Sunday, 22 February 2015

Interview: Joe Bannister, starring in A Mad World My Masters

Joe Bannister is starring as Dick Follywit in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of A Mad World My Masters by Thomas Middleton. 

Presented by English Touring Theatre and directed by Sean Foley (I Can’t Sing/Jeeves and Wooster), A Mad World My Masters tours the country between 26th February and 9th May 2015. 

Joe plays Dick Follywit, having understudied the part in the production’s 2013 run in Stratford-upon-Avon. His other RSC credits include: The Witch of Edmonton, Arden of Faversham, The Roaring Girl and Titus Andronicus. 

Joe also played Colin and Frank in Chariots of Fire (Hampstead/Gielgud), Percy Bysshe Shelley in Bloody Poetry (Jermyn Street) and understudied the roles of Phillip and John in Trevor Nunn’s production of The Lion in Winter (Theatre Royal Haymarket). 

I recently spoke to Joe during a break from rehearsals about why he’s excited to be taking on such an gruelling role, Sean Foley’s amazing brain and why he feels like Gene Kelly… 

When you were approached to play Dick Follywit full time was it an easy ‘yes’? 
Yes – it was an easy yes. It’s just such a good part! When I understudied the part we did an understudy run – a one off performance – which is unlike anything else you get to do because it’s one off and people are playing about seven parts. You don’t really know what you’re doing and are just thrown into it, but I enjoyed the understudy run so much because the play is bonkers! The only danger is it not being as good as my memory is of that day! But yes, it was a very easy decision because it’s such a brilliant and hilarious part. It is all singing and all dancing, which is also terrifying, but it’s an exciting thing to get to do. 

Do you remember what your impressions were back when you first looked at the play? 
I remember being excited about the music, because a lot of fifties songs have been put in. Also, it was hard to picture how it was going to turn out because Sean’s brain is something else. I didn’t get the tone until I saw him directing it, it’s completely out there and you have to go for it. But the main thing for me was the music because I really like to dance… that doesn’t mean I’m good at it [laughs], but I enjoy it. 

It’s set in 1956 Soho which is a different world. How does the piece lure its audience in? 
It’s almost like an imaginary version of fifties Soho, it’s glamorised. Thanks to things like Mad Men the fifties are pretty 'in' right now so you have all the cool suits and dresses and the amazing hair. Soho in the fifties is like a melting pot of quite rich people going to the dark side… then there are loads of criminals and prostitutes all mingling in this weird drunk melting pot. There’s a lot of drinking, money and sex – I think that’s a good way to sum it up [laughs]. 

Joe in rehearsals

How do you think people will come away feeling? It’s going to be quite an experience! 
Hopefully they will be energised! It’s very physical; we will be giving our all and be sweating and dripping. There is a big dance number at the end so they should come out elated having laughed a lot. Ideally their sides will hurt from laughing. As long as we suck them in at the beginning they will be carried along on the journey. 

And how do you think you’ll come away feeling? Is it going to be quite a draining role to do night after night? 
[laughs] Tired but full of adrenaline! In a way rehearsals are the most tiring bit because you’re doing things over and over again. I’m definitely losing weight already which is not a bad thing [laughs]. You become so swept up in it at the time that it’s probably not until the morning after that you feel it. 

Have you enjoyed exploring the role further? 
I think if I get it right the audience will go along with this guy who is a bit of a mess, an egomaniac and slightly insane. I’m enjoying trying to find someone like Withnail from Withnail and I – the kind of over-theatrical, inflated centred self. but really fun. The kind of guy you wouldn’t necessarily like to invite round for tea, but would love to go out with and he would come up with some kind of crazy madcap plan and you would end up in an alleyway at four in the morning having been kicked out a club. He’s not necessarily nice, but hopefully people will care about him. If he’s just not charming then we’re screwed [laughs]! 

What is the vibe like amongst the cast? Like you, are there others who did the show before? 
I think it’s about half and half old and new. There’s another guy Ben Deery (Mr Littledick) who, like me, is playing the part he previously understudied. It has been kind of seamless; everyone has just jumped on board because we have quite a short rehearsal period. From day one we were all thrown into it together and there’s no option other than to go for it. It seems like we all get on well – they always say that if you think everyone’s nice then you’re probably the w****r. You should probably ask someone else in the cast and they may tell you I’m a nightmare [laughs]. 

Joe in rehearsals
How do you feel about touring life? 
It’s my first tour! I don’t know what it’s like! I can’t wait to see all the venues. We all get on well so you kind of feel like a family, which is sort of what I’ve always wanted – to be in a troupe of actors visiting towns. 

You’ve already mentioned that Sean’s brain is something else – what is he like to work with in the rehearsal room? 
What is amazing about Sean is that his brain can immediately work out why something is funny and where the beats go. You might try something and he will go, “great – but try and hit this moment there and put that beat here”. He can see the comic potential in things when you can’t. He’s got a mechanical brain. And he comes from a musical background so there’s a whole other side to acting and he’s a great person to learn that from. 

Are you feeling slightly more confident about the music and dance now? 
[laughs] It does terrify me a little bit, but I do really enjoy it. I think the key is to throw myself into it, then once I’ve done that I start to have fun. We’ve spent a few days getting the technical footwork right, you spend it staring at the floor frowning [laughs] but they’re like “Come on, look up at the audience now and smile”. It’s getting to the point now where it’s not all concentration and I can start to have fun which is great… like I’m Gene Kelly or something [laughs]. 

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

The A Mad World My Masters 2015 national tour opens at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre on 26th February 2015 before visiting Blackpool, Brighton, Malvern, Cornwall, Bath, Darlington and Cambridge. It then transfers to the Barbican  between 29th April and 9th May. Please visit for further information and tickets.

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan 

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