On October 15, 2016, Richard Armitage spoke about Love, Love, Love with education dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series.
An edited transcript follows:
(There are spoilers below)
Ted Sod: Thank you for joining us, Richard. Are you having a good time playing the role of Kenneth? It looks like you are.
Richard Armitage: Yes, it’s something very different from what I’m used to doing. I’m known for being quite a somber, moody person, but I have loved every single day walking into the rehearsal room with this cast and Michael Mayer. I have to say this show is a tonic and I think it has something to do with the speed and energy and Mike’s writing.
TS: This play forces us baby boomers, I’m one of them, to contemplate whether or not we screwed things up for subsequent generations, and we’ll discuss that a bit later. You are playing a boomer in this play, but you are actually a Generation X-er, correct?
RA: Nirvana. That’s how I remember it. We did this fascinating thing on the first day of rehearsal with every member of the cast and crew. We put ourselves in groups based on our birth year and one of the defining things — apart from technology and politics — was music, the kind of music that was around at the time we came of age. One of the first bands that came into my head was Nirvana. I’m Generation X, but I do think that I sit somewhere in the middle.
TS: I read on the Internet that you got your British Equity card by joining a circus — is that true?
RA: Yes, it is. It was a time long gone, just before Thatcher ended the 'closed shop', where you had to be a member of the union before you could even go to an audition. I remember going to an audition and there were two rooms: one with Equity members and one without and I thought I was never getting through to the next door. I went to a vocational school and they somehow set up this contract in Budapest where I was working in the circus for six months doing some unmentionable things with hula hoops.
TS: Fascinating. I read that you played the cello and studied the flute as well.
RA: I started with the cello and it was too big to take on the school bus and I used to get squashed trying to find a seat, so I decided to choose the smallest instrument I could possibly find and I picked up the flute because I could put it in my bag.
TS: I understand that you convinced your parents to allow you to go to a school to study theatre, but it was mostly musical theatre.
RA: It was a combination of three things: it was primarily dancing and singing classes and then a bit of drama class as well. My mother took on a job specifically so that I could go to this school because it was a fee-paying school and every single penny of her wages went toward my education. It has become a driving force throughout my whole journey as an actor — just thinking that my mom went to work to purely pay for my education.
TS: The last thing I’ll bring up from reading about you online, is that you fell out of love with musical theatre and decided you wanted meatier roles, so you went to LAMDA.
RA: That’s true. A lot of the time when I was working in musical theatre, I was being told, “Smile and look like you’re enjoying yourself!” I got to a point where I thought well, if I was enjoying myself, I’d be smiling my face off and clearly I wasn’t, so I just wanted something more. I did a year in the West End production of Cats understudying and I saved money and paid for myself to go to LAMDA. I spent three years rejecting the whole physical musical theatre thing, but actually it has become very useful to my work onstage in non-musical plays.
TS: The discipline and stamina that you have to use to do musical theatre must become valuable when you’re doing all kinds of theatre.
RA: It is, for sure. I worked with a movement teacher, the late Christian Darley who studied at Lecoq, in Paris. She worked very much from a mime based place. And that work really makes sense to me — the kind of physical language onstage between actors and the way characters physically move through their spine according to the "temperature" in the room — I think the work I did with her really lends itself to playing in this type of comedy.
TS: I want to talk a little bit about Mike Bartlett who wrote Love, Love, Love. He’s been doing television work as well as stage work since 2005. When did you first become aware of Mike’s work?
TS: Yes, it played there in 2009 and it played here at the Doris Duke Theatre in 2012.
RA: I was also aware of his play King Charles III, which unfortunately I didn’t get to see because I was playing in The Crucible around the same time. I flew to London to see his last play, Wild. I was already onboard with this production and it galvanized something in me. I realized we’re actually from very similar backgrounds: we’re a similar age, we grew up in a similar place, our music tastes are very similar, which is why this play resonated with me. It wasn’t until about the third week of rehearsal when somebody told me Mike was a drummer that suddenly everything fell into place. His work is so much about a rhythm and speed. There’s something in the music of his writing that I also saw onstage in Wild, which is, incidentally, a play about Edward Snowden. He tends to write verbal tennis matches among his characters, which is just phenomenal to play. So, I came to this production with an enthusiasm for his writing.
TS: Mike has this ability to write epic stories, as he did with Earthquakes in London, which is a play about climate change among other things — and then a play like this one, which has an epic theme, but is more or less a domestic drama.
RA: Yes, from the inside out, it definitely feels like a domestic drama. I had no concept of how funny the play was until we put it in front of an audience. I didn’t know if it would resonate with an American audience because a lot of the references are very British, a lot of the temperament in the play is very British. Clearly, we’re not that different.
