Friday, 5 February 2016

Interview: Desmond Barrit, starring in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof

Desmond Barrit is currently playing Big Daddy in Theatre Clwyd's production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof by Tennesee Williams.

Directed by Robert Hastie, the production runs at the Theatre Clwyd until 5th March before touring to the New Cardiff Theatre and Swansea Grand Theatre.

Desmond has won Olivier Awards for his performances in The Comedy Of Errors (RSC) and Three Men on a Horse (National Theatre). 

His West End credits include: Harvey (Theatre Royal Haymarket), Wicked (Victoria Apollo), Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Real Inspector Hound/Black Comedy (Donmar Warehouse), Dubarry and The Scarlett Pimpernel (Her Majesty’s Theatre), Eurydice (Whitehall Theatre), Three Men on a Horse (Vaudeville Theatre) and The Lair (Old Vic).

Just a handful of Desmond’s extensive credits also include: Damsel in Distress (Chichester), Therese Raquin (Bath), The Birthday Party (Royal Exchange), The History Boys, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum & The Recruiting Officer, The Wind in the Willows (all National Theatre), Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, A Midsummer Night’s Dream & King Lear (all RSC), A View from the Bridge (Greenwich) and This is a Chair (Royal Court). 

I recently spoke to Desmond about what drew him to starring in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, what people can expect from the play and the importance of regional theatre…

When you were first approached about this production, what made you decide ‘I want to be part of this’?
Well although I was reasonably familiar with Tennessee Williams, I wasn’t that familiar with Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. I’m seventy-one now; I don’t have a mortgage, I’ve got a couple of houses and money in the bank to live on so my criteria for saying “yes” to doing a show is either if they pay me a fortune or whether the play is terribly exciting. I can tell you that working for Clwyd doesn’t pay you a fortune, but when I read the play I thought it was exciting!

I met the director after I accepted it and he also asked, “Why do you want to do this?” and I simply said “because it’s a challenge”. It certainly isn’t an easy play to learn, it doesn’t hit you in the face as an actor but the more familiar you get with it the more exciting it gets. It’s a fantastic part and I wanted to have a bash at it! Whether it will be successful for me is another thing.

Desmond in rehearsals for Cat On a Hot Tin Roof

How have you found taking the role on? Have you enjoyed getting it up on its feet?
Yes! The director Robert Hastie is fantastic to work with. When I’ve worked with some directors it has been like being in prison because they thought only their opinions were important, but with Rob everybody’s opinion is important. Some actors can suggest the silliest and most stupid things sometimes… and I’m certainly one of those… but Rob listens and goes along with what you say. When I started acting I’d read a part and decide ‘I can do that there and say that line in that way’ – I would plan how I was going to play the role, but over the years you realise you’re not the only person in the play. You can’t work in isolation; you have to work with the other actors and a director.

Rehearsing Cat On a Hot Tin Roof has felt more like playing than working. The only problematic thing was that we started rehearsing in the middle of Regent’s Park and at seventy-one it’s like going on a speed walk getting from Baker Street station to Regent’s Park [laughs]. It has been a fun process! 

Cat On a Hot Tin Roof promotional image
What can people who don’t know much about the play, like you didn’t, expect from this production?
Homosexuality comes into it; although I haven’t seen the film, apparently Tennessee Williams was very disappointed with it because they merged the homosexuality so it was virtually non-existent. How you can do that with this play baffles me! I will watch the film after we’ve opened and fully established our ideas. In the second act there’s a brilliant scene between my character and Brick (played by Gareth David Lloyd) who is married but has a gay past. It’s about lying and about him coming out to his father who is a bit of a tyrant and is very homophobic, but then you discover that his father is actually very supportive. When it was written in the fifties it was anarchic to have a gay core to a play. I can’t tell you too much because then you needn’t bother to come! There are lots of different elements to it. 

Tennessee Williams never shied away from taking on big themes, his work is still so relevant today!
Yes, all his plays are fantastic. At the time when they were written they were revolutionary! His plays provoke discussion. If you come out of the theatre and talk about where you’re going to get your fish and chips from then you obviously haven’t seen a very good play, but after this people will come out and have a lot to say to each other – that’s what a good play does. Tennessee Williams knew his craft and his work is still exciting to watch! I have some friends in Liverpool who booked tickets before they even knew I was in it! His work still brings audience in.

As well as working in the West End, you’ve done a lot of regional theatre over the years. Do you enjoy going to different places and performing to different audiences?
Well I don’t like doing long tours where you’re given £141 and have to find a hotel, but I do like going into the provinces because wherever you go the audiences are so different and accept different things. In July I’m directing a production of Shirley Valentine at a place called the Sheringham Little Theatre. I’m doing that because I feel as an actor you should give something back to the provinces because if we’re not careful there will be no theatres left in the provinces. Audiences appreciate it so much and I love it!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Cat On a Hot Tin Roof runs at the Theatr Clwyd until 5th March 2016. Please visit for further information and tickets. The production also plays New Cardiff Theatre (8th-12th March) and Swansea Grand Theatre (15th-29th March).

Photo Credit 1-2: Johan Perrson

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