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Ben Hur: John Hopkins Interview

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John Hopkins talks to London Calling about playing the title role in a comedic version of Ben Hur at the Tricycle Theatre.

Opening in 2005, The 39 Steps was a major West End comedy hit. Its writer Patrick Barlow and its (fourth) lead actor John Hopkins are hoping to repeat the trick with a similar approach to charioting epic Ben Hur. London Calling talks to Hopkins ahead of the opening of the play at the Tricycle Theatre.

London Calling: The first theatrical version of Ben Hur opened in 1899 and became a hit Broadway show with live horses and real chariots running on treadmills. I’m guessing this one is a bit different?

John Hopkins: I’d want to say that if a viewer had travelled through time from 1899 they wouldn’t know the difference but no, it is a cast of four this time, not including the horses. It has a certain kind of lo-fi charm.

LC: How are you doing the horses then?

JH: It will hopefully make your jaw drop but I’m afraid I can’t reveal those secrets partly because we’re about to start Tech Week and I haven’t actually seen them in person yet. It’s still to be discovered. If you’ve seen The 39 Steps, this is from the same stable, no pun intended. There are four actors who are attempting to put on an epic story, which is arguably beyond their reach. The joy and comedy of it comes from the fact that often in reality, they don’t quite live up to [the source material] but on occasions they somehow fortuitously manage to pull something off and it occasionally is epic or wonderful or serious or beautiful. So it’s about expectations falling short of reality. In a comedic way. It’s good fun. And we wear lots of different hats, quite literally.

LC: So you’re not just Ben Hur?

JH: Ah. Well, hmm - yeah, I am almost entirely and mainly Ben Hur. I might - without wanting to give away too many secrets - play a wise man near the beginning, but other than that, no. I’m afraid I am exclusively Ben Hur. In a loincloth. Occasionally a toga. And the supportive band of actors around me play about fifty characters between them because they’ve basically got more range and are better at doing accents than me.

LC: It’s a juicy role.

JH: Yes it is. It’s known for the film [version], but for very real copyright reasons we’re not doing the film, we’re doing the book. It’s a really good book. It’s obviously not read much any more. We’re hoping we can bring a revival. It’s a story of loss and redemption, of people trying to find their loved ones again having lost them. It’s a festive tale.

LC: It features Jesus, which is Christmassy in a way.

JH: That’s very Christmassy, and we’ve got the birth in as well: we’ve got a nativity. We’ve got a camel. There are camels as well as horses. It’s a menagerie, an absolute menagerie.

LC: Is the production influenced by The Life of Brian in any way?

JH: It possibly comes from the same DNA in the sense that Patrick Barlow - who’s the creative force behind it - his comedy is quite Pythonesque and quite surreal. His ‘National Theatre of Brent’ is really, really funny. It’s certainly in that vein of Python and the Goons and all of that kind of English, knockabout comic surrealism. Hopefully we won’t suffer a boycott from the Church of England like The Life of Brian did.

LC: You were also in The 39 Steps, weren’t you?

JH: Yes, I was the fourth cast I think, back in 2009 and I got on very well with Patrick. We share a sense of humour, in the sense that he’s funny and I like the jokes that he makes. He was putting together ideas for Ben Hur even then. We mounted it originally out of town in 2012. So this is a sort of second go on the merry-go-round for the show. We are slowly zooming in on London, one production at a time.

LC: It must feel different being involved at the beginning of the process this time.

JH: Absolutely. The 39 Steps had been finessed so cleanly and had become such a brilliant and funny and successful working show. You would have three weeks rehearsal and they’d show you different DVDs of the previous actors who had played the role. They’d filmed it from the back of the theatre and they would sort of prescribe to you ‘I think you should have a bit of so-and-so, maybe watch a bit of this acting’. I quite enjoyed taking the mechanical element of that and then hopefully making it [my] own. This is completely different. There are elements that we’re still deciding on and bits that are still - in a really fun way - up for grabs.

LC: Is it fun playing a pastiche of a dramatic leading man?

JH: It is. It’s almost too much fun. [We’re] doing such bad acting. As well as playing Ben Hur I’m playing a guy who’s putting on a production of Ben Hur, so there’s a framing device and obviously when I’m playing that guy I have to be a sort of naturalistic, believable person.

LC: How boring.

JH: Well not just boring but difficult to do. You sort of coarsen your own instincts so much by performing in one way; then suddenly you have to be quite small and believable. You’ve made yourself so grotesque that it can be difficult to adjust. But it’s a really guilty pleasure; it’s like a warm bath.

LC: Speaking of guilty pleasures and warm baths, you’ve starred in many episodes of Midsomer Murders as Detective Sergeant Dan Scott. You must be a big hit with a certain demographic.

JH: Yes. It’s ten years ago since I left the show but fortunately they never cease to repeat them so I live on. I had only been acting for a couple of years and I’d only done theatre - Shakespeare with the RSC. So I found it unbelievably difficult at first. I learned to enjoy it and then I realised that I was going to spend a lot of time standing behind John Nettles, getting things wrong so he could get them right.

Ben Hur opens at the Tricycle Theatre on Thursday 19th November 2015. For more information and to book tickets, see website.