"Acting is my outlet where I pretend to be gregarious for a few hours": An Interview with Mark Umbers
Acclaimed for his stage performances across dramas (The Vortex, The Browning Version, The Glass Menagerie) and musicals (Sweet Charity, Merrily We Roll Along, She Loves Me), as well as his work on TV and film, Mark Umbers is currently playing Robert Walpole and David Garrick in Nick Dear's Hogarth's Progress, a double-bill of plays focusing on William Hogarth and his circle at Kingston's Rose Theatre, directed by Anthony Banks and co-starring Bryan Dick, Keith Allen, Susannah Harker, Ruby Bentall, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Jasmine Jones, Ben Deery, Ian Ballard and Jack Derges. Here Mark shares his thoughts about playing historical figures, what we can learn from Hogarth these days, the joy of revisiting Merrily, and a candlelit memory from The Glass Menagerie.
It looks like you and the whole company are having a great time with Hogarth's Progress. What initially attracted you to the project?
Two things attracted me to this production - firstly the brilliant cast, some of whom were attached at that point, and secondly the part of Robert Walpole in the first play, which would never normally come my way except in a cross-cast situation. Nick Dear described him as a cartoon when I first met him - and I’ve had enormous fun playing him. He’s rather become the company mascot. A lot of the cast spend a lot of time impersonating his creepy voice.
How familiar were you with Hogarth's work and the periods that the plays present before embarking on the productions?
I wasn’t at all familiar with the eighteenth century - more so with the nineteenth, after the novel was introduced - but Hogarth’s work is a very helpful and very immediate way of introducing yourself to it. He doesn’t paint London in the most flattering of lights. You get a palpable sense of the stench, of the excessive indulgence and disease. The onset of the Victorians attempted to wipe the surface clean - so it’s fascinating to get a glimpse of what Britons were like before having a moral compass foisted on them.
One Saturday morning in August, I was walking to rehearsals through Soho and Fitzrovia. On the way, I stepped over two pools of blood, three piles of vomit and the air was heavy with the stink of urine. Nothing changes, really!
How does playing historical figures change your approach to a role and your shaping of a character? Are you an actor who enjoys research and, if so, what kinds of research on Walpole and Garrick did you undertake? Did you learn anything that surprised you?
I’m not a fan of research unless there are holes in the script that have to be filled by the actor. The writer has usually thought of everything. Walpole was all there on the page as a character. Garrick was a bit more elusive as a character, because he is always being disingenuous - and it’s not as if there is any footage of him at work - so I was lucky to meet with Michael Caines at the Times Literary Supplement, who is a Garrick expert. He kindly talked me through the background to the man and what made him tick. I don’t know how close Nick’s Garrick is to the real man - and it is a play about Hogarth, not Garrick - so ultimately, I’m honouring the script, not the man. The one thing I learned about Garrick which really tickled me was that he invented a special fright-wig for Hamlet, so that his hair would slowly stand on end when he saw the ghost of his father.
In the case of Garrick, is it enjoyable or particularly challenging to play an actor?
It’s a bit of both. He is very amusing to play, but I am in no way an extrovert. I’m very introverted - and acting is my outlet where I pretend to be gregarious for a few hours. People assume, if you’re an actor, that you enjoy being a show-off. Not me. With Garrick, it’s more about playing a show-off, about cultivating a sense of confidence and entitlement for the evening.
What is it about Hogarth and his struggles that speaks to a contemporary audience, do you think? Are there any particular themes in the plays that resonate strongly for us today, or indeed that resonate for you personally?
The argument that resonated most strongly for me is the one voiced by young Hogarth and Henry Fielding. Nick’s Hogarth seems to believe that agitprop is a waste of time, particularly in the theatre. What is it that you think you’re achieving? Do you honestly think that an angry play will change governmental policy? Of course it won’t. The audience is too rarefied to begin with. Hogarth’s point is that your reach, your sphere of influence, is far greater when you slip your message in under the radar - camouflaged by an affecting story or, in his case, apparently comedic caricatures. He can mass-produce his prints and have his 'modern moral subjects’ on the walls of every home in London - and slowly, the message sinks in. A real story can change someone’s heart and mind more readily than some angry rhetoric.
