‘Gone are the days of me playing young and innocent,” says Samuel Barnett. This is perhaps more a declaration of hope than fact for the actor who recently played fresh-faced Danny in the fizzing BBC Olympic satire, Twenty Twelve.
Barnett has just finished rehearsing his latest role at London’s Apollo Theatre, and as we sit talking in the pokey upper-circle bar, you get the sense that at 32, his youthful looks may have been a barrier to landing drama’s more grizzled roles.
And yet here he is, looking almost as innocent as he did eight years ago when he created the Jewish role of Posner in Alan Bennett’s all-conquering The History Boys, and now playing Queen Elizabeth, practically the only character with enough steel to stand up to Mark Rylance’s murderous Richard III. Although it cannot go on like this. Not unless Barnett is going to make a career out of playing Shakespeare’s female roles.
“Up until last year, I was playing late teens and men in their early twenties — innocent, raw, angst-ridden. And not only do I not want to play those roles anymore, they take so much energy,” he says with a histrionic groan. Although it must also be pretty exhausting playing a woman whose children and husband have been slaughtered. Not to mention getting into that dress.
Barnett is playing pivotal roles in the most exciting Shakespeare double-bill to reach the West End in years: the all-male Shakespeare’s Globe productions of Richard III and Twelfth Night. In Richard, Barnett is the aforementioned Queen Elizabeth, and in the equally long-awaited Twelfth Night, which features Stephen Fry’s Malvolio, he is the dashing Sebastian.
But although in that play he gets to draw his sword and swagger a lot, it is as Elizabeth that he makes his mark. It comes in the scene where having slaughtered most of her family and stolen her country, Rylance’s unhinged Richard then attempts to persuade Elizabeth to help him win her daughter’s hand in marriage.
In full Elizabethan splendour, with his face pasted white and framed by lace ruff below his chin, it is not a massive leap for an actor of Barnett’s ability to play a woman. And he admits as much.
“First of all, the costume does it. Obviously I’ve got the painted face and the wig and the dress, so that does work for people if they’re willing to suspend disbelief. So I just play Elizabeth’s regality instead of trying to play ‘a woman’. And it’s a gift of a part.”
As the crunch scene between Elizabeth and Richard develops, a remarkable shift in power takes place as she engages him in verbal combat and comes out on top. The way Barnett plays it, this Elizabeth does not submit. “She doesn’t crack at all,” he says.
The character is a long way from Danny, the effortlessly competent PA in Twenty Twelve. “That was great and I loved it,” says Barnett. “But obviously [he breaks out in a mock cry] the Olympics have finsihed so I don’t know how I’m going to do anything more with that. Maybe we can do the Brazilian version, go to Rio and help out. Yes please!”
He is a nice chap, Barnett. As we talk about the Shakepeare production, which I saw a couple of months previously at the Globe, we realise that I am conflating his powerful confrontation with Richard with an earlier scene between the king and another of his victims, Lady Anne (played by Johnny Flynn), which ends up with Richard very much on top.
From Barnett, however, there is no hint of thespian huff about the mistake. Rather he reveals how for him, Shakespeare was always scary prospect until he landed the role of Elizabeth.
“I never wanted to do Shakespeare, I never liked watching it, it’s always frightened me, and I’ve never been any good at it. But I really wanted to work with the director Tim Carroll and Mark Rylance. Mark’s unique, I’ve never come across anyone like him.”
Most observers would probably agree that Rylance is currently the most extraordinary talent on the British stage. Barnett must be learning a lot. “Actually, you know what, it’s not that I’m learning from him, it’s more like I’m learning what I’m capable of.”
Barnett has certainly learned a lot since he played the angst-ridden schoolboy Posner, a role whose defining line was “I’m a Jew, I’m small, I’m homosexual and I live in Sheffield — I’m f***d”.
But despite the “north of England thing” as he calls it (he was raised in Whitby, Yorkshire before going to drama school in London at 18), he does not remember having a great deal in common with Posner, not even the character’s Jewishness.
There was little mention of God in the house where he and his four siblings grew up in Yorkshire. Which is perhaps surprising considering that his mother is descended from Quakers, and his father from Jewish Polish immigrants.
“The thing is, they were never defined by the religion. Although on the Jewish side I have spent Passover with my father’s family who live in Stanmore. But I have my own faith which I’ve developed. It’s non-denominational. I don’t even know if it’s about God.”
But he has an interesting theory about Posner, the character that gave him his breakthrough and led to juicy roles such as Carl in Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice and Rosencrantz in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
“I think Posner was a mash up of Nick Hytner and Alan Bennett,” he says.
Whether it is true or not, it makes perfect sense. Posner could be half Hytner, the play’s Jewish director who would have worked closely with the author on the script’s development, and half Bennett, who like Posner, is a Yorkshire lad.
As for Barnett, Posner is a fond memory but hopefully not a defining character type for the actor. “I do wonder myself how my casting will open up. But right now, playing Elizabeth is something that most male actors will never get to do. To lose your husband, children and kingdom — that plumbs all sorts of depths.”