Happy World Theater Day! Let’s celebrate this beautiful day dedicated to the wonderful art form that is theater with a little walk down the memory lane to live and re-live bits and pieces of Damian Lewis’ brilliant stage career!
Damian discovers theater at a young age at Ashdown House, the boarding school he went at age eight: “Each summer we staged a Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta. It was all so English. I used to sing the solos. I had a sweet treble voice.” His first ever role was a policeman The Pirates of Penzance, a Gilbert and Sullivan. And, by age 12, he had already played in 12 Gilbert and Sullivan Operettas.
Well, we don’t have pictures from these operettas but the school pic below can help us imagine our little guy on stage!
Damian tells the sweetest story on Desert Island Discs about how a school incident might have finished his theater career then and there: At age 11, he was in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida and just forgot the whole third act 😀
“It’s like an actor’s nightmare that actors have before they’re getting ready for press night but it happened to me in real life. I stood on a stage in front of the entire school with Mrs. Woodgates playing the piano from the side and singing at least one song for me and saying quite a lot of my dialogue as well.
I was stood there mouthing it on the stage like I might just fool them if I just keep moving my lips. The headmaster said it was the worst dress rehearsal in his history of being at the school.”
Awww… That’s one sweet 11 year old boy whom I applaud not giving up on acting right there after such a trauma! And he, in fact, goes ahead to receive a school prize for his role as Bottom — a character who provides comic relief throughout the play — in A Midsummer Night’s Dream! Hear Damian talk about it at Times Talks London.
Then Damian goes to Eton, a school whose facilities for theater, in his words, are “second to none and all the departments got to run themselves so despite seeming regimented it could also be pretty maverick.” Damian forms his own theater company when he is 16 and they put on a production of Nicholas Nickelby. And he knows theater is what he wants to do in life: “That was the moment really. I thought, I love this, this is what I want to do. My mum and dad said we think you can act. Try out for drama school and if you get in then go for it.”
He wins a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama that lands him on a completely different planet: “I was sitting in class with lesbians and gay men and people of different ages, people who were two or three years younger than me, from Italy and China, people who had run businesses—and I liked it, whilst at the same time being totally unprepared and ill-equipped to be comfortable within it… I remember thinking, God, I must keep my head down a little bit.”
Ken Rea, Damian’s drama teacher at Guildhall School describes his student’s transformation at drama school as arriving as “an articulate, well-mannered young man with a bit of a polite façade” and leaving with “the complete raw vulnerability that really grabs you as an audience.”
Damian tells Cherwell about his young self, dreaming about a future in theater: “At drama school, all my influences were in the theatre, not in film and TV. I remember standing on the prow of a ship one year heading over to Amsterdam with one of my best friends, and talking about how we were going to be the next generation of theatre actors.”
It is theater for him upon graduation from Guildhall in 1993: Romeo and Juliet and Rope at Birmingham Rep followed by Moliere’s School of Wives at the Almeida. And, soon after, he has his stage break with Hamlet in Open Air Theater in Regents Park.
Emma Fielding, with whom Damian stars on stage in School for Wives says: “Damian’s full of beans. He’s classically trained, but what he’s also got is this Celtic thing going on. It’s not just all neck up. He uses his body. But what was really unusual about him was his dynamism. And he’s bright. You don’t normally get all of that in one package.”
Matt Wolf, who interviews Damian at Times Talks London writes about him in a New York Times article looking for the next Ralph Fiennes and next Hugh Grant among a bunch of young British actors, and speaks very highly of 23 year old Damian:
“Damian Lewis is, at 23, the youngest of the lot and a 1993 graduate of London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Nonetheless, he played an acclaimed Hamlet over the summer in Regent’s Park… London critics have been impressed with what they describe as his “flaming red hair” and “heroic bones.” Before “Hamlet,” he was a dashing Horace in Moliere’s “School for Wives” in London; other stage credits include Romeo and the well-heeled young psychopath in Patrick Hamilton’s “Rope,” both in Birmingham. Jonathan Kent, who directed “The School for Wives,” says, “Damian has a sort of flair and panache rare for a British actor.
