Tuesday, September 26

War Horse star Matthew Trevannion takes on two major roles at Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Matthew Trevannion was one of the stars of the National Theatre’s War Horse and now he takes on two iconic roles as part of a season long acting ensemble at Pitlochry Festival Theatre.

It’s rare that theatres take a gamble on hiring an ensemble for a whole season, and it’s the brainchild of the Perthshire theatre’s artistic director Elizabeth Newman. It means Matthew will be leading in two very different roles as the brutal Stanley  Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, and then repressed commuter Alec in Brief Encounter.

Our Features Editor Paul Clarke caught up with Matthew to find how he is making sense of what seem to be opposing characters, and if being part of an ensemble is informing his work.

Stanley in A Streetcar Called Desire offers one of the iconic roles for any actor but it’s also a challenge to play such an alienating character.  

With Stanley you’re taking on what I consider to be one of the greatest plays ever written, and I think that would probably be true of many people. It’s a part that made Marlon Brando famous, and now in today’s climate I think it’s strange to look back and see that as being the case because he’s a man who attacks his pregnant wife and rapes her sister. To think that somebody became a sex symbol playing that part speaks of another time.  

So how do make Stanley understandable to a modern audience more likely to be repulsed by his visceral energy?

The challenge to play a part like that now is to find an internal justification on his part for the things he does, and in doing so allow the audience to at least understand the man.  You should never condone the things he does, but if it’s just a wall of violence and fury then that’s not interesting. The play itself is a lot more, I think of it as life as an oil painting – it’s vivid, it’s bold, it’s at a certain pitch – but at the same time it’s completely human.

It’s helpful that Tennessee Williams is a master of his craft.

The genius of the man he allows such incredible things as the breakdown of someone’s mental health, the rape of them, the beating of pregnant woman, he makes them understandable. And few people can do that.  

Does that make it easier as an actor to understand the motivations of this damaged group of people?

The clockwork nature of the play, each character is so entwined, there’s nothing that comes out of a character that has not been provoked by another. In doing so they then in turn make their choices and those choices force a person further into the narrative. The energy is given completely by people’s choices. There’s exposition, but he has this amazing way of switching between the drive of the narrative and the characters doing so.  

Photo: Fraser Band

Stanley and Alec in Brief Encounter seem to be diametrically opposed roles so how are you finding your way into Noel Coward’s lovelorn commuter?

It was illegal to be gay at the time of writing  so what he’s done cleverly is he’s allowed the audience to observe what it was to be someone homosexual falling in love. In the sense you have these two people who society deems to be off limits, their love should be off limits, and their love is simple one in the sense that they follow what is almost a teenage impulse.

Interesting that Alec can come across as a touch immature.

He talks about himself, Alec, and he doesn’t see himself as an adult, he says that clearly to her, and it’s a very revealing moment for them both because she says you look like a little boy. She makes that assessment while he’s revealing things about himself, and passions in his life. It’s a connection made, but in doing so he reveals how in some way, although he’s a responsible man, he’s also ill equipped for the life that he leads.

Alec also seems to be fighting himself as much as the prevailing social constraints of British society.

He wants to regress, and there’s a beauty in that regression, and an abandon in that regression. And there are many things in the play where he’s quite forthright, and he goes after what he wants, and he drives them to this place. She’s happy to come along and, of course, she’s responsible. He finds her intoxicating.  

It’s also set in a massively turbulent time where no-one knew what might happen to them.

It’s not to forget it’s during World War 2 and, of course, I think we can all put ourselves in the place, especially now, considering the last ten years in a place where the world ends. So maybe it’s easier to make those rash decisions when the world is going to end, and in that sense it’s a much more complex play than it seems on the surface.

How else are you conjuring up the play’s intense atmosphere?

I’d also say the actor musicians we have working in this play are top rate, and so therefore the atmosphere of the play is given to you for free essentially by the music. As an actor you walk on stage into beautiful, up lifting music at times – obviously not always. It gives you so much of the character for free, you haven’t got to dredge it up.

One of interesting things about this season is Elizabeth Newman has recruited an ensemble of actors who will work across all the productions in different roles. How is that informing your work?

I haven’t experienced anything like this since drama school.  I’m now almost 20 years out of drama school, I forgot what it was like sitting in an auditorium, and watch a show happen on a stage that you were about to fill yourself. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to sit and watch actors perform, knowing that they were also going to be in a play with you. I feel that pride and that excitement in seeing them play something else.  

It feels like going back to the old repertory system that produced some of our greatest performers.

What happens is you have something of a circus troupe about it, which is how it was done years ago. I think it’s worth noting with Elizabeth she handpicked this ensemble; she took full responsibility for it because she wanted a group of like-minded individuals who put each other first. To care for one another, do the job well and she’s succeeded in that regard.

To find more about Pitlochry’s season and how to book call 01796 484626, email boxoffice@pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com or go to their website www.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com