With his new play, Antigone, previewing at the National’s Olivier Theatre from next week, former Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston tells Dominic Cavendish why theatre means so much to him.
Christopher Eccleston will appear in Antigone at the National’s Olivier Theatre
By Dominic Cavendish
7:00AM BST 16 May 2012
Were he to suspend me by the ankles off the concrete battlements of the National Theatre, crying “For the love of Larry, I want to do more theatre!”, I couldn’t get the message more loudly and clearly from Christopher Eccleston.
Though we know him best for his high-calibre British TV and screen work – whether it’s his breakthrough performances in Jude, Shallow Grave and Our Friends in the North or, more recently, as the first in the new batch of Time Lords on Doctor Who – the man himself is quite adamant. Eccleston won’t be happy with the way his career has panned out unless he treads the boards a lot more.
“I’ve neglected theatre,” he says, quiet certainty matched by emphatic vigour, his Salford accent pressing flinty personality into the words. “That’s a shame. It’s why I went to train as an actor. And for the next 20 or 30 years I’m going to do more and more of it. That’s the plan. I’m determined!”
He flashes me the sort of determined look I imagine will come in very handy when he plays Creon in Polly Findlay’s new NT production of Sophocles’s Antigone. The autocratic Theban king refuses to hear the pleas and humane arguments of his niece when he refuses burial for her treacherous dead brother Polynices and sets on punishing her.
There’s a quality of steadfastness about Eccleston, 48, both in person and as exhibited in many of his performances, that looks like the perfect fit for a ruler who invites gathering outrage at his remorseless intransigence, conducted in the name of the state. “I’ve played a lot of conflicted men,” the actor says, with some understatement.
For all the willing and wanting to get back into theatre – his last major outing was 10 years ago as Hamlet at the West Yorkshire Playhouse – the National job came out of the blue. It might almost have been heaven-sent, because this was the theatre where he started out. He appeared in fleeting roles in a Shared Experience show, Abingdon Square, that transferred to the Cottesloe, and Martin Sherman’s Bent, at the Lyttelton, in the 1980s. Earlier in that decade, he was a young usher. The job helped him pay his way through drama school, and opened his eyes.
“I was an impressionable student and I’ll never forget seeing Anthony Hopkins as Lambert Le Roux (in Pravda) and Ian McKellen playing Coriolanus,” he says. “I had a really extraordinary experience of seeing Hopkins dominate the Olivier then eat beans on toast in the canteen. That was fascinating – seeing the transition, the quietness of him, then the hugeness of him in the same day. What solidified in my mind was the thought, 'If you play a big classical role on the Olivier stage, you can go no higher in British theatre.’ The Olivier was where I always wanted to work.” He gives a grin. “Thirty years later, that’s been realised.”
Although he only set upon becoming an actor while retaking his O-levels, he displayed early thespian leanings, he reveals. “I was a real mix as a school-kid,” he recalls. “I was obsessed with playing football, but I also spent a great deal of time on my own being Sean Connery’s James Bond. And I used to be a character called Old Man in the Rain. When it rained, I’d sit on this old fishing basket, and pretend I was this old fellow looking out over his life.”
His parents – his father worked as a warehouseman – backed the youngest of their three sons when he announced that he wanted to become an actor. “They were mightily relieved, because they had no idea what I was going to do – it was so left-field, they said, 'That actually makes sense.’ ”
Having discovered his vocation, he read everything he could about “the greats – Richardson, Gielgud, Olivier. For me on a council estate they were larger than life. The way they voraciously played the classical roles – that’s what I wanted.”
There’s a warmth to Eccleston in person that sometimes hasn’t translated to public perceptions of him. In conversation, he often cracks open wide smiles – and declares a secondary unfulfilled ambition to do more comedy. He’s in awe of the way Olivier could play Oedipus and Mr Puff (in Sheridan’s The Critic) on the same day.
Some of his facility for comedy was evident in the grinning eccentricity he brought to Doctor Who. But that only lasted a series. And puzzlement continues as to why he left before he had a chance to own the role.
When prodded to speak further about this, he is amicably terse. “I know what went on and the people who were involved know what went on – that’s good enough for me.”
He half-smiles, half-grimaces. “My conscience is completely clear. I’ve lived my life, particularly my working life, on the basis that I have to be able to look at myself in the mirror about the way I behave. It wasn’t a bold move, it was an entirely natural one. I’m hugely grateful to the children who to this day come up and talk to me about the show.”
His TV career has shown no sign of a let-up since that departure. Later this year, he stars in a new drama (provisionally called The Fuse) in which he plays a local politician and recovering alcoholic whose ascendant career is haunted by the spectre of a past murder.
“It’s quite Greek in a way,” he reflects. “It’s a why-dunnit rather than a who-dunnit – the audience are ahead of the character.” It’s topical, too. “We’re obsessed with politicians at the moment, and quite rightly.”
Creon is cut from the same cloth, the politician who over-reaches himself. Might Antigone, which originated almost two and a half thousand years ago, be a play for today, too?
“Absolutely. This will have strong resonances,” he affirms. “Creon has a failure of the imagination. The central argument in Antigone is the same as the one you might have had with George W Bush. America had an opportunity to assume moral gravitas in the world by not reacting [after 9/11]. That idea is central to this play.” He pauses. “You can’t revenge yourself on a corpse.”
'Antigone’ previews at the National’s Olivier Theatre (020 7452 3000) from May 23, as part of the Travelex £12 season