Meet the West End's Shrek - he's big, green and Jewish


Theatre-goers have got used to actor Nigel Lindsay as a tough and charismatic presence in some of the most powerful plays seen on the British stage. He created the character of Mugsy in Patrick Marber's poker play, Dealer's Choice, and his roles since then have included Hyman in Arthur Miller's psychological Holocaust play, Breaking Glass, the misogynist pimp in Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, the boxing trainer in Roy Williams's Sucker Punch, Shrek and Moe Axelrod, the streetwise war veteran in Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing.

Hang on. Shrek? The big, green, swamp-dwelling fairy tale ogre with the trumpet ears and the green skin? That Shrek? After Pinter, Odets, Miller, he's doing Shrek?

"I said to my agent: 'What do you mean, Shrek?'" says Lindsay as we meet in the multi-million pound show's publicity office in Soho. "I said: 'I've got no chance in hell of doing that. I mean, I do proper theatre.' My agent stopped laughing and said: 'They want you to audition'."

What is a serious actor to do when he gets the call to play one of the most famous roles in the world? But then on closer inspection Lindsay's career is far from being laugh-free. On television he has done a bit of sitcom here, worked with Jennifer Saunders there, and he was nominated for a British Comedy Award for his film role as Jihad leader and Muslim convert Barry in Chris Morris's martyr romp, Four Lions. Which is a bit strange when you consider that Lindsay seems to have cornered the market in Jewish parts.

"I make most of my characters Jews," he admits. "It's easier, even when they're not Jewish on the page. I know who I am then. Even Barry the Muslim was in my mind secretly a Jew who had converted. Shrek is going to be Jewish too."

Shrek The Musical is the theatrical equivalent of the blockbuster. The brainchild of Sam Mendes - though based on the Oscar-winning animated movie, itself inspired by William Steig's superbly illustrated book - it is the kind of show which even for a man of Lindsay's talents could be tough to make his own. Producers of big American shows (it first opened on Broadway in 2008) are notoriously inflexible when it comes to changing a winning formula. Actors exercising their right to artistic licence can find themselves out on their ear, which is pretty much what happened to Henry Goodman when he was famously fired from The Producers. Lindsay was aware of the danger before he said yes.

"Without wanting to sound full of myself, I have enough kudos in theatre so that when I want to do a part, no one tells me what to do. Or we have a discussion about how it's going to work. It's a collaborative process. I have been assured by the directors and the producers that the role is up for grabs. We are not repeating what's gone on in the US," he says. There have, he adds, been script changes to accommodate the more cynical British sense of humour.

Still, whatever qualities Lindsay brings to the role, one thing is for certain. This Shrek is going to be big and is going be green, just they way his two daughters of eight and 11 (he has been married to his wife Laura for 15 years) like it. The house was filled with cries of "Dad is going to be Shrek!" when he secured the role.

It could so easily have been different. The son of an East End-born businessman who was in the "shmutter trade", Lindsay began his working life in the City.

"I hated every minute of it. I went to university, was relatively academic, had Jewish parents who wanted me to get a proper job. And there was slight pressure from them and pressure from myself, because, dare I say it, in the Jewish fraternity you're supposed to make good money and earn a living for your wife and family and all that. That's the way I was brought up."

An am-dram production changed all that. Despite earning "good money" as a financial analyst (an area about which he knew absolutely nothing), the experience of playing in a friend's charity production was enough to make him apply to drama school.

"I thought, if I get in, I'll go," he says. And he did, though only after negotiating a pay rise at his City firm and demanding half his bonus in advance. His boss "went ballistic" when a few days later Lindsay resigned.

"'Where you going?' the boss said." (Lindsay puts on perfect American accent when he tells the story.) "'Goldman Sachs? Walbridge? How much are they paying you?'

'Er, nothing', I said, 'I'm going to the Webber Douglas School of Drama'. He shook my hand, and said good luck. When I told another boss I was leaving, he had tears in his eyes. He said: 'I've been working in this s***hole for 40 years. I'm a multi-millionaire and I hate it. Get out. And good luck to you'."

It was months before the firm remembered to ask for their Golf GTi back, which made Lindsay the flashiest drama student in London.

It was the kind chutzpah Lindsay first came across with his father Jack, who in the early '70s made the news for being mistaken for the similarly named New York mayor while visiting Cambodia. He had, in fact, made the story up, but only as a joke. Then the Draper Times got hold of it, then the Guardian, then the BBC and ITV. "I've still got the tape of him being interviewed by Hugh Scully," laughs Lindsay. "Of course, he mentions his company about five times."

Lindsay has not been out of work since drama school, not counting the two weeks between playing the King of France in the Royal Court production of King Lear and Mugsy in Dealer's Choice. So what it is that directors love about this actor who is by no means bad looking but neither is he an obvious choice for romantic leads. He is is a tough, watchful presence on stage, but he transmits moral fibre too, a sort of streetwise code of conduct that you can trust to do the right - though not necessarily legal - thing. There is an everyman quality about him.

And although actors often find it difficult to talk about what it is they bring to a performance, Lindsay patiently has a go. "I am not beautiful like Orlando Bloom. I think that's what people like about me. And I've lived a life like everyone else. I come from a normal suburban [he was raised in St John's Wood], lower middle-class background, with working-class parents. And I can tap into a nasty side and at the same time I have a bit of vulnerability," he says, giving without intending to, a perfect description of Shrek.

Shrek The Musical

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