John Simm meets Tracy-Ann Oberman: 'Without the audience, we’re just shouting in a room'

Interview by Chris Wiegand
·12-min read
<span>Composite: Rex Features/Guardian Design</span>
Composite: Rex Features/Guardian Design

John Simm’s dad encouraged him towards a career on stage; Tracy-Ann Oberman’s parents were horrified by the idea. Both became household names on television – in Life on Mars and EastEnders respectively – but both love the camaraderie and unpredictability of live theatre. Simm’s theatre credits include Hamlet, Macbeth and the Norwegian odd-couple comedy Elling. Oberman is due to star as Shylock in a tour of The Merchant of Venice that has been postponed because of the pandemic.

John Simm: I grew up in working men’s clubs in the 70s and 80s. I was doing the clubs with my dad from the age of 11, singing and playing guitar. We did it until I was about 18. It was a trial by fire. This was the first time I’d been on stage, and I’d just stare at the floor or at my guitar. Dad was always nudging me, trying to get me to smile and move around a bit. I felt self-conscious but when I went to drama class I realised I could pretend to be somebody else and hide behind a character. Then I was in a band, Magic Alex, in the 90s – we supported Echo and the Bunnymen and Coldplay. Luckily, we played big venues so I couldn’t see anybody. I still felt self-conscious.

Tracy-Ann Oberman: I always knew I wanted to act. But in an immigrant family that’s the last thing a parent wants to hear. It’s horrific to them, because … what’s the point? It doesn’t happen to ordinary people. I went to Leeds University to do classics and met Alistair McGowan at the university theatre group. He was playing Dr Faustus and I auditioned to play Wagner and Helen of Troy. Then I did Marat/Sade at university with Peter Morgan as the director. But still, saying I wanted to be an actor was like pressing my nose against a window. I might as well have said I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to understand writing comedy, so I did standup, but I felt the same as you playing music. Being on the stage alone, as yourself, with no character to hide behind, is the most exposing thing.

JS: I don’t know how standups do it. They’re incredibly brave. I could never do it – unless I was pretending to be a comedian.

John Simm in Elling at the Bush theatre, London, in 2007.
John Simm in Elling at the Bush theatre, London, in 2007. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

TAO: They seem to want the aloneness. I found it terrifying. My dream was always to be part of a group. It must be amazing to be in a band.

JS: Some of the best times of my life.

Chris Wiegand: How did it feel when you started out as an actor and went up for your first roles?

JS: When I left drama school I was incredibly lucky to go straight into a TV job on Rumpole of the Bailey. After that, auditioning was fine because I was really cocky. I’m not very good at auditioning now.

TAO: Auditioning is horrible! Especially the new style, where you have to film yourself. For our generation, the job was acting. You didn’t have to light yourself and fix your sound quality.

JS: I went to a classical drama school. There wasn’t one minute of training about anything to do with the camera, but as soon as I left I worked on camera for 15 years. You learn on the hoof. We all went through The Bill, which was like rep for actors.

TAO: After drama school I was at the RSC for four years – never saw a camera. Casting directors pigeonholed you; if you’d done a lot of theatre you weren’t seen as a television actor. How did you feel going back to theatre after telly?

JS: I had done a play at the Bush in London called Goldhawk Road in 1996, then I didn’t do anything on stage for about 10 years. By then I’d done Life on Mars. I went back to the Bush – it was my comfort zone. Same director, Paul Miller; same writer, Simon Bent. The play was the Norwegian comedy Elling and it was packed because I’d been on telly. It was terrifying. I thought, OK, if you’re going to do theatre you need to do it regularly. Since then I’ve done as much as I can. After Life on Mars I didn’t feel anything when the camera’s red light came on. I was losing my love of the profession. I got it back on stage. Actually, you got me out of a rut once. I hadn’t done anything for a while and you wrote a radio play that I was in.

Brooke Kinsella and Tracy-Ann Oberman in School Play at Soho theatre, London, in 2001.
Brooke Kinsella and Tracy-Ann Oberman in School Play at Soho theatre, London, in 2001. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

TAO: Yes, you played Mike Nichols in a behind-the-scenes drama I wrote about The Graduate. Why were you feeling so jaded?

JS: I think I was filming something and it got cancelled. It’s so precarious, our profession – never more so than now. You’re at the mercy of other people. I was a bit down; your play pulled me out of it. Then we had such fun on Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season of one-act plays in the West End in 2019.

TAO: We used to say to each other: best job ever! For me, as I’ve got older, being on stage means you’re in control of your own edit, which pleases me much more than it ever used to. While I appreciated the nuance of filming, I like the idea that on stage the group is in control – no one can take our best scenes away!

JS: It’s that gang mentality. It’s a bit like being in a band. You create it together and you’ve got each other’s back. I miss that camaraderie, that closeness. It’s like being in a football team.

TAO: With the Pinters, we were all on stage all the time for the plays Party and Celebration. We came on as a group, went off as a group. We knew in rehearsals it was a bit special.

John Simm as Macbeth and Dervla Kirwan as Lady Macbeth) at Chichester Festival theatre in 2019.
John Simm as Macbeth and Dervla Kirwan as Lady Macbeth) at Chichester Festival theatre in 2019. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

JS: The beautiful thing about theatre is that, even though you’ve rehearsed it down to the last detail, it’s different every performance. The worst thing about the Pinter job is the run was so short – just as we were getting comfortable it finished. It was the same with Macbeth in Chichester in 2019: Dervla Kirwan and I were beginning to play with the scenes. I’d come on every night in a different mindset. You can do that with Shakespeare. It’s like a blank page, you can play with it. I think Macbeth is the best part I’ve ever played.

TAO: More than Hamlet?

