How are Diary of a Madman rehearsals going, Geoffrey?
Oh, crazy. Funny. They’re good. It’s been 18 years since we last did it. It’s a great process of rediscovery and reinvention. We’re not microwaving it up. We’re all different. We’re older for one.
How did you come to be doing it again after all these years?
Neil [Armfield, director and Belvoir’s outgoing artistic director] said, “Do you want to have a look at Diary again? Go out with a bang?” I said, “Wow, I don’t know whether there’s any bang left in me! I’m getting old.” He said, “No no no. Poprishchin is one of the great clowns of literature, he’s not based on any kind of psychological timeframe or reality, he’s a theatrical fireball, and I think you’ve still got some of that there.”
There’s a bit of Daffy Duck about him as well.
Oh yes. I’ve always been a huge fan of Looney Tunes. Once video recorders came out you could watch them and freeze-frame them, and they are in such a heightened sense of brilliant physicality and shape, you know, the level on which they perform is inspiring. Neo-commedia without any of the musty academia attached to it.
A lot like the great silent film stars.
Totally. Chuck Jones said something along the lines of, “Bugs Bunny is who we would all like to be, Daffy Duck is probably who we really are.” To me that’s an aphorism that you can apply to Ben Jonson or Ionesco or the works of Gogol. That split between how you think you’re presenting yourself to the world and how you’re actually coming off – it’s a great definition of clowning probably.
You studied clowning very early in your career – is your inner clown very close by at all times?
There is, I suppose, a thread that links a number of things I’ve done, like The Alchemist and Marriage of Figaro to a certain degree, Diary and Exit the King. I suppose there’s a Venn diagram where they all overlap: a clown who’s often fairly arrogant, pompous, and vulnerable and a mixture of things. Neil calls him ‘the cat’.
You said many years ago that you didn’t want it to take on the qualities of ‘a great performance’. Do you recognise the sentiment?
It happens to be primarily about the inside of one person’s head. It is a delusional, very comic descent into a rather tragic madness. It plays with the most banal ideas and the most heightened metaphoric ideas. It shouldn’t just be a show-off piece. It actually has to be about something. Gogol is, I think, the first truly great anti-heroic modernist, and he does take you into an extraordinary recognisable contemporary world even though it happens to be written in 1835. Particularly now that people blog, it throws a whole new light on the nature of people locked away in the privacy of their own rooms venting their lunacy or their own desires or despair, foolishness or whatever.
This is the connection between ‘Google’ and ‘Gogol’.
Yes, it’s ‘Nikolai Google’. [Laughs]
Your latest film, The King’s Speech, deals a lot with pressure and anxiety – and you’ve revealed recently you suffered from panic attacks in the theatre at one point.
I went through a period in the early 90s, on and off over a number of years. At the time no one seemed to really talk about it. But it’s not ‘stage fright’ – it doesn’t only happen in the theatre. It happens in your own life. Your body goes into some fight or flight cycle – some overly active adrenal gland puts you into a state of panic and sense of terror.
How do you approach playing a character like Lionel Logue, an Australian, in a very English story like this?
I didn’t want to take it into an area of some internationally perceived ‘Aussie’ cultural stereotype, which probably people instantly think of Crocodile Dundee or Les Patterson. But [Lionel] needed a kind of an egalitarian dynamic – a noticeable quality in most Australians out of the context of their own continent. No matter how polished or how anglicised their vocal qualities might become, there’s an attitude there.
We really wanted to wrestle [the characters] to the ground, and, in collaboration with the writers, find the finely tuned nuances of their patient-therapist relationship – to map out the trajectory of what blossomed into a very unpredictable and unusual friendship between two men across a massive cultural divide.
You’ve said that ‘research’ has become a dirty word for performers.
Research has sort of become a dirty word because it seems about ten years ago the media discovered it. It even happens with chefs. Everyone wants to know how they do it. I’m not particularly interested in barging into the kitchen at a restaurant and saying, “How did you make that?”
But about nine weeks before we went into principal photography [on The King’s Speech], the production design department found Lionel Logue’s grandson and he presented us with a treasure trove of personal papers which included diaries, letters that he’d written and photographs. We were able to build up a mosaic of a greater authenticity around this rather dapper, kind of refined Aussie who was into Shakespeare and teaching elocution in Adelaide in the teens and 20s of the last century, who stumbled onto some fairly avant-garde speech therapy techniques that went beyond what was common practice at the time.
Lionel is a frustrated Shakespearean actor. At this stage in your life are there any roles in particular that you pine after?
I don’t really have a wish list. I’ve been fortunate: enough scripts have come my way that have provided me with really wonderful, confronting, imaginative challenges. The Marquis de Sade [Quills] was such a beautifully written, potent, argumentative story about creativity versus suppression. [The Life and Death of] Peter Sellers was an amazing document, because it kind of played with the idea of, what if Peter Sellers made a movie about his own life? I’m hoping at some point that things of that ilk will come my way. You just don’t know. But I am getting more and more involved now with nurturing that possibility.
This interview originally appeared in Time Out Sydney in December 2010.