John Hannah on the Bulgarian play that tempted him to the Fringe
john hannah

Hristo Boytchev’s ‘magical’ play makes John Hannah laugh on his first Fringe foray for 25 years, writes Mark Fisher

IT’S the start of July and John Hannah has gone into rehearsals for The Titanic Orchestra. He takes to Twitter to give an update on how he’s getting on. “The rehearsal room is abuzz with metaphysics, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and Houdini,” he writes. “That’s a true smorgasbord!”

It’s hard to know what it all means, but you can tell it’s not Four Weddings and a Funeral. And it doesn’t sound much like The Mummy either. A couple of weeks later, I ask him what it’s about. “Solipsism,” he says enigmatically. “That’s very much a conversation topic in the rehearsals.”

Which doesn’t do much to clarify things except to suggest that Hristo Boytchev’s play is not your standard-issue celebrity vehicle.

Not that the East Kilbride-born actor is your standard-issue celebrity. He may have shared screen space with Gwyneth Paltrow, Rachel Weisz and Jemma Redgrave, but he still has the everyday affability of the boy who worked as an apprentice electrician before successfully auditioning for Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (then RSAMD).

“I wouldn’t describe myself as being full of knowledge about the craft,” he says, with characteristic modesty (he even pronounces “the craft” as if it were in italics). “If I have something to contribute it’s maybe an openness and the ability to be truthful within the journey the text asks you to go on.”

If you’re up on your Bulgarian theatre, you’ll know that Hristo Boytchev is a playwriting name to be reckoned with. The 65-year-old former factory technical manager has had his work staged throughout Europe and the US. Since the premiere of That Thing in 1984, he has written around ten plays which between them have picked up more than 100 productions. Then there was the time he stood for president as a satirical gesture and managed to win 2 per cent of the vote.

Over here, Boytchev’s psychiatric-ward farce The Colonel Bird won a British Council International Playwriting Award. Staged by Rupert Goold at London’s Gate, it was described by one critic as a “politicised, Balkan One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest subverting all our conventional definitions of madness and sanity”.

To listen to Hannah, you’d say there’s more subverted madness and sanity on the way in The Titanic Orchestra. There’s certainly a spot of absurdism in this UK premiere. “It’s very different from a Western European, social-realistic kind of play,” says the actor. “I wanted to do it because it was something very different. It was odd and it made me laugh.”

Set in a disused railway station, it’s about a bunch of tramps whose alcohol-fuelled bickering is interrupted by a newcomer. Played by Hannah, this stranger is as much of a derelict as the rest of them, but manages to persuade them he is Harry Houdini and offers to teach them the art of illusion.

It’s all so much hocus-pocus, of course, but it does mean Hannah has had to brush up on his close-up magic skills. So far, he’s none too impressed with himself. “It’s not bad, but it takes time,” he says. “My big let-off is the character is described as a failed magician. If anything gets dropped, there might be a Tommy Cooper-esque moment. He’s not someone at the top of his game, just someone who’s got a couple of tricks up his sleeve.”

The title of The Titanic Orchestra is a reference to the band that played on while the ship went down, a story that serves as a metaphor for life’s precariousness. It is not overtly political, says Hannah, but it is rooted in reality. “You get your Beckett tramps in Waiting for Godot, who live in a non-real landscape, positing philosophical conundrums, whereas we’re taking the idea of someone who is dispossessed, living on the streets, outside the norms of society and drinking heavily. They’re not funny Charlie Chaplin tramps, they’re real tramps.”

The play reunites Hannah with director Russell Bolam, with whom he worked on Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in London last year. Bolam comes with a fine Eastern European pedigree, having trained at the GITIS Academy of Theatre Arts Moscow, staged three Chekhov plays in the UK and even presented a Shakespeare at the National Theatre of Bulgaria. As if to prove the point, he’s also directing Marriage by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol on the Edinburgh Fringe with a sketch-comedy supergroup that includes Adam Riches and members of Pappy’s and the Beta Males, both of which he’s directed before.

“We have a Bulgarian, Ivan Barnev, in the cast, who’s fantastic, and Russell has worked in Bulgaria with Ivan and Hristo, so he’s knowledgeable about the country,” says Hannah. “The characters are heavy drinkers when they can be, as the dispossessed often are, whether it’s in King’s Cross or Bulgaria. So there’s a similarity between the two countries, but in this one, I imagine the philosophical conversations that take place through a vodka-fuelled haze are a little more as you would expect from an Eastern European play.”

For Hannah, it’s an opportunity to live up to his philosophy of seeking fresh challenges. He is always wary about falling into a rut and tries to avoid the obvious. These days, for example, we take it as read that he should have played architect Jonathan Carnahan in The Mummy, but when the part of a comic, upper middle-class Englishman was suggested to him, he thought it sounded “completely wrong”. “I was scared, so I had to do it,” he said at the time.

“If something sticks out as being different that’s usually the reason I’m attracted to it,” he says today. “Within television and film, you’re often cast to do the thing that they’ve already seen you doing. That can be good for your bank account, but not so good for your soul.

“There comes a point where you have to feed your soul. Why would you put yourself through the torture of doing theatre if you were only going to do something you knew you could do on day one? The excitement of it is the journey.”

It explains why you’ll have seen him in work as varied as the cop-show send-up A Touch of Cloth, the Rankin adaptation Rebus and the romantic drama Sliding Doors (opposite Gwyneth Paltrow). Forthcoming movies include three low-budget films Alleycats, Genesis and Love of My Life, which he filmed earlier this year. He’s also recorded a sitcom pilot for UK Gold called Marley’s Ghosts about a woman with supernatural powers.

It doesn’t quite explain why we haven’t seen him on the Edinburgh Fringe since he was in a student production of Under Milk Wood 25 years ago, but he’s ready to make up for lost time. “It’s just a strange coincidence that I haven’t been back,” says Hannah, whose early stage work included stints with Communicado and 7:84. “I’m taking my kids up and I’m really looking forward to catching a lot of shows and just having some fun.”

Despite his screen fame, he prefers the stage and is relishing the chance to bring a touch of Bulgarian absurdism to the Fringe. “Edinburgh’s a perfect fit for it, because it’s a 75-minute piece,” he says. “It goes into that world, very Eastern European, philosophical, asking big questions about the nature of reality – and solipsism! – our existence and all of that, but not in a heavy way. It’s fun.”

The Titanic Orchestra, Pleasance Courtyard, until 31 August; today, 5:25pm. Marriage, Assembly George Square Studios, until 30 August; today 2pm

Published in The Scotsman on 8 August

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