Friday, 11 December 2015

Interview: John Hopkins, starring in Ben Hur at the Tricycle Theatre

John in Ben Hur rehearsals
John Hopkins is starring as the title role in Tim Carroll’s production of Ben Hur at the Tricycle Theatre.

Ben Hur reunites the team behind The 39 Steps, with John having played Richard Hannay in the West End production at the Criterion Theatre.

A play within a play which sees four actors attempting to perform countless roles, Patrick Barlow has adapted Ben Hur for the stage from General 'Lew' Wallace's novel.

A few of John’s extensive theatre credits include: Holy Warriors (Shakespeare's Globe), Private Lives (Edinburgh Lyceum), Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (Sheffield Crucible) and The Deep Blue Sea (Chichester Festival Theatre). In addition, his work for the RSC includes: A Mad World My Masters, Titus Andronicus, Candide, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest, Venus and Adonis, King John, Julius Caesar and Love In A Wood.

As well as playing Detective Sergeant Scott in two series of Midsomer Murders, on screen John has appeared in Stan Lee's Lucky Man, Catastrophe, Dancing On The Edge, Hacks, Secret Diary Of A Call Girl, Merlin, Identity, Wire In The Blood, Robin Hood, The Path to 9/11, Nicholas Nickleby, Love In A Cold Climate, The Face Of An Angel, Alice In Wonderland, The Experiment and The Pool.

I recently spoke to John about reuniting with the team behind The 39 Steps, how he came to be involved with Ben Hur several years ago and what it’s like to perform such a demanding role…

First of all, how exciting that The 39 Steps ‘gang’ are back together at the Tricycle?!
[jokingly] We’ve got the gang back together for one last job! Just when I thought I was out… they pulled me back in [laughs]!

When you first heard about this project did you immediately want to jump on board?
Oh absolutely! The genesis for this project has been quite long, I was in a previous version in 2012 at the Watermill with a different director. The script was slighting different, but it was still by Patrick Barlow, and it was still the same producers of The 39 Steps too. After the Watermill production it went away for a bit and there was a change of who was helming it. We never knew if it would come back, so it’s tremendously exciting that it is now finally in London… and in the same theatre where The 39 Steps first dipped its tongue into the London water!

John in Ben Hur at the Tricycle Theatre

When did you first meet Partick?
I met Patrick originally when, I think, I was in the fourth cast of The 39 Steps in the West End in 2009. We clicked. When I say we have the same sense of humour, I mean he was funny and I got his jokes [laughs]. He was talking about Ben Hur back then and it has been an obsession of his for a long time. 

I cannot begin to imagine how full on this role is for you – you don’t leave the stage!
Yes, it is very full on. Much like The 39 Steps, there’s no offstage time for me other than between scenes when furniture is being moved. The 39 Steps is based on the film, whereas Ben Hur is based on the original book which means it’s a much more free adaptation. In a way Patrick has brought more to it. It’s a play about people putting on a play and we hope people are able to see their struggle to achieve these great heights. They fall a little short because there are only four of them performing this epic story… but occasionally we hope people will be surprised by how they do pull something off. There is a monkeys with typewriters element – every now and again something works! It is undermining epic… but then sometimes genuinely epic as well. 

John in The 39 Steps
I love that it’s not about fancy sets or special effects – the piece literally goes back to basics with four actors remarkably telling a spectacular story! Do you enjoy the whole style and concept?
Yes! It’s purely theatrical, there are very few effects and most of it is just done with our bodies and good storytelling and rapid costume changes. We also allow the audience to see the strings and see how it’s put together which, I think, is fascinating! It doesn’t attempt to be cinematic; there are no spectacular projections or any of those elements. I was thinking that this show, The 39 Steps and their unrelated cousin The Woman in Black, really do celebrate the ability to tell a story with just lights, sound and trusting the audience’s imagination. I love it! 

You have an amazing cast and team, what has everyone been like to work with? How did the atmosphere feel in rehearsals?
It’s a lovely team! The three other actors - Alix Dunmore, Richard Durden and Ben Jones - are great. Tim Carroll is a wonderful director who I’ve worked with quite a lot. Patrick was also in the room quite a lot during rehearsals so it was a very collegiate atmosphere. He writes and rewrites and rewrites drafts and writes to people’s strengths so the script feels really tailor made for us. I think he’s a real comic genius! He’s remarkably devoid of all ego in terms of how he listens to the suggestions of actors and processes them into something good.

The Tricycle is a lovely theatre, how are you finding performing a piece like this in a more intimate space?
It’s interesting because the characters who are putting on the play are aiming to perform epic theatre, which we’re doing in a middle-sized fringe venue. There’s a disproportion between the scale of our performances and the scale of the venue, but I think that’s part of the fun! It’s a good paradox! 

John Hopkins & Richard Durden in Ben Hur

What is it like to perform the show every night? How do you feel when you come offstage?
Well last time at the Watermill we did it over the summer and I had a hangover by the end of the show from dehydration. You have to drink a lot of water after each performance to rehydrate, thankfully this time it’s winter. It’s very tiring and I’m probably going to lose some weight [laughs]. It keeps you fit! It’s a show about people only just managing to put on a show which means some of the earlier performances are probably best because we are in the same situation as the characters we’re playing. The danger is once you get good at it you become slick and then some of the charm goes, so you have to artificially engineer new difficulties for yourself. But listen, if we get to the stage where it has been running long enough that we’re becoming relaxed then we’re already winning in some way [laughs]!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Ben Hur runs at the Tricycle Theatre until 9th January 2016.
Please visit for further information and tickets.

Photo Credit 1, 2 & 4:  Mark Douet 

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