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    5. Bertie Carvel Interview: “Is It Right That a White Actor ..


    Bertie Carvel Interview: “Is It Right That a White Actor Ever Played Othello?” No, I do not think so”

    ‘Will a person still have a work accent in life? Yes, I'm sure”: Bertie Carvel, photograph for the Telegraph Photo: Andrew Crowley

    Bertie Carvel is having a serious telephone conversation. I'm just listening. The actor who plays Tony Blair in The Crown and who was for a time the most hated man in Britain as the lying, cheating, still-sexy husband in BBC drama Doctor Foster, delves into the debate about the part that will change career. Should he accept it? It's in the balance.

    Before we continue, I should point out that this is not a real conversation: Carvel is only imagining the call – and is offered the role of the one who made his name, Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, which he played on stage between 2010 and 2013, the RSC's Roald Dahl musical traveled from Stratford-upon-Avon to the West End before heading to Broadway on a wave of superlatives and award statuettes.

    “If I called today and said I was offered Trunchbull, would I say, 'You should think twice about that'? Yes, I would do that,” Carvel tells me, sitting at a table in the Old Vic rehearsal room in south London. “Would I say, 'You shouldn't do that'? No, I would say, “If you've been asked and you feel like you can do it well, go ahead.” But keep in mind that many people will be offended.” And for these reasons, I probably won't do it. This is the culture we live in.”

    Of course, in 2023, a man playing a woman is busier than when Carvel originated the stage role of Dahl's aggressive headmistress (played by Emma Thompson in last year's brilliant film adaptation). But even then, he admits, he was “a little hesitant” about the idea before he let a friend talk him into it.

    If he hadn't, The Telegraph's Charles Spencer might never have had the opportunity to marvel at how “Carvel appears as Richard III, dressed as the dreaded Trunchbull, a huge-chested butch oozing malice and sadistic pleasure from every pore.” The performance earned him an Olivier Award. He cast another for his role as Rupert Murdoch in James Graham's Ink, about the rise of The Sun newspaper, which also won him a Tony Award in New York, where one celebrated critic praised his “foxy guile” in the role.

    'Would I play Miss Trunchbull today? Or maybe not: Carvel wins Matilda in the musical Matilda Posted by Joan Marcus

    I'm not sure there are two less suitable words to describe Carvel personally. Dressed in a gray T-shirt and a practical blue jacket, the 45-year-old is talkative, thoughtful, and has a habit of asking himself rhetorical questions and then nailing his conclusions to the church door. There is no need to call him Lefty – he does it himself with pleasure. He is the son of a Guardian journalist and a psychologist, grew up in north London, is independently educated, has a Level 1 English proficiency and has been trained by the Council. There, by the way, at the traditional graduation screening of “The Tree” (“Your Debutante Ball,” as he calls it; it is named after the founder of the academy, Herbert Beerbohm “The Tree”), he chose something unusual for his two-minute speech to the assembled cast. directors and industry players. “I thought, 'I'm going to do something that's not my thing. I'll do Juliet, her suicide.” And they said, “No, you can't. You will regret this.”

    In his latest role, he won't cross any gender lines, although that doesn't mean he's completely out of the crosshairs of the culture wars. He is set to play Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion at the Old Vic, opposite Patsy Ferran as Eliza Doolittle. The script combines the original text of the 1914 play with Shaw's Oscar-winning screenplay for the 1938 film. It stars Leslie Howard as a brash phonetician and Wendy Hiller as the Cockney flower girl on whom he attempts his wayward experiment in social engineering: a bet that in three months he can pass off “this creature with her border English… as a duchess.” at the ambassador's reception.” It is filled with class assumptions.

    “I don’t know how Edwardian audiences would have reacted to this play,” says Carvel. “But perhaps it would be true that a genteel upper-middle-class audience sitting in this very theater watching this very play a hundred years ago might have felt comfortable laughing at Eliza because of her social class and her type. about incontinence, illiteracy, slurring, or anything else that is perceived at the beginning of the play. They could align themselves with Higgins in a way that, if it looked like the production would be successful now, it would be extremely awkward – and, frankly, I think, wrong.”

