Interview with Curious Incident's Joseph Ayre
Twenty-two-year-old Joseph Ayre has found himself in an enviable position. After just graduating East 15 drama school where he has spent the past four years training, he recently opened as the lead role of Christopher Boone in the National Theatre's long-running and highly successful production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Seen by audiences in London and New York, the production is one of the most successful modern plays, and continues to bring in diverse audiences at the Gielgud Theatre.
Originally from Hull, the West End dream has come true faster than he had ever imagined. “I literally have no CV” Joseph laughs as we speak in the bowels of the Gielgud following a gruelling tech rehearsal. “It reads Joseph Ayre, trained at East 15. Blank. One of my colleagues Matt constantly reminds me “it's downhill from here mate”. I could go on to be in great plays in great venues, but in terms of the character, he [Christopher] is the absolute centre of the play, he's the lead lead. It's a crazy big undertaking.”
Joe hasn't had too much time to absorb the news, going straight from drama school into rehearsals for the production and opening the show in a matter of week. “It's insane” he laughs. “I know I've been very lucky because there hasn't been a gap. I've not had time to get rusty because I've gone straight into this, I can apply everything I've learned into what I'm doing.” With record numbers of actors graduating from top drama schools every year, it's not only rare to book a show, but for many it's even a challenge getting signed by an agency. “The first audition my agent called me with was for this”, Joe explains. “I took it as a nice validation that my agent was really good. I won't get this one, I thought, I was just pleased it was for such a high profile play. It was recall after recall, and then I found out I got the role, and then I was in rehearsal. There was no time to go crazy.”
Totally aware of the uniqueness of his position I ask Joseph if this early success worries him, as unlike many of his contemporaries he hasn't yet felt 'the struggle' associated with out-of-work actors attempting to get jobs in an overly saturated market. “That has worried me sometimes”, he answers pensively. “I think in one respect it has helped me because during that 'struggle' you must get to a point where you think 'is this for me, is it even a possibility'. I know now that I can get a role – from now on I won't ever say that I can't do it.” It's a win for the north, I joke, boding over our northern routes [and accents] that can frequently hold actors back. “I was always told throughout drama school by the industry that I'd be the northern guy, and then if you manage to get a career then you can experiment. Even in the first audition they said don't try the accent, then I added it. It's not even been a consideration I think – it's really nice to know that we can get some roles from the southerners”.
Joseph talks about the specifics of his training and what has prepared him directly for this role in a very unique production. “At East 15 even if we did plays like Macbeth we were always taught about the ensemble” he explains. “No one is higher or lower than anyone else, Macbeth is just as important in the play as the Porter is, everyone is on a level. That teamwork has really helped in a play like this. Even though Christopher has something like 70% of the lines – every scene he's involved in – every single person is so important in this play, it's not about you, it's about the team and how you fit in. That was the biggest thing for me. It's nice to get the name out there for East 15 – I loved it there, I wouldn't be here without it. Not just in terms of connections, but how to work with lines, how to work on scenes and how to deal with other actors. How to keep your discipline and work ethic. Every time I panic or get worried I go back to what I've learned. It's amazing.”
Of all the plays running in London, Curious Incident certainly looks the most fun to be apart of. Bunny Christie's incredible set design is second to none, and the audiences react at every performance to the way space is used. I can only imagine how exciting and terrifying the show is to rehearse. “It goes from gruelling to fun!” Joseph laughs. “I was never really a physical theatre kind of guy – I always thought I'd be stood on the side of the stage in a Chekhov with a cigarette. Frantic Assembly were so good at giving you that confidence – they'd say just 'go for it, flip off that wall, just try it out'. It's so much fun, playing Christopher and being cheeky is really good fun. You can kind of say what you want and you can get away with it – it's been such a laugh. The hardest part of it was not physically difficult – I'm quite self conscious and I have a lot of anxiety, I just wanted to keep up with them and not make mistakes. I really wanted to not let the rest of the team down and that was difficult for me.”
In seeing the show recently I couldn't get over the reaction from the audience towards Christopher, especially with so many young people and students in attendance. I ask Joseph's opinion on why the play continues to be so successful. “The original book is so good, and to have someone like Simon Stephens adapt it – you're onto a winner already” he replies. “I think it's so well married, the movement and the dialogue. You can't help but like Christopher, no matter how much patience you have, you can't help wanting him to do well. He's so relatable because he can't relate to anyone. I think everyone when they watch Christopher finds one thing they relate to, and then instantly you're on his side. You can feel it in the audience when you first go out – they laugh in a strange way, and by the end of the play you can feel that they're with you and that they love you.”
Part of the success of both the play and character is the fact that Stephens never labels Christopher as having a specific 'condition', he is never 'boxed in' as a character that allows audiences to have their own relationship with him. “I think that's a very important aspect” Joseph agrees. “I think if I go down that route, trying to play autism or Asperger's, it loses some of its resonance. The whole play is about difference. The people he meets in the play don't judge him as having a particular condition, they meet him as being different. I think the play is trying to get at that point as opposed to a specific condition. You think it is said but it never is – there are hints, but I think it's good if you come out thinking it has been said – the point has been made, you absorb it organically and it gives the audience a more natural way in”.
Despite having only been with the company for the past month, Joseph talks a lot about what he has learnt in such a short space of time. “Playing Christopher has given me a new patience about people”, he confirms, “if I ever do a normal play it'll feel so easy! It's a weird first play to do, it has certainly felt like a trial by fire”. As well as taking away a fantastic first West End credit, Joseph talks about the methods involved in bringing the role to life. “Strong and Wrong was our mantra” he explains. “Do it wrong the first time, but do it strong. It'll make you do something. That's something I got from drama school – always be doing something to the other actor, it's not about you, it's about what you're trying to do to them. It forces you to make a choice and that choice makes you make decisions. That's a motto I'm definitely going to carry forward.”
It seems disingenuous to ask about the future, given that Joseph has literally just started performances and is committed to the production for a year, but I'm interested in hearing what roles or type of theatre makes him tick, and what the future could possibly hold following such an incredible opportunity. “I'm a massive Shakespeare fan” he replies without taking a beat. “I really like most Shakespeare I see, but often they are really cleanly accented, very refined performances. I'd loved to be in a northern Shakespeare - I don't think his language should be so refined – he was a dirty bugger, he was all about sex and fighting!”
Whether the future hold Shakespeare on its cards or not, the future is certainly bright for Joseph who will always have the accolades associated with being in a top West End show. “I haven't really had chance to stop and think about the fact that I'm playing the lead in Curious Incident in the West End” he ponders before preparing to meet the rest of the cast for a pre-warm up on stage game of volleyball. “It's been work work work, get the lines in, rehearse and then open in the show. Now is where I've been reflecting and thinking “oh my god – this is mad”. It's been so much fun, I feel so lucky every day.”