Oh, the scandal! Adrian Lukis plays Pride And Prejudice’s Mr Wickham again, 30 years on from Jane Austen’s novel

Adrian Lukis: Being Mr Wickham again, 30 years on from Jane Austen’s novel

ADRIAN Lukis played George Wickham in the BBC’s television adaptation of Pride And Prejudice 26 years ago this very month.

Time, he says, to set the record straight about Jane Austen’s most charmingly roguish character in his one-man play Being Mr Wickham, co-written with Catherine Curzon.

This is the chance to discover the vilified Wickham’s version of some very famous literary events. Such as? What really happened with Darcy? What did he feel about Lizzie? What went on at Waterloo? Not to mention Byron.

Directed by Guy Unsworth and designed by Libby Watson, the Original Theatre Company’s 75-minute touring production visits York Theatre Royal from Thursday (14/10/2021) to Saturday.

From the company that brought Ben Brown’s political drama A Splinter Of Ice to the Theatre Royal in July comes Being Mr Wickham, wherein Lukis’s Mr Wickham is on the eve of his 60th birthday and wants to lift the sheets on exactly what happened 30 years on from where Jane Austen left him. 

“I’m thrilled to be reunited with my old friend, George Wickham,” says Lukis, who starred with Colin Firth’s headline-grabbing Mr Darcy in Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Austen’s 1813 novel.

 “Having spent years defending Wickham’s dubious reputation, I look forward to finally setting the record straight, with the assistance of the immensely talented Original Theatre Company.”

Rarely off the small screen, Lukis’s TV credits take in Channel 4’s Feel Good, the 2019 mini-series A Christmas Carol, Vera, Poldark, Bulletproof, Collateral, The Crown, Red Dwarf, Grantchester, Black Mirror, Blair Toast in Toast Of London, Downton Abbey, New Tricks and Death In Paradise.  

He also stars in the new Netflix series Anatomy Of A Scandal, set to be streamed this year, and has had film roles in Judy, Dolittle, City Slacker and Bertie & Dickie.

“I’ve made up stories based on the historical facts and imagined an entire life for Wickham above and beyond the book,” says Adrian Lukis

Now he is touring Being Mr Wickham after theatre parts inThe Price(Theatre Royal Bath), The Seagull (Chichester Festival Theatre/ National Theatre) and Versailles (Donmar Warehouse).

Here, Adrian Lukis gives CharlesHutchPress the inside track on Being Mr Wickham.

What inspired you to revisit the character of Mr Wickham?

“When I turned 60 a few years ago, I started to wonder what it would be like for a man such as Wickham, who has been a rake and a ne’er-do-well, surviving on his looks and his wits, to have to deal with getting older.

“I started to look at it with Catherine Curzon, who is an expert on the historical side of things, and read everything about Wickham and Pride And Prejudice I could get hold of. I found myself discovering how much I enjoyed the process of researching and writing. Once I started, it just went like a storm.”

Given that the details of Wickham’s life are sketchy in the novel, how did you fill in the blanks?

“Firstly, I looked at the way he is described. For example, Darcy says he has led a dissolute life in London, so I thought, ‘well what really happened?’. I’ve also made up stories based on the historical facts and imagined an entire life for him above and beyond the book.

“At one stage, he enters a private club and gets into a punch-up, but it’s based on a real place called Watier’s Club in St James’s [London]. I also wanted to explore things such as what he really thinks of Elizabeth Bennet; what he really thinks of Lydia. These questions were really interesting to me.”

” I was 17 I wrote my first play. At the time I thought I might be a playwright, so it’s nice I’m finally getting a chance to do it at 64,” says Adrian Lukis, actor and now writer too

Austen depicts him as such a rogue, was it therefore important to fight his corner in the play?

“Absolutely. My premise was that people don’t tend to see themselves through a bad lens, and there are always two sides to a story. I could have written him like Flashman – an out-and-out bounder who just doesn’t care – but something I took very strongly from the book was that Wickham is plausibly a nice man.

“He is always described as being charming and amiable, rather than someone who’s constantly plotting and twirling his moustache. He admits he does some bad things, but turns it on the audience and asks, ‘have you led a blameless life?’.

“Also, he makes the point that life would be very dull without any rogues. I’d much rather spend an evening with him than with Darcy!”

How would Wickham be thought of in today’s society?

