Alan Cox didn’t follow his posh classmates into politics, but he’s a master of the dark arts on stage, writes Mark Fisher
WHEN it comes to hanging out with politicians, Alan Cox has an unusual pedigree. The actor was a schoolboy contemporary of Ed Vaizey and George Osborne, but whereas his classmates made a beeline to Oxford and Westminster, he followed his parents, Brian Cox and Caroline Burt, into the theatre.
“Ed Vaizey and Gideon Osborne were very nice chaps,” says Cox, 43, who found early fame as a 15-year-old Watson in Young Sherlock Holmes. “It’s only when you see them represented by their politics that you start to question your affinity to them. I remember having a drink with an old school friend and saying, ‘Why aren’t we running the country?’”
All of this gives him the perfect credentials for Kingmaker, a satirical comedy in which he plays Max Newman, a former mayor of London with more than a passing resemblance to Boris Johnson. Written by Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky, it’s a three-hander about a politician with his eye on the top job – and a seasoned Tory whip who is determined to stand in his way.
“It gives you a glimpse of the deals that are struck between people when they’re not under scrutiny,” says Cox, sitting among the early morning tourists in Leicester Square before the day’s rehearsals begin. “Because Max Newman is an affable monster and an anti-hero, he’s a character you love to hate.”
Directed by five-times Fringe First winner Hannah Eidinow, the send-up of intrigue, gamesmanship and ambition puts the focus on a politician who hides his lust for power behind a veneer of scruffiness, chaos and bumbling charm. When a vacancy for party leader appears, he doesn’t want to be seen to take it without a fight, so he encourages a naïve high-flyer to stand against him. It’s a plan that could backfire – that’s if his colourful past doesn’t catch up with him first.
“Max has got an oafish bonhomie which is a smokescreen against an agenda,” says Cox. “The character of Max exists on his own terms. The audience will make certain references to Boris Johnson, but it’s not slavish. It’s a fiction, but a fiction that explores truths.”
Despite doing A-level politics, Cox himself was never cut out to be a politician. It wasn’t just that this child of arty, left-wing parents was an anomaly at the fee-paying St Paul’s School, it was that the likes of Osborne and Vaizey seemed to have their careers mapped out for them from a very early age. “I was making plays and finding excuses to hang out with Godolphin & Latymer girls,” he says. “The whole Oxbridge and UCCA form stuff gave me the screaming abdabs. I didn’t have the academic propensity for any of that.
“My mum was at a parent-teacher meeting once and they said, ‘The problem is that Alan is a clever boy, but he’s at school with some really, really clever boys.’ Not only did these people have an academic propensity but they were very well trained academically. We forget Obama was a trained lawyer, Clinton was a trained lawyer. The personality side of a politician sometimes obfuscates their intellectual training.”
Playing politicians, however, is something to which Cox is well-suited. He starred as Adolf Hitler in Howard Barker’s Found In The Ground and has twice been likened to Tony Blair – once playing Urgentino in Barker’s Scenes From An Execution and again as Broadbent in George Bernard Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island. He also sat in the interviewer’s chair as David Frost opposite Stacy Keach’s President Nixon in a long US run of Frost/Nixon in the year of Obama’s election.
“I do a lot of theatre and I’ve done a lot of the classical canon, and all that stuff comes out of the tradition of rhetoric and argument,” he says. “I’m an entertainer, I work in the entertainment business, but when one’s working with challenging texts, you’re still hoping to raise the frequency of thinking among that audience. To do political theatre that is also entertaining is very rewarding – if only for the after-show chat.”
His father, of course, has never been shy about voicing his political opinions and is one of the Yes campaign’s celebrity advocates in September’s Scottish referendum. True to form, Brian Cox will be delivering a lecture at the Assembly Rooms next Sunday called Scotland’s Path to Re-enlightenment; two days later he will be a guest at All Back To Bowie’s, a Yes-leaning lunchtime cabaret in St Andrew’s Square organised by playwright David Greig. Having been brought up in London rather than Dundee, Cox junior is a little more circumspect in his support for independence but believes the Yes side has the most forward-looking political agenda.
“I think independence is good for a shake-up,” he says. “That’s the anarchist in me. I don’t know the economics – and to be fair to my dad, he has done his homework. When you get into bonkers things like Braveheart and identity, you just go, ‘Yeah, yeah, how does it work economically?’ But I think enabling an autonomous Scottish government is progressive – I can’t see how it isn’t. I’m not interested in revolution and rebellion, but I am interested in how things get shaken up. So I agree with my dad that independence is a good idea.”
Many children dislike following in their parents’ footsteps, especially when those parents are as successful as his. But Cox entered the acting profession on his own terms and has never felt in competition with his family. At the age of five, through friends of his parents, he picked up his first screen role – a TV movie called A Divorce – and had popped up in half a dozen screen roles (including the young John Mortimer opposite Laurence Olivier in A Voyage Round My Father) before landing the plum part of a pint-sized John Watson in Young Sherlock Holmes. By that time, he’d already made his West End debut.
“I started earning money from acting from the age of five,” he says. “Paradoxically, it was territory separate from school and family. It was my own thing.”
So at home did he feel in this world, that he was all set to leave school at the age of 15 after doing Young Sherlock Holmes. His parents persuaded him to stay on for his A-levels and to get a proper training at LAMDA. “My dad was emphatic that it is a craft and something that you should train for.”
After graduating, he found himself veering away from the path marked out by his dad in the establishment temples of the National Theatre and the RSC. Although he worked for both companies, he was increasingly attracted to a generation of maverick figures who had come out of the 1960s counterculture. He has been a close collaborator with Howard Barker, who has cast him in Wrestling School productions, Heathcote Williams, whose polemical poems he has recorded, and the late Ken Campbell, with whom he revived Neil Oram’s epic The Warp in 1997.
“Howard, Heathcote and Ken were all anti the establishment that my dad was growing up in,” he says. “I thought, ‘I want to work with these geezers.’ I have that Shakespearean thing of father figures to balance my actual father. I find myself on the fringes and I quite like it there.”
Kingmaker, Pleasance Courtyard, 3pm, until 25 August, more info
Brian Cox: Scotland’s Path to Re-enlightenment, Assembly Rooms, 12.20pm, 10 August, more info
All Back To Bowie’s, Stand in the Square, 12.20pm, until 24 August, more info
Originally published in Scotland on Sunday