Jasper Britton: interview
Jasper Britton is a versatile actor, about to open in ’Fram‘ at the National Theatre, but he tells Time Out that he may be about to give it all up
The great actor John Gielgud can’t have had much in common with the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, so it says something for the versatility of Jasper Britton that he’s recently been cast as both – Gielgud in Nicholas de Jongh’s ‘Plague over England’, which has just closed at the Finborough, and Nansen in Tony Harrison’s ‘Fram’ which opens at the National Theatre this week. Newly blond to make him look more Norwegian, the actor admits that the hubris of playing Gielgud ‘one of the greatest actors in the history of the world’ scared him rigid.
In contrast, Nansen was a bit of an action hero, the Ranulph Fiennes of his time. He and his ill-matched colleague abandoned the security of their ice-bound ship to try to reach the North Pole. For six months, they lived largely in the dark in a hut built out of stone, moss and walrus hide, shooting polar bears and seals for food. In order to stay warm, they had to share a single sleeping bag and endure each other’s snoring and farting. Nansen later became a humanitarian organising the transportation of refugees across the globe.
If the idea of playing the explorer scares Britton less than Gielgud, Norwegians apparently have their doubts. He describes how they examine him dubiously. ‘One of them said to me “Do you think you’ll be able to play Nansen?” and Tony went “Of course he will. 'E’ll be bloody marvellous.” ’ He hits Harrison’s Leeds accent exactly (he also does a mean imitation of De Jongh). The actor relished Harrison from the moment he first met him. ‘I thought he was a completely kindred spirit. He’s like an old punk rocker and he’s wonderfully belligerent when things aren’t up to standard. He doesn’t get angry but he’s forthright.’
‘Fram’ also raises questions about the value of art in the face of today’s horrors. When I ask Britton whether he ever questions what he does, he replies wearily: ‘Constantly. Every bloody day. What’s the point of all this mucking about? I’ve been at it since 1989 and I haven’t made any money out of it.’ I suspect that’s not quite Harrison’s point but the actor goes on ‘I think a lot of the time about stopping.’ What would you do? ‘God knows! I was a despatch rider for three years. I could always do that.’ Unlikely? ‘Not really. I’ve got my motorbike downstairs. You can earn a decent wage and you don’t have to deal with too many idiots.’
Even when he’s working, he’s not always happy. He gives praise where he feels it’s due – Trevor Nunn, Mark Rylance (although he dismisses Shakespeare’s Globe as ‘a ghastly place’ in spite of having a great hit there as Caliban) – but is also frank about those he will never work with again. ‘I left “The Arsonists” at the Royal Court because I made a deal with myself that I wouldn’t work with wankers anymore. Because I’ve done too much of it and it makes me unwell. I’ve pissed off so many people anyway.’ He denies, however, that he’s difficult. ‘No, not at all. But I have very high standards for myself. I try my best to live up to them and I sort of require that other people do their best as well.’
It’s a long way from the teenager who saw everything in the West End. His father was the actor Tony Britton and his mother a Danish ex-resistance worker and sculptor called Eva Castle. A collaboration between Jeremy James Taylor of the National Youth Music Theatre and his masters at school introduced him to acting. Nothing since seems to have given him the same satisfaction in spite of many successes. Indeed, it’s the hits that he remembers most gloomily.
Britton is 45 and he’s not the first actor to find it hard as he gets older to be still waiting for the phone to ring. ‘I don’t really enjoy it any more. I think it would be exciting to do something else. It’s a nightmare when your entire life is in the hands of everybody else.’ At least, he has faith in Harrison and his co-director Bob Crowley: ‘They’re men of the theatre and I don’t really know who the new men are. I see a lot of sound and fury.’
'Fram' is playing at the National Theatre Olivier.
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