In case you missed it, we talked about Damian’s drama school experience last week here.
Damian graduates from The Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1993. Ken Rea, Damian’s drama teacher at Guildhall, describes Damian arriving at drama school “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.”
As soon as he graduates, Damian starts off at Birmingham Rep — where Laurence Olivier also started his career in 1926 — with two plays, namely Rope and Romeo and Juliet in 1993 followed by Moliere’s School for Wives at the Almeida Theatre in London in 1994.
Damian plays Wyndham Brandon in Rope, a 1929 British play by Patrick Hamilton, between April 16, 1993 through May 15, 1993.
The play concerns two young university students, Wyndham Brandon and Charles Granillo (whom Brandon calls “Granno”), who have murdered fellow student Ronald Kentley as an expression of their supposed intellectual superiority. At the beginning of the play, they hide Kentley’s body in a chest. They proceed to host a party for his friends and family at which the chest containing his corpse is used to serve a buffet.
You may remember Alfred Hitchcock’s movie version of Rope, where, for some reason, the names of main characters are different — for example, Wyndham Brandon is Brandon Shaw. Hitchcock’s version is still the only film version of the play to date and it is classic Hitchcock!
Here is the information on the young actor in the Playbill… Awww…
And in the fall of 1993, Damian plays Romeo to Josette Bushell-Mingo‘s Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, directed by Gwenda Hughes, again at Birmingham Rep. Damian talks about his experience at his recent SAG-AFTRA interview:
“That was a baptism by fire particularly because I found myself in a feminist production of Romeo and Juliet with a Juliet who was more man than I was at that age. She was stunning, stunning, beautiful woman called Josette Bushell-Mingo. She was 7-8 years older than me, she had more muscles than me and she knew more about life than me. And she ate me for breakfast every time She was more man than mwe went on stage. She was beautiful and wonderful and I was callow, and innocent and useless.”
The “baptism by fire” at Birmingham Rep is followed by Damian playing Horace in Moliere’s School for Wives at the Almeida Theatre in London.
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 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.”
And Damian gets one “killer one-piece advice” from his elders while he is doing School for Wives.
“At the Almeida Theater, which is a little off-off-Broadway theater, an off-off-West End theater in North of London, you share a dressing room with everybody, so the star, who is Ian McDiarmid, who is Palpatine to those of you who like Star Wars, and he was playing the lead role in this, and I was the young Jew lover…
I just remember, one night, not folding up my costume, and putting it back on his hanger, and putting it back on his rail… cause I was rushing out to have a beer with friends. And I left it in a crumpled heap on the floor. And I’ll never forget this little sort of triumvirate of elder actors who circled around me. The next night, when I arrived in the theater, they just said ‘now we could not help noticing Damian that you left your costume in a heap, on the floor. We don’t do that in the theater.’ And… I’ve folded up my costume ever since. Every night… very carefully… ”
And, after these three plays, in NY Times theater critic Matt Wolf’s words, Damian, within a year of graduating, goes “right to the pinnacle of possible roles for a young classical actor.”
Damian brings to life the Prince of Denmark himself in Hamlet at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park in summer of 1994.
Damian shares the story about how he was cast in the production at Times Talks London:
“I was asked to go and audition in January, on a slightly drizzly, wind-swept day. Anyone who’s been to the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, much like The Delacorte in New York, is an arena-type auditorium, it’s like an amphitheatre, it’s actually got more seats than any other theatre in London, they can play straight plays in it, straight drama house. It’s got 1200 seats in there. And Tim Piggott-Smith was directing, and he’d seen all bunch of actors come in and he said: “Right.” He went and stood at the top right at the top of this rake and yelled at me and said: “Right! I want a “Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! Go!”
And the leaves were barreling across the stage and it started spitting and I lounged into ““Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! Go!”
And he gave me the part. And I said: “Amazing you’ve asked me to do it. It’s so much fun.” And he said: “Love, love, you were the only one I could hear.” So I knew that I was gonna have a good enough voice for the big houses which was a good thing. Subtlety? Maybe not. But loud.”
Gotta LOVE this guy!
The Independent theatre critic Paul Taylor’s review of the play, and in particular of Damian’s performance in it, reflects the fact that our 23 year old prince did not get the part just for being loud. I feel compelled to share the entire review here since I believe it is a treasure to savor. Written 22 years ago, way before Dick Winters or Nicholas Brody, this review, in my humble opinion, is a true harbinger of a great actor being born on Open Air Theatre stage!
“There are some actors who approach the role of Hamlet via a rigorous apprenticeship in parts that have more than a smack of the Prince of Denmark: Konstantin in The Seagull, say, or Oswald in Ghosts. One such is Simon Russell Beale who is to play Hamlet, at long last, for Sam Mendes. At the opposite extreme are those actors who find themselves pitched in at the deep end early in their careers and prove that they can swim with precocious bravura.
At the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, there is now an egregious example of this latter type in Damian Lewis, who tackles the role in Tim Piggott-Smith’s otherwise patchy production. Lewis has all the stage presence and captivating instincts of a Michael Sheen. Long-limbed, in a black bum-freezer jacket, he reminds you a little of a Dickensian hero.
The tragedy is played out on a set that looks like some giant piece of modernist garden sculpture, the Danish court imagined as a set of harsh metallic curves. Some of the staging ideas merely have the effect of emphasising the production’s weaknesses, so the fussy freeze- frame backdrops which Piggott-Smith contrives for all of Hamlet’s soliloquies, seem all too emblematic of the quality-in-balance generally evident – Lewis’s Hamlet intensely alive, the rest of the show relatively inert.
To Hamlet’s antic disposition, Lewis brings a splendidly intimidating levity which can shade into the potent expression of spiritual disgust. During the ‘what a piece of work is man’ speech, he pretends to swat an insect on his neck, his disillusion with his species manifest in the fierceness with which he tries to flick the splattered creature from his fingertips.
It’s a performance that encompasses not only broad comedy, but also excellent signalling of Hamlet’s inner plight. The First Player and the Ghost of old Hamlet are played by the same actor, Kenneth Gilbert, and there’s a wonderful moment when Lewis approaches the former in a daze of half-recognition, only to discover that the beard that so reminds him of his father comes off in his hands, a tawdry theatrical prop.
There are one or two notable weak links, and some of the ideas aren’t worked out as arrestingly as they might be. But, though the alfresco loveliness of Regent’s Park on a glorious evening seems a far cry from Hamlet’s sterile promontory and could well be a distraction, Lewis’s performance makes sure you see the thematic wood for the trees.”
Just months later, Matt Wolf in a New York Times article looking for the next Ralph Fiennes and next Hugh Grant among a bunch of young British actors, speaks very highly of now 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.
Mr. Lewis has an impressive resume for a Londoner who has been performing professionally for only about a year.
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.”
Next week: Damian’s Debut on Broadway