TS: Let’s talk about your process as an actor, if that’s okay with you. I once said to Alan Cumming, “What’s your process?” And he said, “I’m not a cheese.”
RA: I’m a ham.
TS: Good to know. I’ve read that you like to make a journal for your characters. Did you make one for Kenneth?
RA: I didn’t. Every piece that comes to you, you somehow figure out a different approach. If you try to apply the same rules for everything, it doesn’t always work and you find yourself trying to force a square peg into a round hole. I did background work on this. I looked at the periods that Mike was writing about. I wasn’t alive in the ‘60s. I was just being born around the early ’70s, so that process was really fascinating and it came in the form of a picture diary. I just gathered a photo album of as many images as I could, which I shared with Michael Mayer, our director. I figured there were things that Americans wouldn’t have necessarily seen, like the poll tax riots. When we got into the rehearsal room, the work was immediate. There was not a lot of talking about background, it was very much about the text and the texture of the text and trying to get it up on its feet as quickly as possible. It was a very fast process, something I normally resist. I like to spend a lot of time doing background work, but we were on our feet on day three. I think it was great to be on our feet that quickly. It was really liberating.
TS: I’ve watched the play twice and I’m not sure what kind of work your character is retired from. Are you?
RA: I decided that he ended up in publishing, probably for something like Time Out. No offense to Time Out, but it’s sort of the box that he probably didn’t want to get into. The thing about act two is that the characters are locked into this suburban box in Reading. I don’t know if anybody knows Reading here. It’s got very nice houses with nice gardens. It has a train station. Sorry, Reading. It’s a slightly disillusioned place compared to the expectations Kenneth and Sandra have. It’s a little bit like wanting to be an actor and ending up teaching acting in a comprehensive school. It’s a noble pursuit, but it’s not the dream.
TS: When you speak about Reading, I wonder if the comparison here would be somewhere in Connecticut or New Jersey.
TS: Scranton, Pennsylvania. Well, I’m from Wilkes-Barre so I know Scranton.
RA: There’s nothing wrong with Reading. It’s just people live there because it’s a little bit cheaper. You can commute into London if you want to, you usually work in publishing or a bank and then you go home and it’s 2.4 children. There was a British sitcom called 2.4 Children, which really was the inspiration for act two.
TS: Talk to us about Kenneth and all these freedoms that we boomers were privy to. How did you find your way into that?
RA: Kenneth and Sandra both feel like they’ve been part of a revolution, which really was a movement — there was suddenly a push forward in female emancipation, the sexual revolution, the pill. Really it was an ability to listen to the music you wanted, to dress the way you wanted, to actually not just leap from childhood into adulthood. Then, of course, they grew up. They were probably stoned out of their heads for most of that period of time and then they hit 30 and found themselves in this suburban, mundane box. We didn’t really fill in the gaps between the first act and the second. I like the fact that we walk into act two and Kenneth and Sandra barely look at each other. He doesn’t know she’s not in the room when he’s talking to her. They really don’t make eye contact until they’re pulling their marriage apart. It’s really a fascinating experiment to let yourself be in that situation — you’re suddenly only 'in the moment' at the moment, your family is being torn apart.
TS: As a boomer, I’ve lived through some phenomenal changes: the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement and the gay rights movement — everything that’s changed since 1967 — for better or for worse. For me all these changes felt like they were caused by the repression of the ‘50s.
RA: There was a woman called Mary Whitehouse in the UK and everything about the arts, writing and television was censored by her. She was described as a 'social activist' but she really suppressed a lot of voices. I think the Sex Pistols come out of pushing against that suppression. There was a shift between the ‘50s and into the ‘60s that felt like things were moving forward. It’s amazing to stand onstage at this time and say things like, “The laws are constantly being overthrown, the boundaries of what’s possible, the walls are coming down.” Those words resonate with me because I feel like we’re on the edge of the walls going back up, which is just terrifying.
TS: I’m also feeling that this play deals with capitalism and what happens when capitalism doesn’t work for you.
RA: There was a study that The Guardian, quite recently about adults living in their parents’ basements. I believe Secretary Clinton has mentioned it in her Presidential campaign as well. Women are delaying having their children and it’s causing a certain level of psychological dysfunction. They’re putting their lives on hold. Men are being infantilized by having to go back to live with their parents right through their 30s. It’s becoming a pressure cooker of violence because they’re not able to live fully rounded adult lives. And it’s not just one or two people, it’s quite a large chunk of a generation that is not economically well off. The other thing that I never considered before is the simple size of the baby boom generation. It’s probably about twice the size of Generation X. Their voting power is something that’s discussed in the play. Their ability to put politicians in place who will provide them the best benefits is something real. I don’t think Mike Bartlett necessarily answers any questions about how capitalism works for some and not others, but he gives the audience an argument and hopefully they’ll go home and have a good chat about it.
