Interview – Simon MacCorkindale
Thanks to Sylvia for this article
IT has more twists than a 1960s dance festival and – if done properly – a jaw-dropping surprise. Sleuth, which opens at Theatre Royal in Newcastle tonight, is a cat and mouse thriller which continually wrong-foots audiences – if they haven’t seen it before, of course.
Simon MacCorkindale, who stars in Anthony Schaffer’s award-winning play alongside former Dynasty actor Michael Praed, reckons there are still plenty of Sleuth novices around.
“A lot of people are completely taken in by it,” he says of audiences who’ve seen it on the tour so far. “Even if you’ve seen it more than once, you go along with the conceit of it all. No-one seems disappointed by that piece of the puzzle.”
He’s referring to the central plot twist and, not wanting to spoil anything for first-timers, that will have to be enough to whet the appetite.
But many people, of course, do know Sleuth: particularly the 1972 film version memorably starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine.
Now it’s MacCorkindale in the Olivier role as mystery writer Andrew Wyke; and Praed as Milo Tindle, the younger man who’s been having an affair with his wife and is lured to his country house, setting in motion a series of psychological games and practical jokes.
“I only saw the film once, soon after it came out,” recalls MacCorkindale.
“I had the pleasure of knowing Larry (Olivier) and know, to a degree, how he would have approached it and some of the style of the man.
“But, the truth of the matter is, the play came first and it opened with Anthony Quayle.”
He knew, and worked with, Quayle, too – a reminder of MacCorkindale’s own acting pedigree: he was a stage actor long before his TV successes such Falcon’s Crest and, most recently, in medical drama Casualty.
He is, he points out, acting the part as created by Schaffer, but says the dilemma is that some might think he’s trying to copy Olivier.
“There are certain demands of the part that are the playwright’s invention in the first place and there’s a danger that you have, to some extent, to copy what has gone before.”
But, so far, he says he and Praed have eluded comparisons with the film performances.
“We’ve found a route through it – and that’s been part of the challenge.”
For one thing, at 56, he’s younger than Olivier was when he played the part and Praed – who set many hearts aflutter in the eighties as TV’s Robin of Sherwood and as Prince Michael of Moldavia in Dynasty– is older than Caine, so their age gap is less.
The film of Sleuth was re-made last year, again with Caine – this time taking Olivier’s role – and with Jude Law as the younger rival.
While it might have been slick and self-consciously stylish, its minimalist look lost the chaos and colour of the original, and more crucially, some critics felt it failed to pull off that central surprise. Others wondered why it had been remade at all.
The new stage version promises to recapture the atmosphere, with a traditional country house setting providing a backdrop to the quick-fire dialogue and fast-paced action – a “real ebb and flow”, says MacCorkindale, between dark humour and nasty tricks.
But, he adds, “the stage play has more humour and less malevolence.”
The actors themselves are having as good a time as anyone.
“It’s great fun,” says MacCorkindale. “My character’s driven by all sorts of things, jealousy being one of them.
“His career is coming to an end. He’s a games player – he’s bored by writing these detective stories and wants to play games in real life. And he borders on the completely bonkers!
“It’s a very physical role and this moves at a hell of a lick – Michael doesn’t keep still.”
The audience must be on the ball too, to keep up with the intricacies and subtle power shifts which saw the film version in its element.
“There are things you get away with in film that you can’t in theatre,” adds MacCorkindale, “like the technical things – the make-up and changes which are much more efficient.”
Whereas TV can do a lot of the work – with a close-up to reveal an expression change or an underhand trick played out behind a character’s back, on stage it’s all played out in full view of the audience.
“Things can go wrong in live theatre, with the conceit of the play and stagecraft all happening in front of you.”
He adds: “In TV, you can be very still and truthful and honest – all acting is about honesty. Theatre, by definition, has to be theatrical: there’s a larger than life element.”
Film is different again, he says and can be more akin to theatre acting than TV, which is why he feels theatre actors make a more successful transition to movies than those with a TV background.
He’s done it all of course.
He started in theatre – and has that resonant actor’s voice honed on the stage – before becoming a well-known face on TV, in shows such as Manimal and Falcon’s Crest, as well as film, such as The Riddle of the Sands.
In 1977, he joined an impressive cast, including Bette Davis, Maggie Smith and Peter Ustinov, in Death on the Nile – for which Schaffer wrote the screenplay based on Agatha Christie’s novel.
Until earlier this year, the popular actor played senior consultant Harry Harper, whose turbulent private life kept Casualty viewers enthralled for six years, during which his character took a sabbatical to stand for Parliament as an MP.
He recently toured in another adaptation of an Agatha Christie story – The Unexpected Guest. And theatre, he says, is something he’ll always return to.
“I’ll continue to move backwards and forwards,” he says. “It’s essential to have one to one contact with an audience.”
This, it turns out, will be his first contact with Newcastle audiences.
“I’m not sure I’ve even been to Newcastle before.”
There has been, he suggests, a North-South divide in terms of theatre but now he is getting the chance to tour to areas he’s never seen.
And Sleuth is certainly being well received. He imagines Newcastle will prove rather similar to Sheffield and to Aberdeen where the play has just completed its run.
There are discussions, he says, of also taking it to the West End and even the US.
So what else might his future plans include?
MacCorkindale clearly doesn’t have time to get bored. As well as his acting career, he runs a stud farm in Essex with his actress wife Susan George, and the couple have two production companies – one, Amy International Artists, is named after George’s character in the 1971 film Straw Dogs in which she co-starred with Dustin Hoffman.
The companies, at the moment, explains MacCorkindale, are “relatively quiet” because they are both so busy.
He says more theatre is on the cards but he cannot reveal any more details just yet.
So will his Casualty fans ever see the return of ladies’ man Harry?
“I’ve left now,” he says, “but you never say never again about anything.”