“It’s an interesting question. He would probably be labelled in contemporary terminology a bit of a ‘player’, and I think we all know men like that, but you have to view him in the context of his time. In Austen’s day, men who were not the first son had to set their cap at a wealthy heiress.

“That was a social pressure that we don’t really have today, so for a man with looks and charm, like Wickham, it made sense to try his luck with women, rather than going into the clergy.

“It would certainly be different today, although I think we are living through a very moral period, much more so than when I was growing up in the 1970s. So perhaps he would still be considered a scoundrel.”

What are your memories of playing Wickham first time round? Did you have any idea that the BBC series would become such a phenomenon?

“No idea at all; I don’t think any of us did. We knew it was a big production, and I thought the script was terrific, but we had no inkling of whether it would be a success. In that sense it was just another job.

“We are living through a very moral period, much more so than when I was growing up in the 1970s,” says Adrian Lukis. “So perhaps Wickham would still be considered a scoundrel”

“I remember writing to Colin Firth shortly after it came out, when he’d gone off to do some filming in South America, and saying words to the effect of ‘you have no idea what’s going on back home, this series has gone through the roof and you’re famous’.

“That being said, a few weeks later we went for a pint together in London, and I thought we would get absolutely mobbed – Darcy and Wickham out together -but nobody recognised us!”

Were you always drawn to acting and what about writing?

“My father was in the Royal Marines and I was initially brought up in Australia, where I didn’t have much chance to try it out, but when I came to England in the 1960s and was sent to public school, suddenly theatre was available to me and it was like being struck by a thunderbolt.

“I fell in love with it. My whole life soon became about being in school productions and when I was 17 I wrote my first play. At the time I thought I might be a playwright, so it’s nice I’m finally getting a chance to do it at 64!”

While on the subject of writers, what might Jane Austen have made of your reimagining of George Wickham?

“That depends on how you view her politics. She has been called all sorts of things, from a radical feminist to a staunch Methodist, but I think it’s safer to assume she was something of a small ‘c’ conservative.

“So, she probably would have disapproved of Wickham and seen him as being a rather weak and vapid young man, but I hope if she were to see this production, she would say, ‘good for you, you haven’t consigned him to the scrapheap and have found mitigating factors for his behaviour’.

Original Theatre Company presents Being Mr Wickham, York Theatre Royal, Thursday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Thursday’s performance will be followed by a 15 to 20-minute question-and-answer session. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

REVIEW: A Splinter Of Ice, The Original Theatre Company, York Theatre Royal

Withholding the truth: Oliver Ford Davies’s Graham Greene and Stephen Boxer’s Kim Philby in A Splinter Of Ice

A Splinter Of Ice, The Original Theatre Company, York Theatre Royal, until Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

WHAT’S this? A proper printed programme to peruse. Another sign of a return to theatre’s old normal ahead of Monday’s Step 4 pronouncement and its promise of the resumption of full-capacity shows.

What’s this? A not particularly busy first-night audience for spy story A Splinter Of Ice, even making allowances for social distancing in masked times. We could romanticise how theatres will be crammed to the gills once “Freedom Day” arises, but audiences are selective. Always were, always will be.

In between the mothballed lulls in lockdown, we have grown accustomed to seeing theatres and theatre companies adapting to Covid rules with social-bubble casts of one, two or three on main stages. In truth, Ben Brown’s three-hander would have been equally at home on a studio or Edinburgh Fringe stage, where it would have gained from added claustrophobia.

A Splinter Of Ice has its own cases of social distancing and mask-wearing: Brown’s subject matter is the first meeting in 35 years of The Third Man writer Graham Greene (Oliver Ford Davies) and Cold War-era spy Kim Philby (Stephen Boxer) in 35 years, whose friendship had been forged in Greene’s days in Philby’s office at MI6. Greene professed to loving him, maybe explaining the play’s inclusion in the Theatre Royal’s Love Season. 

British intelligence officer and double agent Philby’s defection to the Soviet Union ensured an enforced social distancing, despite Philby’s invitations to his old friend to visit him. Greene finally does so when attending a peace conference at Gorbachev’s initiation, along with the likes of Yoko Ono, Gregory Peck and Peter Ustinov.

The date is February 15 1987. Greene arrives for dinner at Philby’ rudimentary Moscow flat, home to the terminally ill spy, his charming fourth wife Rufa (Karen Ascoe) and books and a chair given to Philby by fellow Cambridge Five spy Guy Burgess.  

