Interview: Heisenberg’s Kenneth Cranham
I met Kenneth Cranham at the Wyndham’s Theatre ahead of that night’s performance of Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle. We had met once before, incredibly briefly at the Stage Debut Awards, just a few weeks earlier, and I found in our short moment then that he had a great sense of humour and that after 50 years in the industry, theatre is still very exciting to him.
We had just sat down in the Stalls of the Wyndham’s theatre when he had me back up again to make sure I saw the stunning artwork on ceiling. One of the best things about London’s older theatres is the beauty that lies above, as well as ahead. Kenneth immediately makes me feel at ease and I feel as though I’m about to interview an old friend; he’s warm, charming and funny with flashes of passion, the same passion that I saw on stage later that night in Heisenberg.
Having made sure I appreciated the ceiling of the theatre, Kenneth tells me about the importance of the theatre buildings themselves to the work of acting. “I lived in Camberwell when I was a boy and there three cinemas and there was a variety hall, a [Frank] Matcham, who was the great builder of theatres in this country. I’ve toured England three times, I’ve played lots of Matcham houses and I know what good theatres they are. This [Wyndham’s] funnily enough a Matcham. They’re great theatres, they really look after you and we’ve rather willy nilly forgot what he knew. The Vic and The Court, those are very loving theatres, you actually feel as if the building loves what you’re doing.”
Kenneth plays Alex, a butcher living a solitary life, who is revived by Anne-Marie Duff’s character and they begin a surprising romance, leading each down an unexpected path. “She lies a lot, she creates personalities and life stories that aren’t true and thing like that. And I know what that’s like. I went to New Zealand once to do a mini-series and I actually got the feeling that I can be whomever I want in New Zealand. And she’s American in London. You can reinvent yourself at will.”
We talk about the friends he’d seen that weekend, Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen, and about the fact that to gather together for a birthday is rare and special as most speeches he gives now are at funerals. “It’s the interesting thing about this play actually, it’s partly about how many Christmases have you got left? That’s one of the lines.”
Identity, age, reinvention – these topics of conversation aren’t specific to actors, but they do have a unique perspective, constantly stepping into other people’s lives and playing different roles at different ages.
As an actor you can become someone new, is it a feeling of escapism?
“Yes, although when you’re on that stage and the curtain is close and you hear this hubbub, you think ‘Why do I do this? I don’t have to do this.'”
So right before the curtain goes up, is that the calm before the storm or is it a rush of energy?
“It’s sort of a mixture of fear, alarm and a need to get on with it. But I have to say, she [Anne-Marie] knows her way about the stage. She’s very comfortable and it’s great doing it with her – this would be a difficult gig if it wasn’t for her.
What you do at drama school is you look around at who’s doing what and try and discern what your path might be. Which actors you can identify with, admire.”
“My youngest daughter, who has just left Drama Centre, her idol, the actress she thinks is the one is Anne-Marie Duff. She saw this play last night for the third time. And she loves it, she finds it very exciting but it’s strange for her. She said to me today how moving she finds it and I said which bit, and there’s a bit where I say, ‘I’m too old for the struggle, I’m losing the spirit to fight’. It made my daughter cry, because she knows her dad is old. I am 73 soon while I’m doing this play, even though Alex is a 75-year-old. And I’m really not trying to make anyone cry, I’m trying to make it as light as I possibly can. You don’t know what touches people. ”
A lot of people in the audience may relate to that feeling too and see their own father up on that stage.
“Well the play I did before this, I did The Father, and played somebody with Alzheimer’s, most nights a third of the audience couldn’t move out of their seats. It related to something. There was a time, 50 years ago, when Joe Orton was murdered and Kenneth Halliwell committed suicide, I didn’t know anybody who had died, I still had four grandparents. Now, most of the people I love are dead. Most of them. It’s a strange thing to say, for that to be true but it is.”
That’s quite an intense realisation.
“I think, in a way, it’s valuable because it might make you stop wasting it, what you’ve got left.”
There’s a sadness to what he says but also a strange optimism to it. Much like his character in Heisenberg, Kenneth realises that time is precious, that if you’re going to do something you better stop talking about it and just do it. He takes pleasure in still being able to do things for the first time, working with Marianne Elliott and Anne-Marie being one of them.
“I described them on the radio yesterday as being bonded by their hearts. 10 years ago they did Saint Joan, I didn’t see it my wife did, she said it was wonderful. She’s a very particular actress. We’re both from a poor London background, she’s Southall Irish and I’m from Camberwell.
We’re both leading players who haven’t come from…The current stock the casting people go to are from Eton and so on, I believe. Has it come to this? ”
“At Tulse Hill Comprehensive, two men: Ray Jenkins and Chris Harbon, directed me in plays at school. I did the Scottish play, I did the title role, full length for a fortnight. I played Bamforth in The Long and the Short and the Tall, the part that Peter O’Toole played at the Royal Court, so the Court entered my DNA through these teachers. Chris was a big admirer of Bill Gaskill, particularly his work in Saved and by 1968 I was playing the lead in it.
By the time I finished school, I was very educated dramatically, in fact I was staying on longer because of the good parts coming up. I had a real struggle to get 5 O Levels, but if you play the Scottish King, full-length for four nights a week, that’s about 8 O Levels on its own. That’s how it was and I don’t know if that goes on anymore.”
It seems like even seeing a play is no longer an essential part of an arts education.
“Well even in that utopian situation I’m describing to you, I had to choose between a two hour period of art or music a week. But I did maths every day – give me a break! Art and music are the two things that sustain me, totally.”
You can see Kenneth Cranham in Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle, playing now at The Wyndham’s Theatre.
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