Thursday 23 November 2017

Stage: 'I don't know if the young people are in for Harry Potter or Game of Thrones'

George and the dragon: Hill and Imelda Staunton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
George and the dragon: Hill and Imelda Staunton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Arthur Hill in Game of Thrones

Shilpa Ganatra

In the 55 years of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? productions, the lineage of Georges has become one of acting's finest. Arthur Hill, the original George, earned a Tony Award for his portrayal (one of the play's many); the great Richard Burton was arguably the defining George in the 1966 film adaptation, and stars as diverse as Patrick Stewart and Matthew Kelly have reprised the character since.

They're big shoes to fill. So, well-versed in the nuances of the stage, Northern Irish actor Conleth Hill chose to craft his own for the Harold Pinter Theatre's production in London, soon to be live-screened in cinemas here.

"I'd never seen a production of it and I'd never seen the movie the whole way through. For some people, it works to study previous versions and that's fine. But I didn't see any point," he says, sporting more hair than we're used to in his signature role as Lord Varys in Game of Thrones. "I just do every play like it's the first time it's been done. If I worried about what other actors have done, I'd never leave the house.

"Even for the viewers, it's better to not make comparisons. Sometimes you'd overlook the play you're watching because you're so busy thinking about the other one."

While the characterisation is fresh, the story is classic: over the course of an alcohol-fuelled night, Edward Albee's masterful drama shows the deteriorating relationship between George and Martha (played by Imelda Staunton in this production), as reflected through their younger guests, Nick and Honey (Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots), all with increasing intensity and some killer lines. Most of these are delivered by George, giving him a quality which smartly balances the dominant character of Martha.

"George is a great study of a character who's less pushy than everyone else around him and perhaps the most satisfied, whereas Martha's the most dissatisfied," says Conleth. "But it's definitely a partnership. I've worked with Imelda a couple of times, and she's just utterly fantastic. Brilliant to work with."

Outside of their theatre roots, both are famed for this generation's epic franchises: Ballycastle resident Conleth with Game of Thrones, and Imelda for playing Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films. Has he noticed if their wide appeal has attracted a larger audience?

"Certainly there's been all ages and all generations coming to see it," he says. "There's a lot of young people. I don't know whether they're in because of Harry Potter or Game of Thrones, but it's good." In any case, it suggests that there will be a broader audience when the live screenings take place, a set-up with which Conleth is familiar.

"I've done two of these shows at the National Theatre: All's Well That Ends Well and The Cherry Orchard, and they're very unobtrusive - they're basically filming us doing what we would do every night," he explains. "We don't really adapt it for them, they work around us.

"The hardest part is that because of an extra rehearsal, it means we'll do nine shows that week, which will be killer.

"The older I get, the less work TV and film seem. Theatre is very time consuming and every night you're doing the same thing, whereas with film and TV, you'd do it three or four times and that's it done. But when something like this comes along, you'd be stupid to say no. It's such beautiful writing and my fellow cast members are so good, it's a joy to do."

Over his 29-year career, Conleth has undertaken a broad range of projects, from his beginnings as Charlie in Stones in His Pockets, for which he earned a Laurence Olivier Award, to big-budget productions like Game of Thrones and Suits, to independent productions such as his latest film, A Patch of Fog. But it's not all weighty roles. Most recently, he played a drunken colleague dressed up as a Smurf in Peter Kay's Car Share - a scene-stealing cameo that earned him as much praise on social media as anything else he's done.

"People know me from Game of Thrones but I've always done lots of different things, so I don't know why everyone's making such a fuss," he says. "But it was great fun. Peter Kay is one of the few writers who I'd say yes to without reading the script."

The production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? takes Conleth to the end of May, just when excitement for Game of Thrones' seventh series will take over. He's sworn to secrecy as to how the Stark/Lannister tensions play out, but he does assure me that it will live up to expectation.

"I devour the scripts like a fan and they get better and better each season. I'm amazed by what they do, there are always things that I never saw coming.

"It's the same with this season: there are many, many surprises but I can't say. I wouldn't want to spoil it anyway - even if you think you want to know, everyone enjoys watching it to find out how it all plays out."

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is broadcast live from Harold Pinter Theatre, London, on May 18 in selected cinemas around Ireland. To find your nearest cinema, check ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk

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