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From Pirates Of The Caribbean to The Dance of Death, Kevin McNally on his latest production at Trafalgar Studios

10 December 2012 Charlie Kenber

"There isn’t really anything that can replace the excitement of good theatre."

Kevin McNally has become a very recognisable face in film, television and theatre. Since his training at RADA in the early 1970s, he has played a wide variety of roles, which lends him the great versatility often demanded of actors. Following filmic exploits (most recognisably as Joshamee Gibbs in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies), his current project takes him back to his theatrical roots. Sitting energetically in the rehearsal room he tells us "for me I trained for the theatre, and I’m always at my happiest doing this. I saw Derek Jacobi when I was thirteen, and I remember just being blown away that somebody could do a high comic performance followed by a great tragedy. There isn’t really anything that can replace the excitement of good theatre. There’s nothing worse than bad theatre as well."

The stage then is where Kevin feels most at home, although more traditional plays are something of a change for him. "I haven’t done a lot of classical theatre and I suppose recently the most enjoyable thing I did classically was Ivanov at the Wyndham’s Theatre in 2008 with Kenneth Branagh." Similarly adapted – this time by Conor McPherson – his latest project is August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death which opens at the Trafalgar Studios this week. Indeed, Kevin has nothing but praise for Conor’s work, which in many ways drew him to the production, "nobody had asked him to do an adaptation and so he was thrilled to do it, and he’s come up with something special. The thing that Conor’s done is he’s brought out the tender side of the play, so it’s a much more human play than perhaps the versions we’ve seen over the past forty years." Although rehearsals began with a full script in place, the process has been an open one in terms of Conor McPherson’s role. Kevin tells us "he’s been in a few times, and he’s at the end of a phone call if you want to discuss the dialogue. If you want to change something you’ve got to have a pretty good argument for it, but he’s certainly very open to seeing which way rehearsals and performance take the text."

This particular production has dealt deftly with the usual problems facing classical revivals, "often there’s a faux-old-fashioned speech which I think is fatal" Kevin notes, so Conor’s version avoids this, although without historically updating the work. "This is very much set in the 1900s: it’s about people being very remote, being separated from entertainment and company and being forced together in the 'cauldron of hell' as Strindberg calls it." The language however has been altered so that "we are very much speaking in a modern vernacular, it’s just that we don’t get our cell-phones out, we don’t watch television." Perhaps surprisingly for a Strindberg play, humour is central in the production, somewhat enabled by the linguistic update; as Kevin puts it "I always think that in Shakespeare the humour has to be ladled on because it has to work against the language, but in this it comes right out of the text."

So what of Kevin McNally’s character inThe Dance of Death?  He finds attractive the range of emotional capacity in his role, Edgar, "it’s every note on the piano scale rather than being a particular sort of depressed, angry, Scandinavian character. I was asking my daughter and she said “he’s just like you”’ he chuckles, "which is a bit of a shame because he’s a bully and a tyrant, and he’s arrogant and aggressive and ignorant..." he continues. The list of flaws indeed appears to be rather lengthy, although it seems hard to believe they apply to Kevin.

The Trafalgar Studios are in an unbelievably prime location: tucked at the top of Whitehall just south of Trafalgar Square itself. Perhaps surprisingly then, Studio 2 is a rather intimate 80-seater. "They’re literally right under your nose" Kevin agrees, "that’s going to be really interesting for me because I haven’t played a studio space I think for thirty years!" In many ways however intimacy allows for greater possibilities, "It’s given us an opportunity to have a much wider palette in what we do because very often in a big theatre there has to be a certain level of performance to get to the back which chips away at the subtlety. It’ll be terrifying, but it will be a joy once a few performances have been gotten over with."

As the fourth project that he’s done with the Donmar Warehouse (this as part of their final Trafalgar season), Kevin is happy to return to the West End, and to London. "The great thing about London is that you can go and see Shrek the Musical and Mary Poppins and then you can come and see The Dance of Death with three very experienced actors who are hardly being paid anything but are really pleased to do this work. New York and London are both places that love their theatre and are very proud of their theatre: performing in London even after forty years for me is really special."

So if you’re looking for a play to see this Christmas, don’t be put off by Strindberg’s reputation for downbeat drama, "I’m only happy that we’re not presenting the audience with a very straight-laced, dour, depressing evening in the theatre: it’s a really volatile, really enjoyable evening in the theatre because it’s sort of relentless." Conor McPherson’s ‘more palatable’ two hours when compared with the original three helps to lend the piece a focussed intensity. If you do find yourself down at the Trafalgar Studios this winter, then in Kevin’s own words "you will laugh, you will cry, and you will kiss twenty-two quid goodbye."

The Dance of Death opens at Trafalgar Studios from the 13th December. For more information and to book tickets please click here.

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