Fresh from waving goodbye to Poldark, John Hollingworth talks to Love London Love Culture about his latest role in The Norman Conquests, playing at the Chichester Festival Theatre from the 18th September.
Hi John, could you start by telling me a little bit more about The Norman Conquests?
Certainly! The Norman Conquests are a trilogy of plays by Alan Ayckbourn. The tree plays are Table Manners, Living Together and Round and Round the Garden and they can be seen in any order. The plays all take place over one long summer’s weekend – Saturday through to Monday – in a country house in Sussex. Each play is set in one location – the dining room, the living room and the garden respectively – and moves through the weekend chronologically, starting on Saturday, then moving to Sunday and finishing on a Monday. Norman tries to seduce all the women in the house over the same weekend – with hilarious results. Ayckbourn is brilliant at farce – people talking at cross purposes, mis-timed entrance and exits, slapstick encounters – but he also nails the desperation of these six people marooned in a crumbling country house with nothing to eat for a long weekend as they face up to the difficult truths of their various relationships. That’s what’s most rewarding about playing it – moments of high farce suddenly descend into rather poignant and moving moments of self-discovery.
You’re playing Tom in the show – could you tell me a little bit more about him and how he fits into the plays?
Tom is the tongue-tied and eccentric neighbourhood vet who’s deeply in love with Norman’s youngest sister-in-law Annie – played by the very brilliant Jemima Rooper. He knows the family of old and is very familiar with the house but dreads the arrival of the rest of Annie’s very dysfunctional family. He’s great fun to play because he often struggles to say what he means and has a tendancy to misunderstand everything that is said to him. He’s perpetually set-up with Annie by various family members which becomes increasingly awkward and the opposite of helpful – again great fun to play.
Do you find it challenging to be part of three plays all at once in terms of learning scripts?
It has been a monster to learn, yes. We were fortunate to rehearse at the excellent Jerwood Space in Southwark for seven weeks before moving down to Chichester and we all basically ended up living there running lines with each other. The size of the thing helps though in a funny way – we all knew we were taking on a beast and everyone’s put their lives on hold until we’ve halfway chained it down. It helps that it’s an absolute joy to play and the preview audiences are loving it and roaring it along. It’s sort of like boxed-set theatre – you can see all three shows in a day – and that’s unique for us as actors and audiences as well. The more they see the plays the more they laugh at different bits – putting it together with a scene in another play that becomes even funnier when you learn what came before it.
Is there anything in particular that you are looking forward for audiences to see in the production?
Well apart from the fruits of our hard labour I’d have to say – the set. It really is an absolute stunner – if we had a curtain to raise it might get a round before any of us has set a foot on stage! Simon Higlett – our designer – is a Chichester veteran and convinced them to stage the thing in the round which has been transformative. The three sets are wonderfully realistic and depending on which side the audience sit they get privileged access to particular moments between us all as actors. It makes a notoriously large space very playable and astonishingly intimate.
What attracted you most about taking part in the production?
To be honest – everything. A wonderful part, a brilliant director, fantastic material that manages to be both funny and moving by turns, the best creative team you could wish for and the most talented bunch of actors you could want to embark on such a perilous journey with. It’s also a really exciting time to be at Chichester with Daniel Evans and Rachel Tackley at the helm.
Having loved Captain Henshawe in Poldark it came as a massive shock when you left- how are you feeling about not being part of the show now?
Thank you. It’s hard! I won’t say it’s not. It was very odd to see everyone tweeting about the read-through for the new series and not be involved. Tristan Sturrock – who plays Zacky Martin and takes over from Henshawe as mine Captain – sent me some pictures of his new costume. We were joking that he’d take all Henshawe’s best gear off him. He’s certainly come up in the world in the new series! Very nice shoe leather. It was a lovely family to be part of – but so is The Norman Conquests company so I’m not complaining. I’m deeply grateful to Debbie Horsfield – the brilliant writer behind Poldark – for growing Henshawe beyond the source material in the books and for writing such a strong send-off. The response from fans of the show was really overwhelming. It was moving to see how much folk had come to like the guy.
In terms of future roles – is there any role that you would love to play?
Well I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I had an eye on Jack in Dominic Dromgoole’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest next year! In casting terms he feels like a sort of cousin to Tom in The Norman Conquests. If I could flick a switch and play a role tomorrow it would be Von Pfunz in Moira Buffini’s excellent and neglected 1996 play Gabriel. I played the role at RADA and am now old enough to play it in the real world. Matthew Byam-Shaw has the rights to it and has been close to getting it cast but for various reasons it has never quite got over the line. There’s also a tonne of directors I’d love to work for – Lyndsey Turner, Rob Icke, Caroline Steinbeis, Nadia Fall, Jude Christian, Ellen McDougall – too many to mention really.
After The Norman Quests, have you got any future projects lined up?
I’ve got a few projects coming out in the coming months. I’ve a couple of episodes of Doc Martin coming out in autumn – playing a tutor who takes a shine to Louisa, Martin’s wife. Then there’s a Radio Four drama Wild Honey – Michael Frayn’s adaptation of Chekhov’s Platonov – in which I thoroughly enjoyed playing Sergey to David Tennant’s excellent Platonov. I also filmed a Thomas Vinterberg film called Kursk – about the sinking of that submarine back in 2000 – opposite Colin Firth which is due out next year. Both Colin and Thomas were unbelievably good to work with. I was lucky to sign with a great manager in LA last year and have enjoyed spending some time over there. At the moment there’s nothing definite lined up after Chichester – fingers crossed!
Huge thank you to John for taking the time to answer these questions. The Norman Conquests are now playing at the Chichester Festival Theatre until the 28th October. For more information and to book tickets visit: https://www.cft.org.uk/