This is how you play Fagin, Rowan

As Rowan Atkinson prepares to play Fagin, Jonathan Pryce, Timothy Spall and Michael Feast tell how they approached the role

By John Nathan, December 18, 2008
Jonathan Pryce, who played Fagin  on the London stage in 1994, did not win universal praise for playing down his Jewishness: “I was being criticised for not being a Jewish stereotype”

Jonathan Pryce, who played Fagin on the London stage in 1994, did not win universal praise for playing down his Jewishness: “I was being criticised for not being a Jewish stereotype”

Take a train on the London Underground and there he is. His steady stare follows you up and down the escalators.

The face belongs to Rowan Atkinson, who has swapped the role of his gormless creation, Mr Bean, for the cunning Dickensian character Fagin in the latest West End revival of the musical, Oliver!.

This Fagin is not quite the “old shrivelled Jew” as described by his creator, Charles Dickens. Instead of the “villainous-looking and repulsive face, obscured by a quantity of matted hair”, Atkinson’s version appears to sport more of a comb-over than an unwashed mane. And instead of villainy in those eyes, there is something less threatening — mischief, perhaps.

But then the Fagin in the Underground posters does not belong so much to Dickens, or even Atkinson for that matter, as Lionel Bart who in 1957 — 120 years after Oliver Twist was serialised in Bentley’s Miscellany — adapted Dickens’s story into a musical.

In the process, he converted one of literature’s most loathed villains — hated by both Jew and Christian, though for entirely different reasons — into a lovable rogue.

This version of Bart’s musical is, in fact, a rehash of Sam Mendes’s 1994 production, re-directed by Rupert Goold.

It is the latest West End show to receive squillions of pounds-worth of free, licence-fee funded publicity in the form of a BBC reality TV show.

Timothy Spall: sympathetic

Timothy Spall: sympathetic

The series, called I’d Do Anything, discovered three new Olivers (regulations require child roles to be rotated) and a new Nancy (Jodie Prenger).

But for the show’s most charismatic role, producer Cameron Mackintosh has relied on good old fashioned celebrity casting. Which is probably just as well.

There were reports that the BBC also considered auditioning for the role of Fagin on the show. What a nightmare that would have been — West End hopefuls donning false noses and practising their mugging and shrugging backstage before presenting their villainous Jew to a panel of judges and millions of television viewers.

Some of the contestants would have taken their cue from Ron Moody’s famously gentle version, others from Alec Guinness’s ferocious and, for many, antisemitic portrayal in the 1948 David Lean movie. The latter was considered so offensive, Polish Jews in Berlin rioted.

“I looked at the [Guinness] film and I thought it was horrible. Absolutely horrible,” says Jonathan Pryce, who played Fagin in Mendes’s 1994 production. “I didn’t need to go there. I didn’t play him as a Jew, but I didn’t not play him as a Jew. He’s a villain. Villains can be any nationality”.

Though it was acclaimed by many reviewers, Pryce’s approach drew criticism for being ethnically neutral.

“The overriding thought in my head,” says Pryce, “was that I’d just filmed the movie Carrington in which I’d played the famously homosexual writer Lytton Strachey. During the film’s promotion I was asked if I’d ever played a gay character before. My answer was ‘Yes, lots. But you’ve never known it.’ So that was what informed the way I played Fagin. Yes, I was playing a Jewish character, but what do you need to see to tell he’s Jewish?”

One journalist wrote that Pryce’s Fagin would have benefited from political incorrectness.

“I was being criticised for not being a Jewish stereotype,” says Pryce, who remembers bumping into the journalist in a department store. “I asked if he was Jewish. He said yes, and I said I didn’t know. How am I supposed to tell that you are Jewish?”

To be or not to be Jewish, that is the question. And it’s one to which Atkinson, whose acting pedigree is nowhere near that of Pryce’s, is going to have to find an answer to when Oliver!, which started previews this week, officially opens next month at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

Last Christmas, Timothy Spall played Fagin in an acclaimed BBC adaptation of Dickens’s book. Unlike Bart’s musical, Dickens makes several references, most of them unflattering, to Fagin’s Jewishness.

In fact, 17 years after the book was published in 1837, the Jewish Chronicle wrote a leader asking why “Jews alone should be excluded from the sympathising heart of the great author and powerful friend of the oppressed.”
“I considered it a long time before taking it on,” says Spall of the role. “There’s also a lot of controversy about Fagin because there are various schools of thought about what Dickens was trying to say. And obviously some people think Fagin is an antisemitic creation. I don’t feel that. The first people you see in charge of Oliver’s destiny are those in the workhouse. Now they, to a man, are a repugnant bunch of bastard hypocrites. And Dickens loathed the workhouse.

“But the next person you see in charge of Oliver’s destiny is Fagin. He’s the first adult character who has any warmth. What Dickens is saying I think is that he may be a crook but at least he’s looking after these kids.”

Spall’s approach was very different from Pryce’s. Instead of making his Fagin less Jewish, he made him very Jewish, sensual and exotic. Bedecked with bling, he wore a conspicuous kippah and even kept kosher, or at least declined to eat the pork sausages he cooked for the children in his charge.

To ground his performance, Spall invented a back-story. “He’s obviously Yiddish-speaking but has been brought up in a Mediterranean world, probably Venice. I think he was possibly the son of a rich merchant who was shamed and cast out, maybe as the result of a pogrom. I had images of him being in a souk in Morocco dealing in jewellery and on a pirate ship for a while sorting and valuing booty. He could fit in anywhere, but was still a pariah and despised for being a Jew. I really felt a great affection for him.”

In 2004, Michael Feast played Fagin as a menacing, Victorian gangster in Neil Bartlett’s brilliant but dark Lyric Hammersmith production of Oliver Twist. Like Spall, Feast also created a past for Dickens’s most conspicuous Jew.

“I wanted to know what had gone into the making of an archetypal villain,” says Feast. “Not just to avoid the potential antisemitic thing, but from a human point of view. I thought Fagin was probably mistreated as a kid and separated from his family.”

As with the past invented for Fagin by Spall, Feast sees the character as a victim of European pogroms before he landed in London and as with Pryce, Alec Guinness’s hook-nosed Fagin, who would not look out of place in Der Stürmer, as something to avoid.

In fact none of these actors resorted to a fake nose. Unlike, say, Ben Kingsley’s version in Roman Polanski’s recent movie adaptation.
“No, I didn’t want to do that,” says Feast. “I would have been a hostage to fortune.”

“I didn’t wear a nose and I didn’t wear contact lenses over my blue eyes,” says Spall.

“I’ve got my own nose,” says Pryce. “And I always had the security of knowing that when Mel Brooks took me out for lunch he thought I was Jewish. And if Mel Brooks thinks you’re Jewish, you’re Jewish.”

“The fact is, even if you were to turn Fagin into a Nazi portrayal of a Jew,” says Spall, “there is something inherently sympathetic in Dickens’s writing. I defy anyone to come away with anything other than warmth and pity for him.”

Last updated: 3:01pm, February 18 2011