Michael Pavelka’s set is skeletal, bare scaffolding framing the drab flat contents, much like Brown must fill in the blank pages of exactly what went on that night as Greene would later only affirm that the meeting had taken place.

Likewise, Boxer’s Philby opens by saying he will not answer any of Greene’s questions, although subsequently he does, but who knows where the truth lies in his answers. Greene had had the first word, addressing the audience directly to warn that “perhaps he was just playing with me, as he did with others”. Philby’s mask-wearing had been so adroit that he was, in Greene’s words, “the greatest spy of the 20th century”.

The ghost in the writer: Oliver Ford Davies’s Graham Greene, there but not there

“Though they are great friends, they withhold things; they’re not always honest with each other,” Ford Davies forewarned in his interview, and indeed Greene is, in his own way, as a writer, an outsider, an observer, who has to keep his anti-social distance from his quarries. Are his reasons for finally agreeing to see Philby entirely honest, or is there a hidden agenda?

Just as Philby is still in the service of his Russian masters, albeit only sparingly, so Greene still attaches himself to “the firm” (MI6).

The British love a spy story, whether in book or film form, and here we have two of the brightest minds of their generation locking intellectual horns over wine, whisky and a dinner of coq au vin cooked by Rufa (although Philby normally does the cooking).

Tonight, however, he is on washing-up duty, a task that facilitates Brown the opportunity to have a conversation between Greene and Rufa, to bring a third, more sympathetic, perspective into the reunion, a device that also loosens up what might otherwise be all rather too stifling and monochrome.

Brown conducts the first half as Philby sketching in some of the blanks under Greene’s questioning, telling the story his convivial, urbane way, before all that politesse truly turns to politics post-dinner when Greene’s probing becomes more of an inquisition, as Philby starts to show his true colours in “vodka veritas” with what Greene calls his “chilling certainty” – and no sense of guilt. Greene turns out to be the more mysterious character, the ghost in the writer, there but not there.

There is a little brittle wit , there is intrigue, history and mystery too, and then there is the big question: would you choose to be loyal to your friend or your country? Yet A Splinter Of Ice ultimately leaves you as cold as the Cold War; for all the surface finesse of Alan Strachan’s direction and the consummate stage craft of Ford Davies, Boxer and Ascoe, it should reveal and say more, rather than play a chess game in words. From Brown, amid the display of superior grey matter, the play is too grey without enough of his own voice beyond the detailed research.

Truth be told, An Englishman Abroad, Alan Bennett’s marrow story of a defector and British visitor, Guy Burgess and actress Coral Browne, meeting in Moscow in 1958, was more fascinating, more rewarding too.

Given the subject of two men who took such risks, whether in word or deed, A Splinter Of Ice feels just too safe.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

‘Though they are great friends, they’re not always honest with each other,’ says Oliver Ford Davies of writer Greene and spy Philby in A Splinter Of Ice at York Theatre Royal

Oliver Ford Davies as Graham Greene in The Original Theatre Company’s touring production of A Splinter Of Ice

MOSCOW. 1987. As the Cold War begins to thaw, novelist Graham Greene travels into the heart of the Soviet Union to meet with his old MI6 boss, Kim Philby, after declining his offer for more than 30 years.

So begins Ben Brown’s new political drama, A Splinter Of Ice, presented by The Original Theatre Company, under the direction of Alan Strachan, on tour at York Theatre Royal from July 6 to 10 as part of The Love Season.

Brown explores an unlikely friendship, one interwoven with deceit and loyalty between writer and spy, who  set about catching up on old times under the watchful eye of Russian memoirist and Philby’s last wife, Rufa (played by Karen Ascoe).

Amid a new world order breaking out around them, how much did the writer of The Third Man know about Philby’s secret life as a spy – the most successful Soviet double agent in Cold War times – and did Philby betray his friend as well as his country?

Oliver Ford Davies, last seen on a York stage in Goodnight Mister Tom at the Grand Opera House in February 2013, will play Greene opposite Stephen Boxer as Philby, returning to the Theatre Royal after appearing there in The Remains Of The Day in March 2019.

“The play takes place when they hadn’t met for 35 years, when Graham Greene was invited as part of a peace conference that Gorbachev initiated, attending with likes of Yoko Ono, Peter Ustinov, Gregory Peck, Norman Mailer and Shirley MacLaine,” says Oliver.

