Preview: A Christmas Carol, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow; interview with Cliff Burnett

A Wiser Miser

Actor Cliff Burnett on playing Scrooge and being reunited with the “best director in Britain”

By Mark Brown

The actor and theatre musician Cliff Burnett is well known to Scottish audiences. Hailing from the north east of England, his talents have been drawn upon substantially by Dundee Rep, the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and, most recently, Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre.

The common denominator in his work for these Scottish theatres has been director Dominic Hill, for whom Burnett has played, among other roles, the Button Man in Peer Gynt, Aramis in The Three Musketeers And The Princess Of Spain and, most recently, Polonius in Hamlet at the Citizens. Now, again under Hill’s directorship, the actor is turning his hand to Dickens’s great pinchfist, Scrooge.

When I meet him in the foyer of the illustrious Glasgow theatre, Burnett is full of praise for the Citz’s artistic director. “Unreservedly, I would say Dominic is the best director in Britain, and I’ve worked with a lot of the other so-called luminaries.”

This is high praise indeed from an actor who spent most of last year working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. However, it will not surprise theatre lovers in Scotland who have, over more than a decade, been impressed by the consistent quality and imaginative reach of Hill’s productions.

One of the most memorable moments in the director’s recent Hamlet was when Burnett’s drunken Polonius turned on his daughter, Ophelia (played by Meghan Tyler), in a manner which was, by turns, sinisterly incestuous and disturbingly violent. There was a horrifying, scintillating, highly original logic in transforming the usually comically verbose Polonius into an ominous despot.

This inspired characterisation came about, Burnett explains, almost by accident, and as a direct consequence of the freedom Hill permits his actors during rehearsals. The actor had nipped outside for a smoke immediately prior to the scene in which Polonius instructs Ophelia to keep away from Prince Hamlet.

“I got to the rehearsal room door just at the moment when Adam Best [playing Ophelia’s brother Laertes] said, ‘here comes my father'”, Burnett remembers. “In a conventional rehearsal room the director would stop things and ask [the actors] ‘do you want to go on?’

“Not here. I opened the door, and there was a bed on the set, and they [Laertes and Ophelia] were playing like two children. I walked straight into that scene and, somehow, the atmosphere took hold and, before I knew it, the whole incest thing was just happening.

“Afterwards, I was really fazed by it. Little Meghan [Tyler, playing Ophelia] came up and gave me a cuddle and said, ‘don’t worry Cliff, that was really good.'”

Moments such as this only happen, Burnett insists, because of Hill’s extraordinary methods. “The opportunities he presents to actors are indescribable, if you’re prepared to take risks.”

The Citzens’ Christmas Carol is only the actor’s second yuletide show since 1979; the other was The Three Musketeers (also for Hill). Burnett was attracted to playing Scrooge, not only by the opportunity to work with the director again, but also by the fact that Hill was using Neil Bartlett’s acclaimed adaptation of Dickens’s novella.

Bartlett, the actor comments, worked with the lauded London company Theatre de Complicite in its early days. Consequently, despite every word of Bartlett’s Christmas Carol being from Dickens’s original, there is in his script, “a strong sense of [French theatre master] Lecoq and ensemble storytelling. It has a rhythm going through it. It’s totally European.”

Hill’s directing and Bartlett’s adapting are a perfect combination, says Burnett. “A Christmas Carol is usually a black and white piece [on stage]. Scrooge is dark and then he’s light.

“However, there’s a sardonic humour about him. He’s not just aggressively dismissive of people. There’s a sense of superiority. He finds himself laughing at people. He’s also enjoying the effect he’s having on people.”

Burnett intends to bring this slightly more sophisticated take on Scrooge to his characterisation, whilst remembering to “pitch it in a way that allows a young audience to get hold of it.” It’s not an easy balance to achieve, but one which, one suspects, this fine actor will pull off without a whiff of humbug.

A Christmas Carol plays at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, November 29 to January 3. http://www.citz.co.uk

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on November 23, 2014

© Mark Brown

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