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Features Q&A and Interviews Published 15 December 2015

David Dawson: “If you drop the ball, the rhythm is gone.”

Tom Wicker speaks to The Last Kingdom actor about found spaces, language, and co-starring with Andrew Scott in The Dazzle.
Tom Wicker
In rehearsals for The Dazzle

In rehearsals for The Dazzle

It’s easy to be invisible in a city, lost in its bustle – hidden from view in pockets of space and behind walls as it changes shape and develops. It’s this that actor David Dawson thinks will resonate with audiences when they come to see the UK premiere of American writer Richard Greenberg’s New York-set The Dazzle. “The whole play is about people getting lost in the city,” he reflects. “It’s about hopes and dreams and this human obsession with time and mortality, and trying to pack as much in as we can.”

A city’s secret places is why 33-year-old Dawson (currently starring as King Alfred in BCC historical drama Last Kingdom and whose stage roles include scene-stealing turns in The Duchess of Malfi and Luise Miller) is excited about where the play is being staged. The old Central St Martins School of Art, on Charing Cross Road, opened as a performance venue only recently, with Tooting Arts Club’s acclaimed revival of Barrie Keeffe’sBarbarians. Consequently, “we’re doing [The Dazzle] in a space no one will have any preconceived expectations of,” Dawson enthuses. “So I hope we’ll surprise everyone when they walk in.”

The Dazzle is inspired by the true story of Homer and Langley Collyer, two wealthy brothers who – in the early twentieth century – shut themselves away from the world in their Harlem home. When Homer died, the police discovered a place filled with years of accumulated newspapers. The pair had quite literally let the life outside pile up around them. It’s acquired semi-mythic status stateside. “Apparently,” says Dawson, “in New York, even now, a mother will walk into her teenage son’s bedroom and go, ‘Look at this room – it’s like the Collyers’.”

Through the play, which sees the airless equilibrium of Homer and Langley’s shuttered and frozen lives disrupted, Greenberg explores how we view ourselves – including in relation to others. This, and the question of what’s important, is what appealed about the play to Dawson, who is playing older brother Homer opposite Andrew Scott’s Langley. He sees modern parallels, “especially when you live in such a fast-paced city.” And particularly, he continues, “when you sit on the Tube and everyone’s on their iPhones and the world’s whizzing by.”

From devious courtier Hofmarschall von Kalb in Luise Miller, to proto-tabloid-journalist Fred Best in the BBC’s Victorian police drama Ripper Street, I suggest to Dawson that he seems drawn to people who exist watchfully on life’s sidelines. “Gosh, I don’t know,” he reflects. “I suppose I’m quite quiet in real life. I do people watch a lot, ever since I was little. But it isn’t a conscious thing, I don’t think.” But he concedes that he loves characters where “there’s more than you might initially think. I find that quite thrilling. To try and surprise an audience is really exciting.”

What attracted Dawson to Homer, who acts as carer to the erratic Langley in the play, is that “although he looks like the normal one, more organised, he has just as many quirks and problems as his brother,” he tells me when we speak on the phone. “I found that really interesting.” With the kind of dramatic aptness that sometimes only real life can provide, his character – with his famous Greek namesake – tells stories. “He lives his life through his own dreams and fantasies. It’s quite sad in that respect.”

Appropriately, The Dazzle’s language is why it’s the kind of play you can’t leave at the door of the rehearsal room, says Dawson. “Because the words whiz around your head. The writing is so dextrous. It’s like a tennis match, really,” he muses. “If you drop the ball, the rhythm is gone.” And he’s full of praise for Scott – who blew critics away with his performance on stage as Alex in Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall and has brought Moriarty so thrillingly to life in the BBC’s Sherlock – on the other side of the metaphorical net.

David Dawson in rehearsals for The Dazzle

David Dawson in rehearsals for The Dazzle

Dawson praises Scott in the same breath as other major British talents like Hattie Morahan and Ben Whishaw, who – as he did – trained at RADA. “When I was just about to leave, there was a bunch of actors who were two to three years older than me, who I really admired in terms of what they were doing in their careers; people who I think are really clever, sensitive actors.” So, he continues, “it’s an absolute pleasure to get to play with Andrew every day.” He pauses, then laughs. “That sounds weird, doesn’t it?”

By the time The Dazzle opens, Dawson will have just left our TV screens as King Alfred in historical epic, Last Kingdom – which tells, in part, how one of the most famous monarchs in British history came to warrant the ‘Great’. “I loved filming that job so much,” Dawson says. Echoing his earlier sentiments, what appealed was the role’s challenging of preconceptions. “What I loved about him is that he’s physically frail and yet he can be the strongest man in the room, for different reasons: he’s the most intelligent, the shrewdest.”

The journey of “going from bookworm to warrior king” was “incredible to do,” as was filming the series, on horseback, on a battlefield recreated in the open countryside of Hungary. Skip forward to The Dazzle, and performing in a drawing room in a historic building in London couldn’t be a more different experience. Dawson thrives on the contrast. “That’s what I always wanted when I first became an actor,” he says emphatically. “I sat down with my agent and said, ‘Whatever we do, as long as the last thing was completely different, I’ll be challenged. I love learning.”

For this reason, Dawson is keen on having a varied mix of film and stage work in his career. “More and more, I’m realising how different the skills are. I really miss the theatre when I’ve been filming for a while, because of that immediate response you get from an audience,” he says. “You learn straight away whether what you’re doing has landed, has been communicated. And that’s incredibly different to having a lens as your audience.”

Right now, he’s relishing the company he’s working with on The Dazzle, including director Simon Evans, who was assistant director to Michael Grandage (who’s co-producing The Dazzle) on Luise Miller at the Donmar Warehouse. “It’s lovely to get to see his career grow,” says Dawson, who enjoys the continuity this offers. “It makes the rehearsal room more relaxed. It encourages you to be braver, because you’re among friends. You haven’t got that third eye on yourself, so you feel more comfortable about taking risks.”

Dawson might have been a self-professed quiet child, but the element of risk in performing on stage is a spur for him. This is evident from the excitement in his voice when I ask how close the audience will be in The Dazzle. “Literally, like two steps away,” he replies. “We could sit on your knee, if you so desired.” And a bunch of eyes instead of a camera lens? “Smiling eyes, hopefully,” he laughs. “It feels like quite a dangerous space when an actor is just a foot away from you. And I love that about it.”

The Dazzle is at FOUND111, Charing Cross Road, from 10 December – 30 January. For more information, and to buy tickets, see: http://www.thedazzle.co.uk/

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Tom Wicker

Tom is a freelance writer and editor, based in London. He has acted in the past, but the stage is undoubtedly better off without him on it. As well as regularly contributing to Exeunt and OffWestEnd.com, he reviews for Time Out, has reviewed Broadway productions for The Telegraph. He has also written for The Guardian and the online world affairs magazine openDemocracy.

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