Rupert Everett: ‘I’m very much into eloquence and elegance’
Cambridge theatre-goers are in for a treat this week as a new adaptation of A Voyage Round My Father, an autobiographical play by John Mortimer (creator of Rumpole of the Bailey) and starring BAFTA and Golden Globe nominee Rupert Everett, kicked off its run at the Cambridge Arts Theatre yesterday (Tuesday).
The play was previously made into a TV film in 1982, starring Laurence Olivier and Alan Bates, and the reviews of this exciting touring production have generally been very positive, with MailOnline saying of Everett’s performance: “Laurence Olivier would have loved him”.
“That’s a very nice one,” laughs Rupert, 64, who has taken on the role of Clifford Mortimer, John Mortimer’s father, the character played by Olivier in the film version.
Does the acclaimed actor, speaking to the Cambridge Independent from Richmond, the stop before Cambridge on the tour, ever read reviews of the plays he’s in?
“I like to know the gist of what they said, from somebody else,” he replies, “and obviously I love them when they’re good and I like them less when they’re bad – but I don’t actually read them, no.”
A Voyage Round My Father shines a light on the delicate relationship between a young man (John Mortimer) and his father who adored his garden and hated visitors, and whose blindness was never mentioned, and introduces us to world of hilarious eccentrics, bumbling headteachers and exasperated relatives.
In a recent interview with Piers Morgan, Rupert stated that the play was “like Chekhov but it’s also like Dad’s Army”.
Elaborating on this, he notes: “It’s got a very lyrical Chekhovian side to it, and then it’s also extremely witty and funny of that particular period.
“It was written, I suppose, in the late 60s, so it has a kind of eloquence. It’s funny and romantic and nostalgic, I think.”
Rupert, who made his directorial debut with 2018’s The Happy Prince, a film about Oscar Wilde’s life following his release from prison, in which he also starred, believes eloquence has been somewhat lost in the modern world.
“I think words are amazing,” he observes, “I mean obviously as an actor that’s what we work with, but I’m enraptured by the words we’ve developed over these however many years we’ve been on our feet.
“It’s a miracle, I think, it’s one of the most extraordinary things about humanity, that we’ve developed these languages that can describe every single feeling and view and event, and so yes, I’m very much into eloquence and elegance.”
One example of how we’ve lost a certain degree of eloquence in our language could be in the constant use of the word ‘like’, particularly among the young, something Rupert touched upon in the aforementioned Piers Morgan interview.
“Everybody says, ‘like, like, like, like, like, like’ and it just seems to be a bastardisation”, opines the seasoned pro. “It’s a shame because it debases the amazing opportunity we have to describe things…
“It’s such a weird thing because I don’t quite know where it comes from, because when you say ‘like’ it means you’re kind of painting a picture, so if you say, ‘She was like really angry...’
“It’s interesting as well because it’s almost like painting a cartoon picture of feelings. Anyway, I think that one of the things that is necessary is for us to try and expand, or to try and interest people more in language and words and what people have written.
“I think it’s such a magical part of our evolution and each of us are that incredible intelligence and I think we owe it to ourselves to find out more about it, in terms of reading literature and doing literature in schools – and history.”
On what drew him to A Voyage Round My Father and to the character of Clifford, Rupert says: “It’s a great character; I suppose as an actor you’re always looking for a character that you can make a splash with, and Clifford Mortimer, which is John Mortimer’s father, really was quite an extraordinary man.
“He was blinded aged, I think, 38 and continued to live his life as if he hadn’t been blinded, and everyone around him was sworn, without ever talking about it, to a kind of secrecy.
“By the power of his personality, somehow he managed to keep juggling all these balls, like going to court.
“He was a pioneer of the divorce case – he divorced Wallis Simpson from Ernest Simpson, for example, when divorce was pretty unheard of.
“And he didn’t accommodate his blindness at all; he’s just an amazing character, very funny, very irascible, and ultimately loving but in a very peculiar way.
“The story, which is basically a son’s portrait of his own father, is compelling to me because the relationship between them is fraught with tons of complication and almost hatred at some points.
“But underneath that, there is this great complicity and love between them, which I found very touching.”
Rupert says he was familiar with the film version of the play and also saw Derek Jacobi in a stage production of it “about 10, 15 years ago”.
He adds: “It’s just something I always loved; it’s a bubble about a time and a family and John Mortimer’s outlook on life.
“I loved Rumpole of the Bailey and most of the remaining theatre audience I figured were older and might appreciate that very nostalgic look into a warm summer garden that one imagines one’s youth was spent in – and that’s how the play is to me.”
The play also stars Julian Wadham, an actor who Rupert knows quite well, having appeared with him in The Happy Prince, among many other things.