    Regardless, the 1938 film remains a lot of fun, especially when the fault line opens between Eliza's carefully grafted speech and the story she wants to tell in polite company about the suspicious demise of her gin-soaked aunt. Howard's arrogant Higgins is also funny, even when he opines: “A woman who makes such depressing and disgusting noises has no right to be anywhere—has no right to live.”

    'I think if he is a monster, it is definitely not intentional&#39 ;: with Patsy Ferran at the rehearsal of Pygmalion Photo: Manuel Harlan

    Will modern audiences see Higgins as a monster? “Well, I'm interested in the answer to that question because I'm not afraid to play monsters,” Carvel says. “I think that if he is a monster, it is definitely not intentional… he has no regard for other people's feelings… his project is at worst heartless and selfish, and at best visionary, transformative, utopian.”

    < p>Earlier this year, the Daily Mail reported that the play would carry a warning about “depictions of abuse, strong language and coercive control.” This is not the case, although Carvel says that Higgins is “controlling because he wants to succeed in his project… there are elements of coercion and intimidation; she repeatedly calls him a bully, and I think in many ways very fair.”

    Does Carvel think you can tell a lot about a person by their accent? “I’d be shocked if I were told that you can tell a lot about a person by how they ‘present themselves,’” he fumes, “but of course I make those assumptions—like the rest of us.” Does a work accent still hold you back in life? “Probably, yes. I'm sure. I think people judge books by their covers, and that holds you back, depending on who's reading the book.

    “I would say we live in a world where pronunciation is no longer accepted,” he adds. “You can make a lot of assumptions about someone based on how they sound. But there is no one way that is socially acceptable as it used to be.”

    Britain& Most Hated Person: c Suranne Jones in the film Doctor Foster Photo: Des Willey

    His own voice probably would have prevented him from getting a job as a newsreader at the BBC in the 1950s, but his articulation is unmistakable. He mentions a book he bought the other day: J. Clifford Turner's Voice and Speech in the Theater: I had it in drama school. This was a standard problem. It was sort of an old-fashioned diction manual, specifically written for actors so that they could communicate effectively in the theater, and it's a rather unfashionable thing in some ways, because I suppose the idea might be that it creates a certain type of artificial speech, and this can be a barrier to the truth.

    “But what I've really learned in my short career is that in a theater like the Old Vic, whatever you're trying to convey and whatever palette you might use – naturalistic, stylized or otherwise – remains to be heard and understand. This is one of your main responsibilities. Sometimes we are supported by microphones, sound design and so on. But still, communicating across the ramp is a technical exercise, and I'm playing a character who is perhaps one or two steps away from becoming a voice coach.”

    I want to know if Carvel would think twice about playing Eliza's happy-go-lucky, unprincipled father Alfred Dolittle (“Have you no morals, man?”/”Can't afford it, Governor”), lest he be accused of class tourism?

    “I don’t think it’s the first thing that would come to my mind,” he says. If director Richard Jones “called me and asked me to play Alfred Dolittle, the first question would be, 'Really?' Why?” He thought a little more before grabbing the nettle. “I don't think actors should limit themselves to their life experiences, because then there's no point in acting. I think the point of theater is that we use our imagination, both as spectators and as creative interpreters, to put ourselves in positions we are not in.

    “There are certain red lines. I think these things probably change with fashion. Would I play Othello? No, I wouldn't. Because it seems clear that it would be offensive and exclusionary for many reasons. Where should the boundaries of an actor's right to distance himself be drawn? I think it is due to custom and practice… Is it wrong for a white actor to ever play Othello? No, I do not think so. Would it be wrong today? I think this will be considered incorrect. And this is important.”

    “Brexit has been an absolute disaster”: Nick Clegg’s role in “The Coalition” Photo: Rory Mulvey < p>Carvel is not afraid to tackle the most controversial issues of our time in real time. There's another one right on the doorstep. In 2020, Rada students unsuccessfully called for the drama school's George Bernard Shaw Theater to be renamed because the socialist playwright – a major long-time philanthropist – was a supporter of eugenics, an outspoken defender of Stalinism and, late in his life, less than disapproving of Hitler and Mussolini. “I don’t feel qualified to hang Shaw out to dry,” Carvel says, “and I’m not going to defend myself because I just don’t know the facts.” But he adds: “Do I think an artist’s work should be canceled because of his political views? No, I don’t know.”

