Life & Culture

Interview: Allan Corduner

No longer scared to play Jewish


Maybe there should be a self-help group for British actors who worry that their Jewishness is a handicap when it comes to being cast in non-Jewish roles.

The latest actor to speak about this syndrome — yet to be recognised by the acting or medical professions — is Allan Corduner, who is appearing in the first West End revival in 13 years of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge.

In Lindsay Posner’s production, Ken Stott plays Eddie Carbone, the dockworker whose love for his niece Catherine (Hayley Atwell) is something more than paternal, and the Oscar-nominated American film and stage actress Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is Eddie’s wife, Beatrice.

But it is Corduner’s narrator Alfieri, who is pivotal — the Italian family’s wise friend who warns Eddie and the audience of approaching tragedy. “You know what’s going to happen because he tells you,” says Corduner. “It’s inexorable. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. You can see it coming like a huge boulder.”

If it is true that Italians and Jews have similar traits and temperaments, it may not be such a leap for Corduner to play Alfieri after his most recent movie role — that of Rabbi Shamon Haretz, Daniel Craig’s teacher in Defiance, which is about the real-life band of Jews, led by Craig’s Tuvia Bielski, who took refuge from the Nazis in a Lithuanian forest.

“I was very connected to the events that happen in Defiance. It’s literally in my own personal family history.” Corduner had no relations in the Lithuanian forest but his late mother was born and raised in Berlin. She remembered attending a Hitler rally when she was 13 and being drawn by the sheer magnetism of the Fuhrer and the charge of the crowd, before feeling utterly disgusted by the violent hysteria of the event. And she remembered too her overnight rejection by her gentile friends. Before she died in 1992 she had passed these and other memories on to her son.

Corduner was born in Stockholm before his mother and Finnish/Russian father moved with their one-year-old son to north London. His first ambition was to be a conductor. His second, a concert pianist. “I wasn’t good enough,” says the 58-year-old actor.

But he was good enough for the rigorous audition that Mike Leigh put him through for the role of composer Sir Arthur Sullivan in the 1999 film Topsy Turvy. Leigh made Corduner play the piano in all sort of styles before offering the role that changed his life.

“He’s a hard task master,” he says of Leigh. “But I loved the work. I loved having the time to immerse myself so completely that when you get in front of the camera you are so free, you are just that person. And I got to love the character of Sullivan.”

Leigh again turned to Corduner with his National Theatre play Two Thousand Years, in which he played Danny, the patriarch of a secular Jewish household in north London, which was presumably very like the secular north London Jewish household of his childhood.

“We were so secular there was almost no religious upbringing at all,” he says. “We did go to a Jewish Sunday school, my brother and I, but only while we felt like it. And my father, who had religious parents, wanted nothing to do with any organised religion. Having said that, I always felt Jewish. And the older I get, the more I understand I have some unspoken cultural and indeed ethnic bond with Judaism and history.” And then he exclaims: “Christ, it’s so complicated!” as if to prove the complexity of feeling Jewish and assimilated.

But that friction has at least been laid to rest by his work with Leigh, which also includes the film Vera Drake.

“In my career I’ve sometimes been worried about only being cast as an ethnic type, whether it be Italian, Romanian or Jews.” Those Jews also include Tubal with Al Pacino’s film Shylock; the harrowing role of Doctor Miklos Nyiszli who was sent to work under Mengele in Auschwitz, in the film The Grey Zone; or even Mark Rothko in Simon Schama’s Power of Art television series; or Herr Klesma in the BBC’s adaptation of Daniel Deronda… the list is long.

“I used to think, I can’t just leap at every Jewish part that comes along because otherwise I’ll never do anything else. But Two Thousand Years freed me in some way. The fetters of my own making have been dropped,” he says.

Perhaps the fetters were not entirely of his own making, however. The fear of being ethnically typecast has also been felt by other actors on that production such as Adam Godley and Samantha Spiro. And like Corduner they have since felt freer to accept Jewish roles. In Corduner’s case, free enough to joke about it. “I’ve designed my own epitaph for my tombstone,” he says. “Here lies Allan Corduner, if he had a foreskin he wouldn’t have had a career.”

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