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Interview with David Sturzaker

7 February 2016 | Lydia Cooper

David Sturzaker is about to reprise his role as Charles II in Nell Gwynn at the Apollo. We chat about the play's rehearsals, the Restoration, and his favourite roles.

London Calling: You’re about to play Charles II in Nell Gwynn at the Apollo Theatre. Can you tell us a bit about the play?

David Sturzaker: It’s a new play by Jessica Swale, and I’ve already appeared in eleven showings of it at the Globe last year. It was very well-received, so there’ll now be a twelve-week run at the Apollo. It tells the story of Nell Gwynn, a prostitute and orange-seller, who became one of the very first actresses in Britain. After his exile and the return of the monarchy, Charles II - my character - declared that women should be allowed to act on stage for the first time. And Nell eventually became one of Charles’ mistresses. It’s a real journey for her character.

 

LC: Has it changed much from the sell-out Globe season? What are the key differences between the old show and this new run?

DS: So far, it’s fairly similar. There are five new cast members. The text, set design and costumes remain the same. I think the main difference will be the audience and setting: the Globe has a very unique atmosphere. It’s open-air, you have five or six hundred people standing up, and the light is shared. You can look at people in the audience and actually see their faces. The effect is very particular. That, I think, is the biggest difference, but until we open tomorrow night we can’t really predict what the relationship between the actors and audience will be like yet.

 

LC: I read an interview with Gemma Arterton in which she said there had literally been three weeks of rehearsals, including a tech one on her birthday. It sounds quite intense! How did you find the rehearsal period?

DS: It’s been fantastic. Everyone was very much aware that getting it back on in three weeks would be tight. We’ve had long days, working on Saturdays, but in the end the five new people came so well prepared. Gemma turned up with all of her songs and lines learned, more or less, on the first day, as did some of the others. As a result of their preparation it hasn’t really felt pressured, or like we were killing ourselves. We even managed to do five entire run-throughs in the rehearsal room, which is quite a lot.

 

LC: Did you do a lot of background research on Charles’ character for the role? And did you uncover anything interesting?

DS: Yeah, it was quite a pleasure to do because he’s a fascinating character, he seems like he was great fun. He had an extraordinary life - going into exile, hiding in this country and France... It’s always worth remembering that the primary source for your character is the play though, and Jess did an enormous amount of research and told the story that she wanted to tell. Anything useful that I pick up from history does inform my acting, but if I find things that are at odds with Jess’ text I’ll ignore them. We’re not trying to give a history lesson.

 

LC: The real Nell had her first lover when she was 12 and first performed as an actress when she was 15.  She first met Charles at the age of 18, when he was 38. Does that complex dynamic make it more challenging for you to act?

DS:That’s a great example of the factual history and the story we’re telling. It’s not something that Jess pulled out - in the course of two hours we can’t possibly hope to explore everything, and that dynamic isn’t something we focus on. Gemma actually turned 30 yesterday - she shares the same birthday with Nell, which I can’t get over - such a weird coincidence.  I don’t think she’s particularly trying to play a much younger woman.

 

LC: The Restoration era embodies excess and good spirits, as it marked the return of the monarchy and the theatres, and the play reflects that too. What historical era would you like to live in?

DS: My first thought when you asked that is that I wouldn’t like to live before anaesthetic was invented [the first successful operation with anaesthetic was in 1846]. I know it’s really specific, but if you had any kind of medical issues, the idea of going through surgery without any kind of anaesthetic is really hideous. That aside, assuming I live a charmed life where I never get ill, I think I’d love to go back to the 1600s, purely because I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare. There are so many times that you ask questions about Shakespeare - how would they pronounce that word, would the audience have got these references, what would the theatres have really been like - and I’d love to have some answers. But for fun, you probably can’t beat the Restoration.

 

LC: As you say, you’ve done a lot of Shakespeare - As You Like It, Henry V... Are there any roles left that you still want to play?

DS: None in particular. I was really lucky last summer to play Bolingbroke in Richard II, and that was a role I’ve seen a few times and liked. Maybe the first time was ten or twelve years ago, and I remember thinking what a fantastic role.

 

LC: What attracts you to Bolingbroke’s character?

DS: It was the language he uses; you only really appreciate it when you study it. Having seen it a few times, I was absolutely taken with it.  And the conflict within his character, he’s a fundamentally decent guy driven by wanting to prosper, and feeling compelled to overthrow the current king, which is a sacrilegious act. Shakespeare does the personal level brilliantly too: Richard and Bolingbroke grew up together and had the same tutors, but it’s played out on a much grander scale between king and duke as the text develops.

 

LC: What’s the best play you’ve seen at the theatre recently?

DS: It’s not a play, but I saw Eddie Izzard on Saturday night and then bumped into him on the street. I rarely approach people when I recognise them, but I felt compelled to go up to him and say he was great.  

 

LC: Has that ever happened to you?

DS: It did a fair bit when I was on Doctors actually. And when I was doing a show at the Globe last summer, I went to see a play at the National and someone else in the audience approached me during the interval to say that they saw me at the Globe. That was lovely, but unexpected! I once had a great letter from a teenage boy who hadn’t come out yet, and he said it was really nice to see a gay storyline in Doctors and that it made him feel less alone. It’s nice to know that you’re helping someone, especially when you spend your days dressing up and pretending to be someone else.

 

LC: You are a life-long Londoner, who was born in Hammersmith and grew up in Dulwich. What are your favourite parts of the city?

DS:  I love Shepherd Market, which is just off Piccadilly. It’s really cool. Within 50 yards of leaving Piccadilly it’s really quiet and there are some great shops and restaurants. It has a feel that’s not quite village-y, but it’s almost a little enclave. I love spending time there.

 

David’s play Nell Gwynn runs at the Apollo until 30 April 2016. For info and tickets, go here.

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