Thursday, October 31, 2013

Stephen Mangan and Matthew Macfadyen: On friendship and Jeeves and Wooster

What ho, it’s all stuff and nonsense
Stephen Mangan and Macfadyen have known each other for nearly 20 years (Picture: Manuel Harlan)

Thursday 31 Oct 2013 6:00 am

‘It’s like trying to do a 1,000-piece jigsaw – you think you’ll never get it.’ Stephen Mangan is preparing to take to the West End stage as disaster-prone aristo Bertie Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, a new farce based on PG Wodehouse’s novels.

‘It’s the most ridiculously complicated plot in the history of theatre!’ he declares of the Goodale brothers’ furiously fast and funny play-within-a-play.

Fortunately, Matthew Macfadyen, playing Bertie’s unflappable valet, is on hand to bring a touch of Jeevesian calm to the situation. ‘It’s exactly like a dance,’ he says. ‘It’s more about having it in your body, a physical memory.’

If you’re going to form a double act with someone, it’s probably a good idea to do it with a friend. Mangan and Macfadyen have known one another for almost 20 years, having been at Rada at the same time and previously worked together on productions of Much Ado About Nothing and Richard Sheridan’s The School For Scandal. ‘Because we know one another well, there wasn’t that: “Will we like each other? Do we have the same sense of humour?” worry before we started rehearsals,’ says Mangan.

Playing such a well-known duo inevitably brings weighty expectations, not least from devotees of the books. Are they connoisseurs of Wodehouse’s novels? ‘I’ve probably read about 15,’ says Mangan. Macfadyen confesses to having managed only one. ‘Three children,’ he proffers by way of explanation.

‘There’s always an anxiety about playing literary characters because one of the great joys of reading books is that you can create your own vision of things,’ says Mangan. ‘Everyone who knows and loves those books will have an idea of what Bertie and Jeeves should look like.’

For audiences raised on the classic early 1990s TV adaptation, of course, they probably look quite a lot like Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Is that hard to compete with?

‘There’s a new Hamlet every eight months in the West End, so hopefully people will be able to cope with another Jeeves and Wooster after 20 years,’ laughs Mangan. ‘I should play Bertie as a depressed Norwegian with a limp. Then people would say: “Wow, look what’s he done with the part!”’

Macfadyen has been in this position before: he played Mr Darcy in the 2005 film version of Pride And Prejudice, which followed in the wake of the popular BBC TV adaptation. ‘Every interview I did I was asked about Colin Firth. I would patiently explain that most actors don’t think: “How am I going to make it different?”’ he says, patiently. ‘You simply can’t work like that. What you think is: “Isn’t it lovely that I’m treading in the same shoes as this lovely actor.”’

Mangan is philosophical about being handpicked for the role of Wooster, who is dismissed as ‘mentally negligible’ by Jeeves in the novels. ‘You’re talking to the man who’s played Adrian Mole and Postman Pat,’ he laughs.

‘Between them, they’re probably the three sexiest characters in the English tradition.’ He adds with mock-solemnity: ‘You think you’re going to grow up to play James Bond but you get offered Bertie Wooster instead.’ Whether he ever gets to play 007 or not, he doesn’t seem too unhappy with his lot.

Though both actors are well-known for their film and TV work, they are clearly relishing the prospect of returning to the theatre. ‘You never hear anybody laugh when you’re filming a TV show or a movie,’ says Mangan. ‘In the theatre, an audience that’s really up for it and generous will get actors giving their best performances. It’s a two-way thing.’


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