Last month Mr. Lewis was chosen to play Laertes to Mr. Fiennes’s Hamlet in the much-anticipated Almeida production, directed by Mr. Kent. It opens in London in February and moves to Broadway in April.”
I have blogged about this production of Hamlet earlier here. One story that Damian tells about how he moves to play Laertes after playing “The Dane” in Regency Park is priceless:
“It is something that nearly didn’t happen. Because Jonathan Kent called me and said: ‘Darling, I’d like you to play Laertes, starting at Hackney, we’re going to Broadway, it’s gonna be a fabulous fabulous production.’ And I said: ‘Jonathan, darling, I couldn’t possibly. I just played the Dane in Regents Park. I couldn’t possibly play Laertes. I was promptly out of work for three months. The Phone. No one called about anything. And I called him three months later and I said: ‘Jonathan, remember, you asked me to come and play Laertes. I don’t suppose it’s still open… He just said: ‘Darling, I knew you’d call. Of course, it is.’ And so I went and played Laertes. And Thank God I did. It was real coming of age, sort of rights of passage experience being in a big show on Broadway like that way and experiencing New York’s love of theater and the real intellectual engagement with the material.”
He then joins Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) for a few years and plays in a couple of RSC productions including The Devil is an Ass, Much Ado About Nothing, Little Eyolf, and finally Cymbeline which I storified earlier here.
Cymbeline, staged first at The Barbican, makes its way to New York and Washington, DC. Ben Brantley of New York Times talks about moments of “searing emotions” in Cymbeline saying “most of these come from Ms. Pearce, but the intense Mr. Lewis brings a haunting feeling of irreparable injury to the scene where he is made to believe that Imogen has betrayed him.” Damian Lewis bringing “a haunting feeling of irreparable injury”? Ha! We know that well, don’t we? We know THAT very well.
A few years with RSC is followed by Damian singing Cinderella’s Prince and The Wolf in Sondheim’s Into the Woods at the Donmar, the only musical he has done to date. I blogged about this musical earlier here, feel free to take a look and hey, it’s an opportunity to see Damian sing, too. Just saying! 🙂
Rhashan Stone, who appears in Cymbeline with Damian and shares a dressing room with him says: “He was always the person most likely to make it.He was someone who would make the most of a break. He always had his eyes open. He was primed and ready. But he’s also very easy going, one of the guys.”
Well, Damian MAKES it, in particular, on TV. He starts with BBC’s The Warriors, a project in which Wolf Hall director Peter Kosminsky directs Damian for the first time, and Hearts and Bones, a TV show that he needs to leave at the end of Season 1 to do a little show called Band of Brothers followed by others. Then he goes back to stage in in 2003 to appear in Five Gold Rings at the Almedia against an actress who will be…
…his future wife! The play may not be a career highlight for either of them, but absolutely a personal highlight: First sparks of love seem to start flying on stage at the Almeida. Here’s the play’s director Michael Attenborough on Damian and Helen’s chemistry on stage: “I could have warmed my hands on it!’ It was like directing a fire… ” 😀 Well, a proper throwback is long due for this production and I plan to do it soon, maybe as an anniversary gift for our favorite couple 🙂
Damian’s stage highlight in the first decade of 21st century is the National Theatre production of Henrik Ibsen’s Pillars of the Community, which, in Matt Wolf’s words is “one of the most extraordinary Ibsen productions any of us has ever seen.” You can see our detailed blog about this production here.
Damian remembers the experience as a thrill: “Playing a corrupt politician Karsten Bernick with a burning moral dilemma, very Ibsen, and with a very melodramatic ending, it was one of his earlier plays, it’s not one of his great plays, I’m not gonna lie. But it was given a lovely re-working by Sam Adamson for the ending, and it really really worked, remained true to the original text.”
Michael Billington of The Guardian gives top grades to Pillars of the Community and praises Damian’s performance: “Damian Lewis captures perfectly Bernick’s blend of bravado and cowardice: even the way he checks behind every door before confronting Johan reveals his essential furtiveness.”