TS: I think it was Chekhov who first said, “As a playwright my goal is to ask questions, not to answer them.” Kenneth is so blunt when says to his daughter Rose, “No, I won’t buy you a house.”
RA: I struggle with that every night because I look at my daughter who I genuinely love and think she’s right, but we worked hard for 40 years, we waited all this time and now we have this pension. If we relinquish that, we have no security and then what do we do? I haven’t quite decided just how wealthy we are. There were questions that came up in rehearsal about this Birmingham house that they have. The buy-to-let scheme where property prices were thrown up in value because people were buying a second property to rent out. We talked about the fact that they could release that house for Rosie to live in, but it’s not quite what she’s asking. As a father, Kenneth is still in that position of thinking and saying, “Well, you have to carve your own path as we did. My parents didn’t give me a handout so that I could go further.” What he doesn’t consider is that the political system was manipulated so that there was free healthcare, there was comprehensive school education, grants that no longer exist. Kenneth and Sandra have benefitted from those things, but I think, at this point in his life, Kenneth isn’t considering those things, he’s just being quite pragmatic. He thinks that he’s doing what’s right for Rose by telling her to “Fight harder, go further.” And, again, this is Mike Bartlett at his best. He hasn’t made Rose destitute. She’s making a living at her profession; it’s just not enough. That’s what these situations are like. Younger people may have a job, but it’s out of balance. They literally can’t afford to live in a city like London. I think it’s like that in this city as well.
TS: Definitely. Young people in New York City are sharing apartments because they cannot afford to live alone. I have a sense Kenneth and Sandra are going to go on that world tour together at the end of the play, do you?
RA: I think he’s just saying that to melt her a little bit. I don’t know he necessarily really means it. I don’t think he knows what’s going to happen next. He hasn’t got it all figured out. They’re living in the moment still.
Audience Member #1: Hi. So, our country and yours have both gone downward. Where do you see it going? Are we going to restore some of the things that allowed the earlier generations to thrive? Does the play make you think about that?
RA: I do think about it every night. I am glued to the news cycle both here and in my own country. I feel like there’s no one to blame. I wouldn’t blame an older generation for the vote in the UK for Brexit. I feel like that’s a gross generalization. But I do think a Pandora’s Box has been opened. We can’t go backwards and that’s frightening. Britain is going to leave the European Union — that’s for sure — but what that price will be, I don’t know. What are the options really? Where are the inspiring politicians with voices that make us feel like they’re going to help make change and find a balance? I come from a country where we vote for the party, not a single individual, and I cannot believe we have a conservative government that I’m actually nodding my head at. Politics in the UK are in meltdown after Brexit. There really was not a plan in place and I just wish that they considered fully the implications of what that exit means. I know I am digressing, but I just despair at current politics and the lack of planning that’s happening everywhere.
TS: I think many of us are going through election fatigue right now and just wish it was over.
Audience Member #1: It’s terror. It’s not fatigue, it’s terror.
RA: I feel like if you keep people frightened enough and if you split them, then you’ll give yourself leverage as a politician and find people to support you. I just spent five months in Germany where this is not the case. There is a sense of peace and ease and actually feeling positive about things, which is probably also a generalization. At the moment, there isn’t an awful lot of positivity floating around here in the United States or back home either and that needs to be changed.
TS: I feel like what you’re talking about is divide and conquer, which has been a winning formula for a lot of people. I also find it interesting what you say about Germany. Merkel’s feet are being held to the fire right now because of the immigrant situation.
RA: Yes, and she’s standing by it.
Audience Member #2: I really liked your character as a person in terms of your values in act one and act two, but then in act three, I thought you were blind to your son’s problems.
RA: I feel my character is definitely in denial about his son. It’s interesting when Jamie comes in at the end of act three. It’s just at the moment that Rosie says, “You’re supposed to take care of your children!” I feel like saying to her, “I’m taking care of my boy, he lives here at home with me, we garden, we go the pub, he’s happy, I see him happy.” But he is a difficult child who is having to live at home because he can’t really function otherwise. Mike has written Jamie based on a friend of his who, after smoking a certain amount of marijuana, was just less sharp. It left him slightly disconnected from normal social interaction. I don’t think Kenneth is unaware of it, I think he’s just riding on top of it. It’s almost like he can’t look too closely because otherwise it would be difficult for him to accept.