JS: Hamlet was like being in a washing machine! You have to be in the moment at all times. Because of Hamlet I was more relaxed playing Macbeth. The part’s better, edgier. He starts off as a noble soldier and becomes a bloodthirsty tyrant. It’s a wonderful arc.

TAO: I’ve waited my whole career to do the right Shakespeare. It felt like Shylock was the one. I’m working with the director Brigid Larmour on a tour of The Merchant of Venice. After seeing the all-female Julius Caesar at the Donmar I thought: what would happen if you made Shylock a woman? The relationship with the daughter, Jessica, then becomes about a dominant mother. I was also fighting a lot of antisemitism and could see how much misogyny crept in with it – a mistrust and dislike of Jewish women who open their mouths and put their heads above the parapet. I channelled all of that into Shylock. People are often nervous about the antisemitism in The Merchant of Venice. I’ve based my Shylock on my great-grandmother who came out of Belarus and moved to the East End of London. She was as tough as nails. We’ve set it in Cable Street in 1936 with Antonio as an Oswald Mosley-like figure. Portia is like one of the Mitfords from the West End.

Tracy-Ann Oberman with Scott Folan in Mother of Him at the Park theatre, London, 2019.
Tracy-Ann Oberman with Scott Folan in Mother of Him at the Park theatre, London, 2019. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

CW: What is it like to portray a great Shakespeare character you’ve seen other actors play before?

JS: You try and take it from the page rather than think about whatever anyone else did. When I did Hamlet, I watched Kenneth Branagh’s and Richard Burton’s. I didn’t copy anybody but it’s great to see different interpretations.

TAO: Every time you’re given it, it becomes new again because it’s your character. It’s like a skeleton and you dress it whichever way your rehearsal goes.

JS: After I’ve done a big Shakespeare role or a Pinter, I don’t really want to see anybody else play it for a while. I want mine in my head. I want to remember the time I had with those actors on that stage.

CW: Are there parts you’ve taken specifically to avoid being pigeonholed?

JS: When I did Elling it was instead of doing a third series of Life on Mars. There’s no way I’d have been cast in that part from Elling if it was on TV. It was a comic character role. Theatre directors trust you to transform.

John Simm with Mark Gatiss in Three Days in the Country at the National Theatre, London, in 2015.
John Simm with Mark Gatiss in Three Days in the Country at the National Theatre, London, in 2015. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

TAO: There’s much more bravery and creativity in casting for the stage. As a woman, the older you get, the more you realise it’s probably the place to be for challenging roles. At the Park theatre in London in 2019 I did Evan Placey’s play Mother of Him, playing a mother whose son has been accused of raping women at college. I wanted to change perceptions of me within the industry. When I left drama school one agent said to me: “You’ve got a comedy face.” I don’t even know what that meant. It really bothered me. Doing EastEnders changed perceptions of that.

JS: I’d love to do a musical. At college in Blackpool I did West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, which were both brilliant, and then The Boyfriend – that’s what put me off. I hate that musical. I was playing the lead guy in the pillbox hat, tap-dancing. Watching you do Fiddler on the Roof in 2017, I felt like I’d love to give that a go.

TAO: I can see you in a Sondheim. You can actually sing and dance.

JS: Well, yeah. I don’t know about that.

TAO: Let’s do Sweeney Todd together!

CW: How does it feel to take on an intense play like Mother of Him night after night?

TAO: It was such a visceral part. I was coming off stage, then travelling up to Manchester overnight to film It’s a Sin. I was shattered. When you do a part like that you get a slight feeling of dread at 3pm because you’ve got to get up the energy. But the minute I got on stage I was immersed in it. In 2003, I did a two-hander, Hello and Goodbye, by Athol Fugard. It was such a tough play. Halfway through the run I felt like, I don’t want to go there, I don’t want to get into that woman’s headspace.

Tracy-Ann Oberman in Earthquakes in London at Theatre Royal Bath in 2011.
Tracy-Ann Oberman in Earthquakes in London at Theatre Royal Bath in 2011. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

JS: You can’t relax all day if you’re on that night. If you’re doing a matinee as well? Forget it. If you do a three-monther, eight shows a week, you hit a brick wall at some point. Weird things happen. You forget lines. Then you see the light at the end of the tunnel and you don’t want it to end. No matter what mood you’re in, when you’re doing a play, you’ve got to just drop it. My dad died while I was doing Pinter’s The Homecoming in 2015. I went home and I only missed four shows. My dad’s motto was that we never missed a gig, ever. I was surrounded by mourning family members and it was awful and I could hear my dad say: “That’s your part – you need to get back on stage.” What other profession is there where you can pretend to be someone else for two hours and the real world is completely closed down? Even though I was playing a horrendous pimp, it was wonderful to be on stage. It all came crashing in when I was offstage. I felt safe on stage – it was like hiding under a duvet but you’re in front of loads of people.

CW: What is the most joy you’ve had on stage?

TAO: Fiddler. I was like a child in a sweet shop who had never had sugar. I loved every minute, even though it was a hard-hitting subject.

JS: It was palpable, the camaraderie that you all had. You could feel that sense of joy in the audience.

TAO: The audience is another member of the cast. Their energy and their reactions shape it every single night.

JS: Without the audience, we’re just shouting in a room. I’m always bereft when we finish – you’re on a high and it’s difficult to come down. You can never sleep. Yoko Ono came to see Elling. It was this tiny theatre above a pub and she was right in front of me laughing hysterically, holding her sides. I had a moment, thinking: I’m cracking Yoko Ono up here!

  • Tracy-Ann Oberman will next be seen in Ridley Road on BBC1, later this year. John Simm stars in Grace on ITV on 14 March.