“Greene tops and tails the play, starting by talking to the audience, then getting the story from ‘the greatest spy of the 20th century’. That’s the first half, with the second half being much more confrontational, as Greene challenges Philby about what he did in training men before sending them to their deaths, whereas Philby says ‘it’s a war and you send men to their deaths in war’.”

Greene was very fond of Philby, working with him at St Albans for three years during the Second World War, recalls Oliver. “But what also emerges is that though they are great friends, they withhold things; they’re not always honest with each other,” he says.

Oliver Ford Davies as Mister Tom in Goodnight Mister Tom at the Grand Opera House, York in 2013

“Philby is economical with the truth, and right at the beginning of the play, Greene says, ‘perhaps he was just playing with me, as he did with others’. 

“He was a master of deception and lying when he was interrogated in 1951 about being the ‘Third Man’, surviving undetected for another 12 years, until a chance comment nailed him as Russian mole, and when that revelation came, it came from a most unlikely source. The way he was so good at deceiving people was quite remarkable.”

Brown’s play gives Philby a constant slight smile. “It’s difficult to know what the smile said: was it boredom with the question being asked?  But it could also be covering up his inner demons, in an act of subterfuge,” says Oliver.

“Greene and Philby are two highly intelligent, highly perceptive men. Greene was extraordinarily perceptive about the human condition in his writing.”

Brown’s storyline is rooted in fact, but its dialogue is “entirely fictitious”. “They did meet a few times in 1987 during the peace conference, and they definitely spent an evening having dinner at Philby’s flat, but Greene said, ‘that’s all I’m going to say on that’, so instead the play’s account is entirely fictitious speculation,” says Oliver.

Should you be pondering the significance of the title, let Oliver explain. “Greene famously said, ‘there is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer’, as a novelist has to be unscrupulous if he is any good, he contended, because all of your friends and relations will come into your work, even though you may not like doing this…

“…’and there is an icicle in the heart of a spy’. That’s what he wrote inside the front cover of a book he gave to Philby.”

The writer and the spy: Oliver Ford Davies’s Graham Greene and Stephen Boxer’s Kim Philby in A Splinter Of Ice

In terms of drawing an audience, Oliver says: “We are aware that to people under 40, Kim Philby is probably not known and that Greene’s books are not that widely read, but people do know The Third Man film – and there’s a link there because Philby claims that when he saw the film on TV, it really troubled him because he thought Greene had sussed him out as the Third Man; he was the villainous Harry Lime.”

Oliver, whose research has taken in reading biographies and Greene short stories, describes the writer as a complicated figure but one who “makes a lot of English novelists look very parochial and Islington bound”.

“I was thinking about writers of spy stories the other day, how John le Carré admired Greene enormously, and how Greene said The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was greatest spy novel of them all,” he says. “Interestingly, Le Carré hated Philby and said MI6 should have annihilated him in Beirut.”

Putting Oliver on the spot over whether he would choose to show loyalty to friend or country, he answers: “Well, this comes up in the play, when Philby asks Greene, ‘what would you have done, if you had discovered I was a Russian mole within MI6?’.

“Greene answers, ‘I would have given you 24 hours…then I would have betrayed you. Out of one or the other, there are limits to how much I would betray my country.”

Oliver never did reveal his own preference!

The Original Theatre Company in A Splinter Of Ice, York Theatre Royal, July 6 to 10, 8pm; Thursday and Saturday matinees, 3pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

Copyright of The Press, York

Feel the love as York Theatre Royal marks May reopening with season from the heart

Love letter to theatre: The reopening season at York Theatre Royal

MUCH ado about nothing but love is promised when York Theatre Royal reopens with two nights of letters from the heart from May 17.

Love Bites will turn the spotlight on the creativity of artists from in and around York, whether poets, performers, singers, dancers or digital artists, who have been commissioned to write love letters celebrating the return to live performances after the easing of the Government’s pandemic restrictions.

More names will be announced nearer the time for the 8pm performances on May 17 and 18, but confirmed already from 200 proposals are Alice Boddy and Leanne Hope’s piece, A Love Letter To Female Friendship, and Japanese-English actor Erika Noda’s semi-autobiographical account of growing up dual heritage, entitled Ai.

Magic trio: writer Bethan Ellis, illustrator Elena Skoreyko Wagner and composer James Cave

Contributing too will be the Magic combination of illustrator and papercut artist Elena Skoreyko Wagner, composer and York Minster choir member James Cave and writer and editor Bethan Ellis, finding magic and meaning in the mundane, and York-based Zimbabwean playwright Butshilo Nleya, who combines words, music and dance in works centred on place, home and the multiplicity of cultures, this time presenting Ekhaya, Love Them Both?.

