Interview: Julian Barratt

Julian Barratt Julian Barratt - © Jean Goldsmith
Posted: Tue May 31 2011

Avatar of awkward Julian Barratt talks about his stage debut.

As one half of superstar surrealists 'The Mighty Boosh', there was a period in the late noughties when Julian Barratt could be seen on the front cover of the NME every few weeks, always looking spectacularly uncomfortable next to preening foil Noel Fielding ('I never enjoyed the front cover as much as, er… some people,' he says, not so enigmatically).

His Boosh alter ego Howard Moon is an uptight jazz-loving muso with whom Barratt admits to 'sharing maybe 30, 40 per cent of my DNA'. And Moon is a positive hoot next to Dan Ashcroft, the heroically glum journalist drowning in a sea of Shoreditch twats in Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker's satirical 2005 sitcom 'Nathan Barley'.

Barratt's recent adventures would seem entirely in character: he's forsaken the modern world for Russian literature's golden age. Last year, he starred with partner Julia Davis in a Sky Arts adaptation of Chekhov short 'The Bear'. And this week he makes his theatre debut at the Young Vic as the jaw-droppingly venal mayor of a small Russian town in David Harrower's new adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's 1836 social satire 'The Government Inspector'.

In the flesh, Barratt's a pleasingly odd figure, gregarious in his way, but hunched and awkward as he hunkers down in the corner of a pub, as if, aged 43, he still hasn't got used to his towering frame. He is also totally lacking in polish, talking in long, low formless sentences.

'It just happened, I don't know why. It's just another Russian play that came my way. That's all I do now, Russian stuff,' he laughs, stiffly. 'Richard Jones, the director of “Government Inspector”… well, as far as I know; he may have been stalking me, I don't know... But he saw a show of ours, Noel and mine, as part of our last tour. And then I got a script saying, would I like to meet Richard about this play? I liked the play and we chatted about whether I would be able to do it or would I want to do it. I didn't really know in my own head whether I could do it. It's a comedy but it's not the type of comedy that I've ever done, and so it was a bit of a leap into the unknown. I just suddenly thought: I've got to do a play or shut up about it, because I had waffled on about doing one for quite a while.'

On the face of it, the mayor - a bureaucrat-cum-megalomaniac who panics when he discovers St Petersburg has dispatched an official to check on what he's been doing with the Czar's roubles - has less in common with the bruised dignity of Barratt's most famous roles and more with his occasional, memorable forays into cartoonish villainy (the Boosh's Crack Fox, the Padre in cult Channel 4 comedy 'Garth Marenghi's Darkplace'). Indeed, while the rest of the characters have names, Harrower's script simply refers to Barratt's character as 'Mayor'.

'His name is Anton,' notes Barratt. 'Though it's only mentioned once. But the mayor is really an amazing character. He's hasn't got the intellectual pomposity of my usual characters. He's the only person in the play really who the audience can relate to. He has this knowledge in the back of his mind that some things he's doing are wrong against God. He's deluded, but he has his moments of crisis and other characters don't.'

'The Government Inspector' was written in response to a one-line synopsis provided by Alexander Pushkin - 'Give me a subject and I'll knock off a comedy in five acts', demanded Gogol. 'I promise, funnier than hell.'

The fact that everybody in the play is corrupt, an idiot or both might potentially count against it, but it's a staggeringly well-constructed and supremely funny work, a perfect storm of mounting hysteria and richly deserved comeuppance.

'Its mechanics are extremely influential, to “Fawlty Towers” and things like that,' says Barratt. 'And the whole play reflects lots of things now. Corruption still goes on but I also think it works in terms of celebrity, of idolising people and being drawn into the orbit of the stars. And it's like ordinary life in a way - everyone's inspecting everybody else and looking for symbols in everyone else and everyone's thinking: Who can I trust? Who's going to let me down?'

He looks perturbed when I ask how he feels about performing for a theatre audience for the first time ('I'm prone to using quite powerful denial mechanisms, but I'd rather you didn't talk about that') and appears less than convinced when I suggest a month at the Young Vic isn't that long. Nonetheless, in his own way this master of twenty-first-century ennui seems genuinely enthused by his journey into amoral imperial Russia. A Boosh album has been recorded and a film is on the cards, but Barratt is open to coming back to the stage, maybe even in a serious role: 'I don't know, though. When things start running a bit too well on the tracks, I tend to derail them if I can.'