It's a significant year for the Rose (the theatre's tenth anniversary) and this is your first time working at this venue. Had you attended as an audience member before? What do you find to be some of the challenges and pleasures of performing in the space?
I had not been to the Rose before. It’s a very large space to fill vocally. Luckily, both my characters are quite loudly spoken so I was already bellowing for six weeks in rehearsals.
Have you had time to explore Kingston or the surrounding area? Any outings to Strawberry Hill?
I haven’t had time yet, no. We’ve made it as far as Woody’s - the bar next door to the theatre! It’s a beautiful setting to work in, right on the river. Like the National, except the waterfront’s quieter. Knowing a little about Horace Walpole now, I’d be tentative about visiting Strawberry Hill unless I was armed with a lot of garlic and sage leaves.
How was the experience of performing Merrily We Roll Along last year in Boston, a few years after the production's great success in London?
Merrily in Boston last Autumn was completely joyous. Jenna [Russell] wasn’t available, but Damian [Humbley], who is now essentially my annoying younger brother, and I had a blast. It was such a pleasure to revisit something you thought you knew and have another go without all the anxiety and stress of doing it for the first time. Maria [Friedman] was on incredible form, too. It really cemented our friendships. It’s a piece that grows in depth, the older you get. I was shocked to discover how much I had changed in the intervening four years. Almost a different person. Life and love had been throwing a lot of curve balls at me in 2017, so it was almost like therapy to play Frank again and exorcise a whole lot of grief in the process.
A production that I remember very fondly is Rupert Goold's staging of The Glass Menagerie in 2007, in which you played Jim, alongside Jessica Lange as Amanda, Amanda Hale as Laura, and Ed Stoppard as Tom. I can't imagine seeing the play done better. Do you have any particular memories of being in that show?
Talking of emotional grief! Thank you. That experience was incredibly special. The candlelight scene is one of the greatest pieces of writing I’ve ever read. It’s poetry, really - and a total privilege to do. I had been away filming for the first two weeks of rehearsal so I was off-book when I got there. We were in a rehearsal room somewhere under the Westway, in January. Rupert turned all the lights off and Amanda and I ran the whole scene just with a candelabra. It was incredibly moving - and so dark that we both lost ourselves entirely (which is always helpful). We carried that intimacy through to the stage and, luckily, managed to keep it as delicate and immediate as the writing. There was always total silence in the theatre as their relationship briefly blossomed and died.
Is theatre the most satisfying medium for you, or do you enjoy working in film and TV equally?
I love all three in different ways. To practise acting, I would say that theatre is the only place you can do that, as it’s the only place where you are in control of your own performance. Then again, nothing beats a good location job with a happy cast. Unfortunately, the money in theatre is abysmal. Soon - if it isn’t happening already - only people with private incomes will be able to afford to do it and live in London at the same time. And that won’t be good for our talent base...
Tell me about a book, a theatre production, and an album that you liked or that inspired you recently.
I recently read Justin Pollard and Howard Reid’s book about ancient Alexandria. Fascinating to see how multi-faith societies seemed to function relatively freely in the ancient world. Though, of course, in Alexandria, religion played second fiddle to the pursuit of knowledge. Always helpful.
My friend Eden [Espinosa], who played Mary in Merrily in Boston, was over in the summer to do West Side Story at the Proms. I don’t think I’ll ever see it acted, sung or played better. I was hearing lyrics in it for the first time. I went with Maria. There was a moment when the young lovers saw each other for the first time but felt unable to reach one another. It was quite profound. I remember saying to Maria, it was everything wrong with the world and everything right with the world in one look. It surprised me how much it affected me.
I recently rediscovered In My Tribe by 10,000 Maniacs, which was on a loop in my car when I was a teenager. It travels with me on the commute to Kingston each day.
And finally, what are your plans after the run of Hogarth's Progress is over?
Now that would be telling...
Hogarth's Progress runs at the Rose Theatre until 21st October.