Playing a low-rent Luton lawyer in a new play by Nick Payne at the Donmar Warehouse, Nigel Lindsay is certainly spending a lot less time in wardrobe than he did for his previous show. The role of Barry in The Same Deep Water As Me is one requiring Lindsay — one of this country’s most powerful stage actors — to don a shabby suit.
And as he steps in front of the dressing room mirror to affix Barry’s favourite bowling- club tie, he may half expect to see the green-skinned, trumpet-eared face of Shrek staring back at him.
For his two years starring in Shrek The Musical, Lindsay spent an hour-and-a-half daily in make-up, he recalls on a lunch break from rehearsing Payne’s play about the seedy world of “no-win no-fee” law firms.
“On matinee days, I had to leave it on for 10 hours. I couldn’t even take it off in the two hours between shows.” Did “Shrek” ever nip out to get a sandwich? “It was against my contract. I would bring in food in the morning from Marks and have a sandwich. But it was quite difficult to eat with the green skin on. It was even difficult to sleep because you would have to lie flat. You couldn’t turn on your side because you might break an ear.”
Taking on the lead in one of the biggest productions in the history of musical theatre was a big culture shock for Lindsay. The son of an East End-born businessman who worked in the “shmutter trade”, he is best known to theatre-goers as a straight-backed charismatic presence on stage. His roles include the manfully wise Doctor Hyman in Arthur Miller’s psychological Holocaust play Breaking Glass, and the streetwise war veteran in Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing. And then there is the misogynist pimp in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. On screen, the roles tend to have more of a comedy bent, such as rampant capitalist Jason in the latest Alan Partridge movie, or Barry the jihadist in Chris Morris’s martyr romp Four Lions.
“I seem to have cornered the market in Barrys,” jokes Lindsay, now crunching a crouton. The Barry he is rehearsing is a man whose life has not gone brilliantly. “He’s a qualified lawyer but he hasn’t exactly made it to the top of his profession. The only reason he has the firm is because he’s inherited it. His wife is dead and his daughter’s got spina bifida and they have no money. Apart from that, everything is going swimmingly.”
That’s more like it — the kind of meaty role Lindsay forged his reputation on. When it was announced that he was playing Shrek, it was a little like hearing that Al Pacino was portraying Santa Claus.
The stint was, admits Lindsay, less fun than he hoped, if, doubtless, extremely well paid. “It was tough. The toughest thing I’ve ever done.” But asked if he regretted doing it, he replies: “If I knew what I know now when I took the role, I’d still do it. There are quite a few actors who wouldn’t have minded being in the number one dressing room at Drury Lane where Rex Harrison did My Fair Lady and Nathan Lane did The Producers.”
But there is a rueful tone to the voice that suggests he is glad, relieved even, to be back in the kind of role with which he made his mark. And the sort of role that is often Jewish, whether written that way or not.
“A lot of the time the characters are Jewish because a lot of the greatest playwrights are Jewish,” he explains. “If I do a Pinter or a Mamet, even though they are not written as Jews, there is a sensibility, a rhythm of language. It’s almost like there is a secret between me and the writer.”
The latest Barry, however, is not Jewish — although for Lindsay, Barry the jihadist was. The actor always thought of him as a “Jew who had converted”. And nor is the role for which Lindsay will be rehearsing by day as he plays Barry by night. “I’m going to do Richard II for the RSC with David Tennant playing Richard,” he says. “I’m playing Bolingbroke, one of the 10 biggest roles in Shakespeare.
“It’s going to be weird because in the evening I’ll be playing a Luton lawyer and during the day I’ll be rehearsing the future Henry IV. The voices are very different. I’ve not been in the situation before. I’m looking forward to it but I’m going to need a bit of help from Greg Doran, the director.”
And, depending on the period in which Doran sets Shakespeare’s history play, Lindsay may once again need some help with the heavy duty make up.