“He was in The Happy Prince, we started in the theatre together, we made our West End debut together, we were in drama school together, at the Central School of Speech and Drama, and then we were at school together as well – from the age of 12,” he reveals.
“So that’s very lovely for me… Also, Eleanor David, who plays my wife, I was at drama school with too.
“That’s one of the other things about getting older in the business; it’s very pleasant having long relationships with people and [director] Richard Eyre I’ve known for a long time too.
“It’s a wonderful company of very, very good actors; the boy playing my son Jack is fantastic, everyone in the company’s wonderful.”
Rupert’s first starring role in a major motion picture was 1984’s Another Country, alongside Colin Firth, who was making his film debut.
The movie, which was based on the life of Cambridge spy Guy Burgess, also saw Rupert receive his first BAFTA nomination, for Most Outstanding Newcomer to Film.
Asked if he has a preferred medium in which to work – theatre, film or television – Rupert says: “What I feel at the moment is that it’s wonderful because the more virtual we become, the more sacred huge rooms full of people seem.
“There’s a communion between audience and player, when it works out – and when it doesn’t work out too – that’s magical in this day and age where you can’t even talk to anyone on the telephone.
“And also rehearsing a play: 20 people come together for five weeks and their only collateral, really, is their own lives and their experiences, which they share normally very generously and openly and trustingly, and I find that also suddenly almost seemed alien and is kind of sacred and wonderful.”
Returning to The Happy Prince, a film I very much enjoyed (other favourite Rupert Everett performances for me over the years include Algy in The Importance of Being Earnest, David Blakely in Dance with a Stranger, Colin in The Comfort of Strangers, Bill Bule in Separate Lies, and Prince Charming in Shrek 2), I wondered if there were any other figures from history that the actor would like to portray.
“Well, being Irish, I love James Joyce as well – not so much for his work because I’m not clever enough to understand it very well,” he says modestly, “but I love his life and his personality and his adventure through life, it’s just extraordinary…
“And I love Graham Greene. One of the great disappointments in my career is that I’ve always longed to make a television series of one of my favourite novels, which is Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt.
“I’ve always been refused the rights to it and this has always upset me, because I’m passionate about Greene – he was the first writer I really discovered as a young person.”
While we were on the subject of interesting figures from the 20th century, I mentioned to Rupert that I had seen pictures of him in New York City with the great writer and raconteur Quentin Crisp, who was the subject of the Sting hit Englishman in New York.
“Yes, I knew Quentin Crisp quite well,” remembers Rupert. “He was an amazing character. He lived in New York and I lived in New York at that period and he used to always be down at Andy Warhol’s Factory and places like that, and I saw a lot of him.”
Would Rupert like to play him one day, or did John Hurt completely cover that? “Well I think the thing about John Hurt and [1975 biopic] The Naked Civil Servant is there’s kind of nowhere to go in terms of portrayal, because it was just uncanny what John Hurt did,” comes the reply.
“I felt with Wilde there was still somewhere to go with the Wilde characterisations; I love all of the ones that have been done on film but I felt they were slightly too reverential always – understandably, but I just felt there was somewhere else that it was possible to explore with Wilde. With Quentin, I think it was a magnificent film all over.”
Rupert has spoken of being a survivor, not a victim, something which could have definitely applied to Quentin Crisp, a man who was openly gay at a time when it was still illegal.
“Totally,” he states. “Quentin Crisp was like a mountain goat who could just stand there in the drizzle, on a crag, and that famous thing he had about never dusting [“There is no need to do any housework at all – after the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse”] was kind of a playful parallel of what his life was like.
“He just stood there and kept going, and I think he must have really enjoyed his later life because he was adored when he moved to New York.”
There was a period in the late 90s, early 2000s, when Rupert Everett was a real ‘major player’ in Hollywood – a suggestion he laughs at – where he was much in demand, appearing in such films as My Best Friend’s Wedding, alongside Julia Roberts (for which he was nominated for a Bafta and a Golden Globe), and counting Madonna among his friends. He subsequently received another Golden Globe nomination for 1999’s An Ideal Husband.
Reflecting on that time now, he says: “I wish I’d managed to sustain it longer, and I wish I’d known how to work harder then – which I didn’t.
“So my opportunities came and went, and the thing about youth and adulthood is you always think everything’s going to last forever and then when you discover it doesn’t, it’s often too late to do anything about it.
“I’m not saying I regret anything about it but I wish I’d managed to sink harder and sustain that success for longer.”
A Voyage Round My Father is on now at the Cambridge Arts Theatre and runs until Saturday (October 21). Tickets, priced £25-£50, are available at cambridgeartstheatre.com.