“IT’S been a few years coming, but finally getting to flail around on the @YorkTheatre main stage today. We’re here till the 28th.”
So reads actor Emilio Iannucci’s tweet, accompanying a photo of the circus-themed set in situ for this afternoon’s 2pm performance of Around The World In 80 Days.
“Flailing around” were not words that tipped off the keyboard keys for CharlesHutchPress’s review when watching Iannucci racing against time with elegant aplomb as globe-traversing Phileas Fogg in an outdoor performance on the Copmanthorpe Primary School playing fields.
From today to Saturday, creative director Juliet Forster’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel moves indoors for a York Theatre Royal homecoming finale led by Iannucci’s dual lead role of Ringmaster and Fogg.
On the back of eye-catching turns for the Theatre Royal in The Book Of Dragons and Hello And Goodbye and for Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre Romeo & Juliet, Richard lll, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2018/2019, he was always Forster’s pick to have fun with Fogg. “That’s very flattering to hear, though I’m sure there are other people who could do the role!” says Emilio.
“I’ve been recovering from long Covid, so in a way I’ve been having a race against time myself to do this show. It’s not like I’m missing a physical bit of me, but there are still ups and downs, though they’re now further apart and less intense – and drawing on the energy of my fellow cast members has been very helpful.”
Phileas Fogg is noted for his efficiency and managing his life very carefully, a philosophy that Iannucci has applied to his recuperation and return to performing. “Long Covid has been a horrible thing to go through but it’s challenged me to approach things in new ways, rather than my usual process, now trying to achieve the same things but in a different way,” he says.
Iannucci’s main inspiration for his characterisation of Phileas Fogg is Verne’s novel. “That’s because the Ringmaster is adamant that we have to be faithful to the book, not the films. He’s determined to tell the story by the book, though whether that’s for budgetary reasons, like explaining why there’ll be no hot-air balloon…!” he says.
“The first part is all about telling you who Fogg wasn’t, what he wasn’t, not judging him too quickly, because he’s a strange character in that he’s not very likeable at the start and not wholly likeable by the end, but gradually you do come round to his side.
“He’s the opposite of the Ringmaster, who’s stroppy, flustered and always trying to herd cats.”
Dame Berwick Kaler has often talked of the need for actors to be “likeable” in his pantomime companies, and Iannucci has displayed such likeability in buckets in myriad stage roles but says: “I’d counter that by saying I don’t try to be likeable; I try to be honest…and Fogg is very honest. He can be a bit an a**e – he may or may not be guilty of theft – so I’m just trying to stay to what’s honest to that character and let the audience judge.
“I’m more used to playing low-status characters, who have to move props and help people, but Fogg is calling the tune here.”
In this energetically humorous account of Around The World In 80 Days, Iannucci’s Phileas Fogg is sort of a double act with his servant, French-Moroccan actor Ali Azhar’s Passepartout.
Azhar made his mark previously in York in the second summer of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre at the Eye of York, appearing as a Spirit in The Tempest (“moving a tree around!”) and as the Dauphin (“a delicious part”) in 2019.
“It was a rewarding adventure: four months of Shakespeare, the best bootcamp an actor can have,” says Ali. “And I love York! To wake up in this city with all that lovely fresh air and beautiful sites is bliss.”
Parisian Azhar plays not only the put-upon yet resourceful Passepartout but also The Clown, part of the circus company charged with telling Verne’s tale, as well as juggling or forming human pyramids or balancing on a seesaw with fellow actor Eddie Mann.
“That’s really helpful for the play because it means the cast can tell you about British colonisation and imperialism in Victorian times [Fogg made his journey in 1871], where we can all join in the debate without schooling everyone when it’s a story and we want everyone to have fun, so it’s joyful ride.”
Introducing The Clown, Ali says: “He’s recently been hired by the Ringmaster and has no idea about Jules Verne and doesn’t know the novel. He’s wild, a joker, but when he’s told he has to play the part of Passepartout, he tries not to take too much of the attention, whereas a clown usually does that.
“I think he must be the quietest clown I’ve ever played – and he seems to be always late or trying to catch up!”
Around The World In 80 Days is at York Theatre Royal for four days, August 25 to 28; performances at 2pm and 7pm. Signed performance: August 26, 2pm. Suitable for age seven upwards. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.