Jonathan Slinger on Absolute Hell and playing a Weinstein-esque character
Set in La Vie en Rose drinking club, Rodney Ackland’s ‘Absolute Hell’ is a new addition to the National Theatre. Anthony Walker-Cook sat down with Jonathan Slinger from the cast to discuss the show’s troubled history, its applicability today and how this production has brought the set alive.
AWC: TimeOut called Absolute Hell an ‘unlikelier addition’ to the National Theatre’s summer season. First performed in the early 1950s and called a ‘libel on the British people’, it effectively ended the career of Ackland then. From its first production until now there seems a hesitancy around this show; why do you think that is and how can it be applied now to audiences?
JS: It was controversial in the 1950s because a lot of the characters and subject matter were considered obscene by the Lord Chamberlain who sent the play back to Ackland, allowing the play to be performed but at the removal of the swearing and the references to being gay. The play Ackland wanted to write didn’t surface until the end of the 1980s. Then there was a smallish production at the Orange Tree Theatre in 1988 but the biggest revival was in 1995 with Judi Dench in the lead role. It hasn’t changed since that production. I’m not sure why exactly it’s now ‘unlikely’. Maybe it’s because it feels very contemporary but also has a classic feel and [Rufus Norris, Artistic Director at the National] is known for pushing the envelope from a modern perspective.
What version of the script has been used and did you use the other during rehearsals?
Ackland rewrote the play, writing what he originally intended to write and that’s the version we use. I didn’t use the version from the 1950s but I’d like to read it out of interest.
TimeOut also describes Joe Hill-Gibbons as ‘famed for his arch, grotesque, and generally full-on approach to the classics’. Have you found this to be true and what has this approach brought to the production?
It’s an arch and grotesque play, I think, so he has stayed true to what the play is and we haven’t held back from that. After the first preview we had some notes and one of those was for certain characters to push their darkness more. It’s probably a combination of the two.
Despite the revival in 1995 that starred Judi Dench, this production seems little known. How does it feel to bring a show back to the National and did you look back to this previous production?
I was actually here when the production was on but didn’t see it, to my shame – I remember it being a big success. With previous productions of plays I don’t tend to research that much because, at the worst, what happens is you end up reading or watching about something that somebody did and you think ‘that’s the perfect way to play it, and now I can’t do it or I’ll be accused of plagiarism’. I want to do it my own way and I don’t want to be influenced by somebody else’s interpretation – I tend to stay away.
Were you familiar with Ackland/Absolute Hell before you began work on the show?
No, I’ve never read anything else he’s done and I didn’t feel the need to research into him too much.
Tell me about your character and what role do they play in the production.
Interestingly my character resonates in a more contemporary way than perhaps some of the others since he is very much a Harvey Weinstein character: he’s a film director and he basically uses this club as somewhere to pick people up, he uses his power and money to try and get sexual partners. He is, without question, a Harvey Weinstein of his day and I’m pretty sure audiences will pick up on this; so that’s been interesting and very satisfying because you do these period plays and to a certain degree one of the questions you ask yourself as an actor, director and theatre company is ‘why are we doing this play?’
Your theatre credits include a broad range from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory through to a multitude of Shakespeare roles. How does this role compare to those you’ve played in the past?
He’s obviously a villain, there’s no two ways about that. My approach is a psychological approach to understanding why somebody is who they are. I also tend to look for opposites in characters: if a character appears to be one thing I try and look for the other.
If there was another character in the play you could be, who would it be?
There are quite a lot actually. All the parts are very interesting in their own way but there isn’t one in particular.
But they’re all different from your character?
Yes, and I think that’s what makes the play in some ways; you have these incredibly disparate and very different groups of people.
But are these types of people ones we still feel connected to now or are they grotesque?
I would say most of the characters that come into the club are of a certain class: middle to upper-middle class people. Either through family or through their own work. My character, I think, probably grew up working class, but worked his way up. We have a character who is a lady and when you watch it the majority of the characters are middle class. If it was a new play it would probably be criticised a little.
In some respects, its depiction of character was why the play initially struggled.
I think that was more to do with some characters being perceived as gay. There is a huge homosexual element to this play and back then it was illegal.
With the setting being 1945 and the effect of the war, do they show a individual reactions to the war or are they all broken?
One of the characters doesn’t realise the war is over, but I think it was definitely Ackland’s aim to make it clear this space was formed to escape from what was going on but they still cannot leave it, and it has become a security blanket.
To identify a genre for Absolute Hell, it sounds an unsettling tragicomedy.
It’s very much tragicomic and hugely disturbing but also very funny and dark.
If you had to describe the tone of Absolute Hell in one word, which would it be?
That’s an interesting question. It’s more two words: self-destruction.
What question do you think Ackland is trying to pose in Absolute Hell and, also, what is the answer?
I suppose it would be: is human life, the life of the world or the life of the planet a journey, or cycle, of something reaching a peak and then slowly imploding on itself, destroying itself, prompting change, and then the cycle begins again? If that is the question he is posing then I think he would say yes, I guess.
How has the vast Lyttelton stage been used to realise the production?
Very cleverly. They have made a cross section of the entire club so you can see every bit at all times. This is quite challenging from a staging point of view since you have to focus scenes but you also need the life of the club happening elsewhere since you can see it. There’s also the added challenge of being able to see outside of the club since across the road are the Labour Party offices. At the end of the play Labour get into power and so as the party implodes on itself in the club the party begins over the road with a new world order about to begin.
Are these meant to feel like quite separate worlds?
They sort of are but they are also aware of each other – the owner of the club at one point says that if you listen you can hear the typists. The upcoming election is referred to by members of the club and what individuals think about it.
How is the Soho setting made clear?
Soho in the period was probably more the epicentre of after-hours drinking culture and partying than it is now. It still has that reputation but so do other areas of London now. Back in 1945 it was probably mainly, if not solely, Soho you went to. The club owner talks about The Windmill, which still exists. I don’t know what it was in 1945 but it became a strip club, and she refers to it at one point being up the road.
What is your favourite stage at the National and why?
Cottesloe, now Dorfman, because of its intimacy and flexibility as a space: it’s a box and you can transform it into whatever you want it to be. The other two theatres are pretty much what they are, it’s difficult to really mess around with the form.
What was the best thing you saw in the past year on stage?
I don’t tend to go to the theatre very much, and many actors I know tend not to go since it feels like a busman’s holiday. People Places and Things that launched Denise Gough’s career and won a few awards was the last thing I saw.
Is there anything you wish you’d seen?
I wish I’d seen Angels in America.
Do you know what’s happening next for yourself?
Nope, no idea. I might be work-shopping a play at the National Studio whilst I’m here but whether that will happen is anybody’s guess.
Absolute Hell will be playing in the Lyttelton Theatre at the National Theatre until the 16th June, 2018.