Interview: John Hannah – 'Am I a figment of somebody else’s imagination?'
Four Weddings actor stars in madcap Fringe comedy of illusion at Pleasance
This article is from 2015.
The popular alumnus of screen projects as diverse as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Rebus, John Hannah arrives at the Fringe in a translation of the play The Titanic Orchestra by Bulgarian playwright Hristo Boytchev. It starts with four vodka-soaked vagrants huddled in an abandoned railway station when they are accosted by a mysterious stranger (Hannah) who may or may not be Harry Houdini …
Is this your first time performing at the Edinburgh Festival?
It’s my first time back at the Festival since drama school, although I’ve played theatre in Scotland before, touring with Communicado and 7:84. It was pretty exciting the last time I did the Festival, as we were just students, so from our perspective it felt like being out in the big wide world. We did Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, perhaps not the most natural job for a bunch of youngsters at the festival, but there you go. We had fun, I remember it well. I’ve been to the Festival a few times since. It’s usually with work or if I’ve been in Scotland filming over the summer.
Your character in The Titanic Orchestra: is he Harry Houdini?
We’re still a good few weeks away from starting rehearsals and so we’re asking those kinds of questions now. It’s an interesting piece; it reminds me of Waiting for Godot, although it’s perhaps more accessible than some of Beckett’s stranger moments. Yeah, those kind of decisions will be ones we take during rehearsals.
What is the play about? What questions does it pose?
Ultimately it throws up the bigger questions of being, of who we are, what we’re doing and what we’re looking for. The ultimate questions, really. There’s an amusing element in terms of not just whether I’m Harry Houdini, but am I really there in the first place: am I a figment of somebody else’s imagination? When I first read the play, it just made me laugh. And I’d worked with Russell [Bolam, the director] before on Uncle Vanya. He asked if I’d like to be involved and I loved the experience last time so much that I said yes. I think I may have been asked to play the Edinburgh festival once before but I hadn’t been able to; it’s not like I was avoiding it or anything, it was just that this was the first real chance I had.
First impressions suggest it’s quite a serious, existential play. In what way did you find it funny?
On a very basic level the dialogue is very funny, and the interaction between the characters is humorous and imaginative; there is a broad section of interesting people living round this railway station. There are also magical elements to the play as well; the fact that it’s Houdini – or somebody like Houdini – who was known as this great escape artist sums up the existential dilemma about escaping from life that these characters are in the midst of. The orchestra on the Titanic was playing when the ship went down, of course, so the title uses this reference to sum up a certain attitude to life, to existence. I know after what he did with Uncle Vanya that Russell will bring something to the play that’s a lot more than can be understood from the script.
Do you perform any magic yourself?
There are some magic tricks and illusions which are staged by the whole company and not just myself. I didn’t need to learn to pull rabbits out of hats, fortunately, but illusions do form a part of the show.
Which do you prefer, theatre or film work? Is it possible to judge them against each other?
No, I don’t think it is. You can have a great film script, great locations, great actors, be well paid and still have a bad experience. Or you can do something with no money and a questionable script and it ends up being a highlight of your life. It’s a bit of a lottery as to which experience you have, but I think the basic fact of the matter is that if you’re stuck with a turkey on stage, the director’s buggered off and you’ve got three months to continue doing it, it can be pretty painful. Whereas a film or TV thing is long over in three months and you’ve already been paid for it.
But something must draw you back to the theatre?
I very much enjoyed doing Uncle Vanya, and when Russell mentioned doing something again I was interested. Plus, 30 years after leaving drama school, it seemed like a nice round number to be getting back to Edinburgh and playing the Festival again. Theatre’s not something you can ever completely turn your back on, even if you’ve had a bad experience, because the great moments you can have there are better than the great moments you have in film.
The Titanic Orchestra, Pleasance Courtyard, Pleasance, 0131 556 6550, 8–31 Aug (not 17, 24), 5.25pm, £12.50–£16.50 (£10.50–£14.50). Previews 5–7 Aug, £9.