A Tale of Two Cities: Harry Attwell on playing Defarge
A Tale of Two Cities: Harry Attwell on playing Defarge
6 October 2016
Interview: "He is a strong, powerful leader who is able to influence others and at times, is incredibly violent and brutal." Harry talks to us about his character Defarge, rehearsals, and how he got into the industry.
Harry Attwell and Noa Bodner as Defarge and Madame Defarge
Tell us about the characters you are playing – Stryver and Defarge
I feel that both of these characters have a real drive and determination to them. Stryver is an intelligent and educated man who has succeeded in his profession but, as we see in the opening court scene of A Tale of Two Cities, needs the help from Carton to get the result they need from the court case. There is a twinkle in Stryver's eye for Lucie Manette but I can't help but feel he is unlucky in love and throws himself at his work instead.
Defarge is someone I have found very interesting to explore. We are told of his history with Dr. Manette, how he saved him from the Bastille, and this love and respect towards his old master continues throughout the play. When discussing the part with our director — James Dacre — it became apparent that Defarge is someone who leads people in times of utter turmoil and is respected and followed. It was this that I needed to focus on. He is a strong, powerful leader who is able to influence others and at times, is incredibly violent and brutal.
What are the motivations of revolutionary leader Defarge? How are they different from those of his wife?
Defarge is a man who can lead a whole army of people; whether that be to storm a chateau, a prison or lead them in a rousing celebration. He is motivated by the good of the people and what people deserve. The class system and the inequalities that riddled France in the 18th Century are highlighted in several scenes throughout the play and perhaps most poignantly, in the scene where a young boy is killed by the carriage of the Marquis St Evremonde. The violence undertaken by Defarge is inescapable throughout the play and as an actor, it is so important to try and show a character as someone who is multifaceted. Yes, he is brutal and leans towards a punishment system where even the servants of people deemed aristocrats are murdered because they represent the upper classes but, he believes he is doing it for the masses. He has a deep-rooted respect and love for the Manettes and this is where the differences start to show between him and his wife.
With the family history of Madame Defarge totally dominating her life, the need for revenge is all encompassing. She drives the hatred towards Charles Darnay and although Defarge can understand that there are certain heads that need to roll in order for revenge to be achieved, he is dedicated to his old master and does not believe that more punishment should be placed on the Manette family in order for his wife's longing for retribution to be obtained.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from working on this production?
Throughout my career, I have worked on a number of plays which are real ensemble pieces and A Tale of Two Cities is no different. I have been reminded throughout the process and rehearsals of this play that working as a team brings fantastic results and there are times in this play when we are all running around backstage changing clothes, grabbing props and singing (all at the same time) in order for the story to continue seamlessly.
Any anecdotes from the rehearsal room?
There were some wonderful moments during rehearsals where one could start to see the play taking shape and I think the very first time I watched the end was a real revelation of what we were creating. I sat and cried watching my colleagues and friends beautifully show us for the first time what they had been working on. I always feel the rehearsal period is such a sacred time for actors as we are able to attempt new things every day, before finalising any decisions and there is never a judgement from your fellow actors. We understand that those four - five weeks are there to play, try and mould the characters and play as a whole.
When did you first know you wanted to become an actor?
I began doing amateur theatre when I was ten years old and it was during a play rehearsal when I was 17 that I knew what I wanted to do. I had a (sugar) glass smashed over my head in a scene from the play and I can distinctly remember laying on the floor during the rehearsals, pretending to be knocked out, thinking, "if I can get paid to have this much fun, I'm in!".
What has been your favourite role so far?
I have been very lucky to have been involved in many plays that have stretched me to try new things and explore different characters (including a rat fairy who had a giant ear on this head) but one of my favourites has been a production of The Crucible by Arthur Miller at the Old Vic Theatre in London. I played a character called Thomas Putnam who was fervently religious and determined to find out what is happening in his community. The director — Yael Farber — pushed me hard to make Putnam as driven and real as possible and it was a job I will never forget.
Why should people see A Tale of Two Cities?
It is a deeply moving and relevant play. Some of the themes touched on — inequality, persecution, love, betrayal — are still things we deal with in 2016 and the combination of Rachel Portman's beautiful score, Mike Britton's design and James' fast-paced direction telling the story so succinctly, makes for a brilliant piece of theatre.
A Tale of Two Cities opens at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, where it plays from 10 to 17 September 2016. It then tours to Oxford Playhouse, Richmond Theatre, Bradford Alhambra, Blackpool Grand, Wolverhampton Grand, Brighton Theatre Royal, Edinburgh King's, Cheltenham Everyman and Nottingham Theatre Royal.