TS: Isn’t it Jamie that says they’re like mates?
RA: Yes, I took him to see Wicked. It’s a simple life and it’s obviously not ideal. I feel like Kenneth is propping Jamie up and it possibly has something to do with Rosie’s attempted suicide. They clearly haven’t really dealt with that. I don’t think Sandra or Kenneth ever faced their demons and what they’ve done to their children. They’ve just done what British people do, which is to look away when someone starts to get emotional and then say, “Would you like some tea?”
Audience Member #3: I was wondering what is was that drew you to this character?
RA: I rarely get to play comedy. People don’t come to me with offers to do comedy. I love the challenge of playing different ages. Also, I’ve always been into Harold Pinter and Alan Ayckbourn and it felt to me like Mike’s fashioned a cocktail of writing styles in this play and I was really excited about trying that out.
TS: I’m so glad you brought that up because when I watched the first act, I thought this feels a bit like Pinter. The relationship between Kenneth and his brother Henry is so bizarre. It has a Pinter-esque quality in that I sense that Kenneth is afraid of Henry.
RA: Act one has been through a change. We pushed it a long way since the rehearsal room. It was extremely exuberant at first and we’ve slowly pulled it back because it needs to sit in that place of danger. Kenneth has to be provocative and press Henry’s buttons because essentially it is the baby boomer generation pressing the buttons of Henry’s generation. Mike’s writing uses elements of Pinter and Osborne, which I love, and then in act two there are elements of Ayckbourn. In the rehearsal room, act two felt very steady and as soon as we came into the space, Michael Mayer wanted us to elevate the style. He said, “I want you to imagine that every time you make an entrance, there’s applause like a television sitcom.”
Audience Member #4: Hi. My parents are baby boomers and they are stable, dependable people, but I know they weren’t always that way. I feel that your character and Sandra’s character never really developed emotionally. I’m wondering if Mike Bartlett is making a statement that people can’t change?
RA: In my personal view, I think our personality is probably solidified somewhere in our youth. You either develop ways to navigate through life with a certain level of fluidity or you are somebody with concrete boots on who really can’t change and move around. I just let Kenneth be taken with the current in a way. Until act three, when he’s really forced to make a decision and potentially make a change and he chooses not to.
TS: Richard, there was a remarkable documentary made in England by Michael Apted called Seven Up…
RA: Yes, I studied it for this and it’s so fascinating.
TS: Because it tracks people from the age of seven on at seven year intervals. It quotes a Jesuit motto: "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man."
RA I feel like it tracks that moment when a child leaves the home and finds themselves in society, interacting with other people and you can see their personality developing. I’m sure it’s different with everyone, the point where your personality is fixed and maybe that’s the thing about Rosie. Because of her suspended situation, she feels she can’t solidify her life. It’s an admission to say, “I’m 37 and I don’t have anything.” She’s talking about material possessions, but she goes on to say, “I don’t have a child, a car, a house, I can’t start my life and I’m 37.” Whereas the baby boomers were probably well embedded into their lives by their early 20s and beginning families.
Audience Member #5: One of the things that was very good about the play was the author’s ability to empathize with each of the characters. But in my view, he identifies most with Rosie. What do you think?
RA: Having not explored what it’s like to be Rosie, I don’t know. I’ve always struggled with act three, even from reading it. I feel like my character was at his most alive in 1967 and there’s something fading about him in act three, which I fought a little bit. He says, “I just can’t concentrate anymore. There’s no need to. I love it. Freedom at last.” I think that is the place that Kenneth sits. I remember saying to Amy Ryan, “Which character do you think is Mike’s voice?” I just couldn’t figure it out. Everyone gets a point of view that is relevant and sharp, and I don’t think I’ve ever met a playwright who was able to do that. But, certainly in terms of what we’re seeing and feeling in the world now, Rosie’s voice is the most relevant — particularly in act three.
TS: The younger audience members were cheering Rosie on during the third act of the play. They were with her 100%. But I think Mike really wants us to feel for all the characters and understand them all.
RA: I think he wants to press our buttons and get us to think. It’s been fascinating to try to figure out if we have a boomer audience or a Generation X audience every night. Sometimes Amy will come up to me after a scene and say, “Oh, they don’t like me tonight.” And sometimes you think the audience is going to start throwing things at us both. It’s been fascinating to understand who we’re performing to on any given night or matinee. It will be really interesting to be performing in front of a student audience.
Love, Love, Love is now playing at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit our website.
2016-2017 Season, A Conversation with, Love Love Love