Hugh Bonneville: '˜It's a big part in a big play'

After massive success with Downton Abbey and films including Paddington, Hugh Bonneville returns to the theatre for the first time in more than a decade, opening the 2016 Chichester Festival Theatre summer season in a major revival of Ibsen's An Enemy Of The People.

Friday, 15th April 2016, 12:51 pm
Updated Monday, 18th April 2016, 9:20 am
Abigail Cruttenden in rehearsal for An Enemy of The People with Hugh Bonneville. Photo by Manuel Harlan

It marks 30 years since he got his equity card and 20 years since he last performed in Chichester.

‘The last time I was in Chichester was The Handyman in the Minerva in 1996, but the last time I was on stage was Kevin Spacey’s opening production at the Old Vic in 2004, Cloaca. It heralded his reign at the Old Vic, and he has just handed over the reins to Matthew Warchus. And so there is a timeliness to me coming to Chichester just as Jonathan Church is handing over to Daniel Evans.’

So 12 years away from the boards… Is that something to get over?

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Hugh (pictured left in rehearsals with Abigail Cruttenden) says:‘I suppose the proof will be in the coming weeks as we go into rehearsal. It’s a big part in a big play, with a big set piece in Act IV with the townsfolk all coming into a public meeting. The Chichester stage will be used in an epic sense. But being on stage again, will it be like getting back on a bike or will I need my stabilisers? I don’t know yet!

‘In film and TV, which I love, it is so different in so many ways, lack of rehearsal being a key element. But stage is really turning the tables. In film, what you do could be left on the cutting-room floor, but in the theatre it is the actors that are driving the piece.

‘In film and TV, it is the other way round. It is the crew that become the driving force. They are there from eight in the morning to maybe nine at night, and the cast just pop in and out. In Downton, sometimes you didn’t see your co-stars for weeks because they are filming a different storyline.

‘In the theatre the set-up involves everyone getting on this big ship and keeping everyone on board, and then hopefully a couple of hours later you are still all on board together, including the audience!’

Inevitably, it’s the conclusion of Downton Abbey which has created the possibility of Hugh’s stage return.

‘(CFT artistic director) Jonathan and I have been meeting up in various coffee shops over the past few years. He has always been very kindly saying would I come to Chichester, but unfortunately the timing has never been right. We generally filmed February to August for Downton, and then you need to lie down in a dark room, by which time the Chichester season is coming to an end.

‘But now that Downton has faded from the horizon, last summer Jonathan sent me a few plays, asking me which one I really wanted to do and that he really wanted to use the stage in his final season in Chichester to finish in a big, epic way.

‘I had never read An Enemy of the People before, but I really could not put it down. To see this great vibrant character, Dr Stockmann, was fascinating, this man who upholds freedom of speech and freedom of expression and the freedom to do the right thing and blow the whistle.’

Stockmann, Chief Medical Officer of the Baths, has made a shocking scientific discovery about the standards of sanitation at the popular local spa. Luckily technology has a ready solution: the polluted baths must close immediately, so cleansing and rebuilding work can be carried out. But not everyone sees things quite so simply

‘Initially he takes the liberal press and all the tradesmen with him, but then there is this fascinating shift where you recognise that his voice is being muffled and that ultimately the people turn against him as he becomes the enemy of the people when they realise the ramifications of shutting down the baths, which will decimate the town economically.’

As Jonathan Church has said, and Hugh agrees, there is a direct parallel with Jaws: ‘I don’t know if (Jaws author) Peter Benchley would accept there is a nod to it, but there is something nasty out at sea and the people are saying “Shut up!” because of the tourism. It is an absolute parallel. And you think of fracking now, and you think of George Osborne devolving more power to the local councils – except maybe more power might just be a way of dumping problems on the councils. All the themes of the play resonate down the decades.

‘But for me, the really interesting thing is that the character is flawed. He may be right. He is the man that spots a problem in society and has a duty to speak up, but the flaw in this man is that he becomes a pain in the neck. There are times when you are thinking “Shut up! You have made your point!”’

While he has become a regular on TV and film since he last took to the stage, it is Downton that has cemented him in the public’s mind, playing the family patriarch the Earl of Grantham.

He says: ‘Its impact, the hunger for attention from ourselves, was at times challenging, but I often liken Downton to being in a hurricane. When you are in the eye of a storm, sometimes you don’t really realise the impact until it has passed through.

‘But I have had so many touching letters from people from all over the world saying that it brought together the whole family on a Sunday evening in a way they had just never done in our world where everyone just plugs into their own hand-held devices.

‘For them it has been an escape, and I can say I have never had that reaction before. And if you are in someone’s front room, that can happen, you become part of the furniture.

‘It is too easy to say that it had something for everybody, but I think people got hooked on the characters and their relationships. It was as simple as that. You think of shows like Breaking Bad and House of Cards, but even those iconic shows that are brilliantly made and utterly addictive, are not something that would bring granny and mum and grandchildren together. I think it is probably like being in a warm bath. There is an element where you feel safe. There have been moments of breaking the mould and some storylines that were less comfortable, but on the whole it was a fictional world that people were drawn to.

‘And it has done that in pretty much every territory. I thought it would only appeal to a Sunday night audience of a certain kind and maybe a small section of the American audience that goes for heritage drama. But it has had the same impact wherever it has gone.’

Having said that, Hugh believes it was right it finished when it did: ‘We were due to finish after the fifth series, but (writer) Julian Fellowes said it would have been too truncated. He wanted a sixth series.

‘I am sure the attraction that ITV wanted to pay him could have helped, but really he just wanted to bring the stories into land in the way he wanted to.

‘And it was right to finish while the audience wanted more. As Julian said, you don’t want to be the last person at the party, and he was right.

‘It was a bitter-sweet finale when we were all saying goodbye to much-loved characters, but we were all very tired. But now, with a little bit of clear water, I am nostalgic about it and I miss it. I would not to want to go back and do it all again necessarily, though!’

n An Enemy Of The People is at Chichester Festival Theatre from April 22-May 21. Tickets on