year and so on – I find that stuff all a bit extraneous really.

DOH: Of all the characters which have you enjoyed discovering more about?

RS: Carson McCullers – her interviews on the internet are just so eccentric. They're so ballsy for the time, really bohemian so that's been really interesting for me. Gypsy Rose Lee you sort of know where you're going to go with that one, but Carson is quite special – Ruby has doe a ton of research on the character.

DOH: Britten has been quite a feature of much theatrical discovery, what new elements does this play add to his character?

RS: It's about him escaping his life for a while and being blocked as a writer, escaping to America and in the chaos of that finding himself and going back to England. Although it's quite a small interlude it's really interesting for a person to go through that in front of you. He's so straight laced and conformist and to see him in this hedonistic world is what she's illuminating.

DOH: As a play it's about a very specific time and place. Do you think it still manages to speak to a contemporary audience?

RS: The bonkers thing about it is I've probably never done a play that chimes so much with the moment. It's a play about people joining or being in opposition to a big social swing towards the rise of a political right-wing movement which we're really feeling now. It feels like you could very easily have subtitles that say “look – this is what is going on in the moment” and it wouldn't feel strange. It's interesting to see people in the run up to the Second World War, similar now to Donald Trump and the BNP side of British politics, but it's really weird to see people in a domestic situation reacting to that in the same way we do now. Firstly we dismissed Nigel Farage as a joke, taking him apart a bit in private, but then the threat begins to grow. Everyone in the world of the play has a level of simmering anxiety within them which is something people have within them now, you can feel it, the temperature of society at the moment it feels very similar to the world of the play. It's interesting as you've got this group of people and a lot of it feels like idle chatter, but there's a lot going on under the surface which is the same context we have going on now, the rolling boil of anxiety.

Britten in Brooklyn runs at Wilton's Music Hall from 31 August to 17 September 2016.

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