Juliet Forster, the Theatre Royal’s creative director, says: “Love Bites is really a love letter to live performance, put together by York artists. It’s a celebration of what we have been missing for over a year now: the chance to come together under one roof and share our stories and experiences. There was no one single theatre production that felt enough to mark the reopening of theatres, the lifting of restrictions, so we decided that we needed multiple ones.”

Selecting 20 commissions from more than 200 proposals was “extremely difficult, but really inspiring too,” she reveals. “There are so many talented, inventive, creative people in York – we could have filled the night several times over. The selection of short pieces that you will see on our stage represent a wide range of voices, artforms and approaches to the theme of love, created by both well-established artists and those who are newer to the scene,” she says.

“We hope Love Bites will turn out to be ‘a many-splendored thing’,” says York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster

“Love Bites will explore the idea of love letters, dedicated to people, places, things, actions, occupations and much, much more in a multitude of ways, all presented in five-minute specially commissioned bite-sized chunks. We hope Love Bites will turn out to be ‘a many-splendored thing’”.

After these two nights introduced by Look North alumnus Harry Gration with a Pay What You Feel ticket policy, The Love Season’s focus on human connection, the live experience and a sense of togetherness will embrace solo shows by stage and screen luminary Ralph Fiennes [Four Quartets} and Coronation Street star Julie Hesmondhalgh [The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…]; a new Ben Brown political drama about writer Graham Greene and spy Kim Philby, A Splinter Of Ice,  and Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, transposed to 1940s’ Hong Kong by writer Amy Ng and director Dadiow Lin.

Performances will be presented to socially distanced audiences, adhering to the latest Government and industry Covid-19 guidelines to ensure the safety of staff and audiences with a reduced capacity of 344, but should Step 4 of the roadmap roll-out go ahead as planned on June 21, there is scope for more seats to go on sale for shows later in the season. Over to you, Mr Johnson.

“We’re so chuffed to have Ralph Fiennes coming to York. We can’t believe it,” says Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird

Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird says: “The last thing we want to do, given our mission and the trouble in keeping theatre alive, is to put up more barriers to people coming, but we have to be Covid-safe, and that’s the bottom line. We did it for the Travelling Pantomime we took around York wards, and we will do it again from May 17.’”

The number one talking point is Ralph Fiennes’s Theatre Royal debut, in six performances from July 26 to 31, directing himself in the world-premiere tour of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets: a solo theatre adaptation of Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Giddings, a set of poems first published together in 1943 on the themes of time, nature and the elements, faith and spirituality, war and mortality.

Tom says: “The link to bring the show here is James Dacre, artistic director of Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatres, who co-produced A View From The Bridge with the Theatre Royal in 2019.

Ralph Fiennes rehearsing T S Eliot’s Four Quartets

“He’s co-producing this tour, helping Ralph put the show together. Ralph is rehearsing in London, opening at the Theatre Royal, Bath, from May 25 and then touring. We’re so chuffed to have Ralph coming to York. We can’t believe it!

“We’re thrilled that Ralph’s show became a possibility for us, and it’s a huge credit to him to recognise the need to support theatre around the country at this time.

“Let’s say it, it’s rare for an actor of his profile and standing to do a regional tour, but he’s seen that he can help to save some incredibly important producing houses, like this one, by doing a tour – and it’s not an act of charity; it’s an important and really exciting piece of work.”

“It’s a huge credit to him to recognise the need to support theatre around the country at this time,” says Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird

Tom is delighted by Fiennes’s choice of material too. “There’s a massive tradition of actors doing Eliot poems, like Fiona Shaw doing The Waste Land,” he says. “They lend themselves to performance, and it’s really telling that Ralph has chosen to take Four Quartets on tour at this moment because they’re rooted in life and death; the past and the future; human relationships and a love of place.

“For that reason, it fits into our programme for a season built around love, connection and being rooted in a place. As an American coming to England, Eliot was trying to root himself here by looking for his ancestors in Somerset.”

For full details of The Love Season, go to: yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Tickets can be booked at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk; on 01904 623568, Monday to Saturday, 12 noon to 3pm, and in person, Thursday to Saturday, 12 noon to 3pm.

Ready for love at York Theatre Royal

Copyright of The Press, York