Charles Spencer of The Telegraph agrees: “…the show is dominated by a tremendous performance from that fast-rising, carrot-topped actor, Damian Lewis. He brings a mesmerising natural authority to the stage, and memorably nails Bernick’s smugly patronising self-assurance, especially in his dealings with his cowed wife. But Lewis also thrillingly charts the character’s craven panic and terrifying ruthlessness as his life starts collapsing around him, and achieves a fascinating ambiguity at the end.”
I find it fascinating that Spencer’s last sentence could be written exactly in the same way for Damian’s portrayal of Axe in Billions.
Between Life and Homeland, Damian appears in Martin Cripp’s updated version of Moliere’s The Misanthrophe — yet another one we need to discuss in detail soon — against Keira Knightley. Even though the critics do find the production falling short of Moliere’s original masterpiece, they praise Damian’s performance: “Damian Lewis has the right mix of righteous anger and comic absurdity as Alceste. There’s a tell-tale moment when, having inveighed against the human race, he is asked about his paradoxical passion for Jennifer. “She’s young and vulnerable,” says Lewis in the gooey, forgiving tones of the besotted intellectual. And, although he finally sees through Jennifer’s fickleness, he never lets us forget that sex is often the idealist’s achilles heel.”
And 3 seasons of Homeland, a season of Wolf Hall, an Emmy and a Golden Globe later, in 2015, Damian makes his WONDERFUL comeback to stage as Walter “Teach Cole” in David Mamet’s “blue collar desperation” story American Buffalo — a production that we covered very closely on the blog: the play, the opening night, the brilliant reviews.
I was extremely lucky to see American Buffalo on stage. What an unforgettable night at the theater! Damian literally makes you gasp as you follow him on stage. The energy he has on stage captures you, so much so that it is quite difficult to take your eyes off him even when “Teach” is just sitting quietly — eating his bacon and eavesdropping a conversation between Don and Bob. It is most probably because, with that high energy you feel in him, you just KNOW anything can happen with him anytime that you are at the edge of your seat… waiting. Damian’s performance is a tour de force that leaves you in awe… for months! In case you missed it, I reviewed American Buffalo in two parts, Act I and Act II — well… I had so much to tell about it
Before they start previews, Damian talks openly about his “pretty basic fear” about going back to stage! “I’m nervous just about the reality of being on stage in front of 800 people and perhaps not knowing what your next line is. It’s a pretty basic fear. I’ve canvassed opinion from actors about what makes them nervous about being on stage, and almost all of them say it’s about worrying whether the next line will come.”
Well… and then he comes, he sees and he conquers! Michael Billington captures the brilliance of Damian’s performance in his Guardian review:
“Damian Lewis is right on the money in Mamet classic… Teach is the more showy role but Damian Lewis avoids the temptation for flashy, fast-talking virtuosity and instead excellently pins down the man’s neediness. Lewis paces the junk-shop as if it were his private terrain, trashes everyone he refers to and resorts to panic-stricken violence. But there is a key moment when Teach is asked to justify his lofty pronouncements on life and replies: “My life, Jim. And the way I’ve lived it.” At that point, Lewis gives us a terrifying glimpse of the character’s awareness of his own hollowness.”
So… what’s special about theater? How is stage work different from screen work? I have been able to ask that to Damian during the Q&A at the New Yorker Festival. And I will eternally grateful to my number 1 guy, Lewisto, for recording my question and Damian’s answer. You can hear it here:
We do LOVE to see Damian on stage again and, if possible, sooner than later! It goes without saying we all have our dreams about him on stage varying from my dream of having Damian as Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady to Bookworm’s dream of him playing adult George Weasley in the new Harry Potter play to JaniaJania’s dream for the future that Damian absolutely must do Lear and I quote her: “Even if I’m not around to see it, the world absolutely needs Damian Lewis to perform King Lear.” My dear partner, I really hope Damian does Lear, and we are all around as senior citizens with “teenager” hearts and go see his Lear on stage! Can you imagine?
Oh, if it was up to us, Damian Lewis would need to work 24/7. So it’s much healthier that it is not up to us 🙂 And, hey, we are flexible. Whatever stage work Damian takes on, we are in!