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Ben Turner is best known for playing Staff Nurse Jay Faldren for three years in BBC1’s hit serial drama Casualty. Having previously played the lead role of Amir in the stage production of Khaled Hosseini’s internationally bestselling novel The Kite Runner at the Nottingham Playhouse and on UK tour, he will return to the role in the West End premiere, running at the Wyndham’s Theatre from 21 December to 11 March 2017.
Having been enjoyed by over 31 million people in 60 languages worldwide this tale of friendship, betrayal and redemption is set in Afghanistan, a divided country on the verge of war where two childhood friends are about to be torn apart. On a beautiful afternoon in Kabul where the skies are full of the excitement and joy of a kite flying tournament, neither Hassan or Amir can foresee the terrible incident which will shatter their lives forever.
We caught up with Ben Turner as rehearsals for the West End transfer got underway to hear more about his journey with the show and its unique appeal in London's West End.
Dom O'Hanlon: Ben, you've played this role before around the UK – how does it feel to finally bring the production to the West End?
Ben Turner: Ah mate, honestly it's a dream come true. I've spent my whole life wanting to come into town and play the lead, I can firmly tick that box off now. I know that London are a tough crowd, it's quite a tough play in a way, it's quite narration heavy and it certainly packs a punch. I just believe in the piece so much I just hope that it's a success and I don't mean that selfishly, I think it's a really important story to tell. I hope to god London get behind it and we sell tickets and the houses appreciate it as much as they did on tour.
DOH: What's it like returning to a role that you've already played as opposed to something brand new?
BT: A lot of the time as an actor you finish a job then a month of two later you have a sort of epiphany and think “that's how I should have said that line” or “that's how I should have reacted”. So in a way it's quite nice to have the benefit of hindsight and return to a role. Every time we do it it seems to get deeper. The book is our bible in a way, but it's a very dense novel so it's hard to put a lot of the book into the play. I think every time we do it it embeds itself somehow in us, even though the lines may not be in the play sometimes you just think it or feel it and it comes across. I love that this play just drops deeper and deeper into my stomach and the same with everyone in the cast I think. Every time we have done it is has got better, I really believe that, and I think this version The Kite Runner 3.0 it'll be the best yet. The script is leaner – we've got rid of a lot of the fluff. It's a lot more active, we've cut some of the narration so hopefully the narrative will really drive forward.
DOH: What was your connection with the story before you got the job? What attracted you to the role?
BT: I read the book and I wept for weeks. When the job came along I didn't really want to do work outside of London – I'd done a lot of tours and I thought it was time for me to be seen doing my work. I read the play and I just thought it was an incredible truthful adaptation and it was incredibly loyal to the book. I saw the film and I had to turn it off, I was not a fan at all. I was worried reading the play and wondering if they were going to cut corners but I was pleasantly surprised. It just got me in the same way that the book did – it's sort of the role of a lifetime in many ways. It's a piece that I love, it's relevant. Afghanistan is a word we read in the paper but we don't really know what it looks like or what's happening over there. What's great about this piece is that it really humanises all of that, yes it's set against war but it's really about family – brothers, fathers and sons and that is universal. I just thought I have to do it. The role is huge – it dwarfs Hamlet – Hamlet Schmamlet! Hamlet is a walk in the park compared to this. I play an 8 year old boy, a 12 year old boy all the way up to 30, it is a monster and I'm all about challenging and pushing myself – I knew I had to take it.
DOH: What was the audience response to the play like on UK Tour, did the themes resonate as you had hoped?
BT: We didn't really know what to expect. The first time we did it was at Nottingham Playhouse and they loved it, but we sort of had to wipe the slate clean when we took it on tour, we didn't want to be sidetracked by the ghosts of audience past. I don't want to jinx it but we were not ready for the response that we had. Pretty much every venue we went to they were up on their feet by the end – that's quite rare. There's no star in this show, there's no Ian McKellen or James McAvoy, the show is the star. To have people on their feet in Edinburgh, Oxford and so on, weeping in the aisles and having to be taken out and consoled by their partners and so on...People with tears in their eyes thanking us for the performance – I'd never experienced anything like it. We rarely break the fourth wall in theatre, but here Amir comes out and so much of it is directly to them, and that's a very scary place to be as an actor, there's really nowhere to hide. After two and half hours of a dense and emotional piece, to be able to hear a feather drop, let alone a pin drop, by the end was just incredible – I've never heard listening like it ever.
DOH: The play is certainly going to be popular with school audiences as the book features on the national curriculum. Does that provide an added pressure knowing that for some audiences this may well be the first play they ever see on stage?
BT: I remember the first time I went to the theatre and how amazing it was. There's something about the power of it that really blew me away. You can't really play that on stage, you can't go on thinking you're going to make the all want to be actor. It changes every night, you have the coach tours of the older crowd who come, that's a different show and when it's full of kids that's a different show. You have to temper your performance depending on what you're getting back. I had to really fight to be an actor, I was very much the black sheep of school, so I'm a big champion of chasing those dreams. If a kid comes to me and says they want to act but their parents or their school frowns upon it, that really gets me. I like to gee them up and explain to them, there's a lot of rose tinted glasses with this profession, people think it's so glamorous, you fly around and get paid a fortune but the reality is that it's bloody hard work and you have to have thick skin. I'm quite keen to give them both sides of the coin, but if it's what they want to do I would champion that and say bloody go for it. That's what I did, I didn't let anybody tell me differently.
DOH: Do you think it's important for a play such as this which is about the middle east to sit in the commercial West End?
BT: I just hope that people make the connection to the book which is one of the best selling books of all time – but also it does feel incredibly current. We first did it four or five years ago and it felt current then, if anything it feels even more current now. As I say what I love about the piece is yes it's political but it doesn't smack you over the head with any of that. We're not preaching about immigration or what happened to Afghanistan when the Russians moved in in the 70s, it does feature in the play but it's not about that. It's an origins story, something that no matter where you're from, the colour of your skin or your background, there's something in it that everyone can relate to. And it's Shakespearian in that respect, it's betrayal, forgiveness, redemption, it's guilt, and I think that is something that's universal. I hope the link that people will make is that we read about Afghanistan but we don't know what it means. Hopefully people will come and see this play and humanise those issues and make the link.
DOH: Your career has largely been moulded by your TV work, do you prefer working on stage?
BT: I started doing theatre - my Dad is an actor, I used to hang out at the RSC aged 8 and 9 and I fell in love with the stage and everything it means. I think that is where my heart is and where it always will be, but the reality is we've got to also make a living. It's about balancing out, dare I say, the money jobs and those which are about the art and the craft of it. I would do theatre forever – I love it. I would love to play some of those big Shakespearian leads next. When you look back later in life it would be so nice to tick those big ones off and also you feel like you're connected to something bigger than just your time on stage. So many greats have played those parts so it would be great to feel connected to that someway.
Ben Turner stars in The Kite Runner at the Wyndham's Theatre from 21 December 2017.