    Being an actor today requires almost constant navigational skills. And if episode five of The Crown is anything to go by, Carvel is in for quite a hot ride when the sixth and final episode hits Netflix this fall. In series five, Prince Charles (Dominic West) was shown “briefing against his own mother” to Carvel's Blair during a private meeting between the two aboard the royal yacht Britannia, where the future king welcomes the new prime minister as a brother and ally in his plan. renew the royal family and marry again. Tony Blair reacted angrily to the scene through his spokesman, telling The Telegraph: “Unsurprisingly, this is complete and utter nonsense.”

    Carvel isn't responding to questions today about the show's veracity for reasons related to the Hollywood writers' strike, but it seems clear that the series finale, which deals with Diana's death, will see Blair have a prominent role on screen – and possibly flop if the drama also reveals the scandal surrounding speech on “weapons of mass destruction” in parliament, in which the former prime minister persuaded the house to vote for the war in Iraq.

    Carvel, however, declared that he would “return Blair in a heartbeat” to the post of prime minister, and tells me that he considers Labour's victory in the 1997 election one of the most significant events of his adult political life. “The first Blair government was an amazing time to be alive,” he says. “It was a great time to be British.”

    The second landmark event of his time, he said, was the failure of “Clegg’s Liberal Democrats” to “deliver proportional representation or even get it on the ballot” in 2011, when they were in coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives. (A compromise referendum on an unpopular alternative voting system resulted in an inevitable crushing “no”.) Carvel knows the fiasco well, having played Clegg in James Graham's Channel 4 drama The Coalition in 2015. The third, he says, included another referendum – Brexit: “Let's not go there,” he sighs. “This is an absolute disaster.”

    Carvel is a political beast from a line of newspapermen going back to his great-grandfather, and he is drawn to political roles. Last year he played Donald Trump at the Old Vic in Mike Bartlett's satirical play 47, a show so unmistakably realistic that “you'd swear the real McCoy landed in SE1”, according to theater critic The Telegraph. There is a real possibility that Trump will become the 47th President of the United States, isn't there? “One hundred percent, yes. I would invest money in it,” he says. “It's absolutely plausible.”

    He considers the implications of this, but insists: “That's what democracy is all about… if people are dissatisfied with the status quo, they will find someone who expresses as closely as possible the changes they want to see. This is democracy. If you don't like how it ends, you'll just have to deal with it.” He finds gerrymandering the electorate “scary,” but he looks at the dilemma Trump poses for Democrats. “What are you doing? Are you locking him up? Are you putting him in prison? This is anti-democratic, this is authoritarian.”

    “Are you locking him up?”: Donald Trump’s performance in “47” Photo: Mark Brenner

    Our time is almost up – Carvel is eager to return home to his wife, actress Sally Scott, and their three-year-old son, whom he missed during the long rehearsal period. But he's very happy to be back on stage. “What you can get from the theater experience, both performer and spectator,” he says, “is the ritual value of sitting with other people, thinking about these important questions, or just simply asking what another person is experiencing; this is a completely different order, a different scale, it’s a different thing than going and watching something on TV or even in a cinema.”

    And what about that rare audience that the stage still attracts: is it so? This? the only middle-class aristocracy that has not allowed the theater to descend into the mooted, two-screen, free-for-all cinema that many have encountered in cinemas in recent years?

    Carvel did not encounter this, he said. says, but he's committed to the idea that theater should be for everyone, and the “huge school party” he recently saw in the queue for the Old Vic's Groundhog Day suggests our idea of ​​traditional audiences is changing. “They were throwing things, creating chaos, you know,” he says. “Was it comfortable for everyone? I don't know if it was, but it's great.”

    Pygmalion opens at the Old Vic, London, SE1 (, September 19.

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