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The Hairy Ape: Steffan Rhodri Interview

The Old Vic has revived an early Eugene O’Neill play, The Hairy Ape. Cast member Steffan Rhodri talks to London Calling.

Steffan Rhodri can currently be seen playing an Irish coal-stoker in Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape at the Old Vic. Fans of TV’s Gavin and Stacey know him as the very Welsh coach driver Dave ‘Coaches’ Gooch, while to Harry Potter ‘muggles’ he is magical maintenance worker Reg Cattermole. London Calling caught up with Rhodri for a chat.

London Calling: How familiar were you with Eugene O’Neill before you read the script?

Steffan Rhodri: Completely unfamiliar. I do like American drama. I’ve done Miller and Tennessee Williams. But I didn’t know anything about Eugene O’Neill and he’s up there with them. This work is not really representative of his most famous work. They are more naturalistic and more within the tradition of American drama. I’ve since read a couple and they’re great. But this is different; this is in his early days. He was still experimenting and very much influenced by German drama it seems. From what I gather, one interpretation of Expressionism is that it’s a story told from a subjective opinion. That’s why there are aspects that are slightly abstract; slightly surreal I suppose you would call it. But the justification is that this is how this man interprets what’s happening in his life. So when some characters on Fifth Avenue in our interpretation are masked figures speaking strangely, that’s the ghoulish memory he has of events.

LC: How does that form connect to it being a political play?

SR: It’s an early play - 1921. - It’s only four years after the Russian Revolution so it’s very early in terms of ideas of where an individual is within society, in terms of modern politics.

LC: Does it resonate a lot with where we are now or is it more a period piece in that sense?

SR: No I think it does resonate, very much so. I’m not an O’Neill scholar. But one of the main issues in [the play] is about dehumanisation and how within an industrial, mechanised society a human being can be crushed into being one tiny cog in a machine that’s [directed towards] making money.

LC: How does this connect with your own views?

SR: It talks about how an individual is part of the whole and not out for themselves. And it doesn’t give answers. That’s what makes it a good play. I don’t think a play is particularly good when it has propaganda at its heart. My character gives a big, almost Pagan eulogy about how, back in the day with sailing ships we were all connected with the wind and stars and [how] these days, working on board this ship, all these men do is stock coal into a furnace which drives the ship. They become part of a machine by doing that and not part of the universe any more. They become disconnected.

LC: What do you find most satisfying about acting?

SR: I think being creative in any way is just about the most satisfying thing you can do in life. And I just happen to have found that the thing that I seem to be able to do best creatively is acting. There are times when I wish I could play the piano better, or paint better. I could be creative with a lot less risk then and just enjoy it. But I think acting means that you have to challenge your vulnerability. It enables you to be creative but in a fairly risky way to your emotions and sensitivities. And that’s rewarding, that’s very rewarding. It’s a bit of an addiction in truth. It completely consumes me sometimes when I’m doing a play. I don’t mean that to sound in a ‘method’ way and I don’t mean to sound pretentious about it. But I quite like the fact that it takes all my attention and I don’t have to think about anything else when I’m rehearsing a play. The trouble is, you have to do the rest of life once the play is opened.

LC: What is the risk?

SR: The risk is humiliation. The risk is criticism. I don’t read reviews because I think a lot of actors are sensitive. I think I’ve reached the point where I know that whatever reviews say, even if they validate me it’s not going to be enough. So there’s no point reading them really. I guess as a person you have to work on not needing that validation. But it’s bloody hard!

LC: Do you watch yourself back on TV and in film? How do you look at your theatre work objectively?

SR: I don’t avoid watching myself on film and TV but I don’t analyse it. There are lots of things I’ve never seen, mainly because I’m not that interested in them so I haven’t made an effort to watch. If I was proud of [a particular piece of work] I’d make an effort. I’ll only ever watch it once. I don’t get the box set and keep watching and analysing or anything like that.

LC: Do you think some actors do?

SR: Yeah, possibly. And they might learn a lot. I don’t particularly learn much from it. I think it’s worth watching sometimes. Some actors will watch back on the monitor after a take. I don’t do that at all. I feel that makes me a bit self conscious and nervous, and a bit self-analytical in a way that doesn’t help me.

On stage I guess what you learn is through feedback, either directly - I don’t mean from the press or the general public necessarily but from trusted people. Directors are good. I’ve got a few friends who are directors and they’re always quite handy to invite early on because they’ll give good feedback. I’m thinking of one friend in particular. I ask him to the first week of previews to almost everything and I have a good chat with him after, because often you don’t get that from the director of the thing you’re in.

LC: How would you compare Harry Potter fans with Gavin and Stacey fans?

SR: I’m never that aware of any fans when I’m in London. Sometimes you get them at the stage door but you never really know if they are really fans or just making a few quid on EBay by getting you to sign things. But in Wales, where I mostly live, everybody is a Gavin and Stacey fan. It did change my life a bit, but not in a way that was unpleasant. I’ve never been hassled. The first couple of years it did make a difference walking around Cardiff, being recognised a lot. It was mostly very pleasant. Harry Potter fans tend to be younger and when they realise, they are a bit overwhelmed. Friends of my kids or whoever will kind of hyperventilate a bit when they realise they’ve met someone from a Harry Potter film.

The Hairy Ape continues at the Old Vic until the 21st of November. To book tickets, see website.