Last seen at the RSC in 2012 for the ‘What Country Friends is this?’ season, Felix Hayes has had what you might call a diverse roll call of roles since: cow, baddie and pup in 101 Dalmatians, a gruff Rochester in Jane Eyre, Smee in Peter Pan… In the world of brilliantly outlandish characters, though, they don’t come bigger or smugger than his current role, General Braggadocio in Vice Versa. He talks about the mirth and mayhem to Gill Sutherland.
The play has a gloriously verbose full title, Vice Versa (Or The Decline & Fall of General Braggadocio at the Hands of His Canny Servant Dexter & Terence The Monkey) — what’s it about in a nutshell?!
“In a nutshell it’s by way of Plautus, but by the long way round of Plautus. It is inspired by his play Miles Gloriosus, about a bragging soldier. That’s the main one that [playwright] Phil Porter has ripped off — or ‘lovingly ripped off’ as he describes it. He’s pulled from all areas of the ridiculous, glorious Roman comedies.
“It is Rome via Up Pompeii! and Leslie Phillips. I hope we’ve brought Carry On to life in a more modern way, retaining that glorious sense of joy and silliness without too much of the bits that we don’t find so palatable in the current age.”
How did you come to it?
“I auditioned for Phil and the RSC casting director Hannah Miller and they sent a tape of to director Janice Honeyman. It was one of those scripts that when I read my character I thought ‘oh I know who this is’ and laughed out loud while reading it. I had a real instinct for him and I knew that I would have a real joyous time playing this braggart — this horrible b****r. It is quite joyful playing a character that is so ludicrously far from me.”
How is it being back at the RSC?
“It’s a lovely place to work. My daughter was born during the last time I was here [in 2012], so I have huge, gorgeously fond memories of that. Ursula is five now and she will be here a lot over the summer holidays. There is a boat available for hire called Ursula on the river which she will be delighted by.”
With a role like General Braggadocio what kind of research do you undertake?
“I did read Plautus’s Miles Gloriosus but it’s actually so far away from Phil’s script and, as with a lot of translations, it felt quite cold. So the preparation work really happens in the rehearsal room. I adore working with other actors and that bit of magic that happens when you feel that bubble expanding of whatever it is — the reality joy or darkness of the piece — or in this case the sort of twinkle in the corner of the mouth as you begin to find the joy of the play; and that’s where you find the instinct, the bounce of it.”
Tell us about Braggadocio.
“General Braggadocio is a hugely puffed up, ambitious and misogynistic b****r basically. He’s a social climber and desperate to make sure he’s keeping up with the Joneses. We thought about his background and decided that he has fought in many wars and survived only because he ran away and hid.
“The story takes place around his house in central Rome where he has a great entourage of slaves and concubines. There’s a group of people who literally sing his praises wherever he goes.
“He has echoes of Flashman, Lord Flashheart and General Melchett — Rik Mayall and Stephen Fry’s characters in Blackadder, and Donald Trump.
“No, he doesn’t have any redeeming characteristics.”
Is Vice Versa just a glorious romp or has it got anything to say about the world today?
Yes, I think it does. The character I play has quite a lot of echoes in male misogyny which is frighteningly too apparent at the moment; in Trump’s presidency for example. And one of the things that Phil has brought out in the writing as we’ve rehearsed is more of that; it’s important and lifts it beyond being just a piece of fluff — while still being a joyful thing. If you’ve got nothing to say there’s no point in opening your mouth really.”
How did you start in acting?
“I started in a youth theatre in Thame [Felix’s hometown], then did a drama degree at Liverpool John Moores University, after that I ran theatre company Network of Stuff for ten years.
“That was when we [with his partner, illustrator Hannah Broadway] were in London – we realised we weren’t Londoners and moved to Bristol; and so for the last 12 years I’ve been working as a jobbing actor.”
Was there a thunderbolt moment as a kid where you thought this is what I want to do?
“I was too terrified to be in the nativity at school, so I had to be a piano shepherd, which meant when the lady nodded I had to turn the pages. And a year after that I was not allowed to be in the nativity because I led a rebellion and encouraged the rest of the shepherds to throw the lambs in the fire — and so was banned.
“It was youth theatre that did it for me. There wasn’t a decision, never a point where I didn’t think this is what I am — acting was just always there, and that’s a really lucky thing to have that passion and self-knowledge. It means huge decisions are made for you.”
Were your parents encouraging of your ambitions?
“Yes, my dad is a bit obsessed with classics and was the son of an actor. In fact my first year here I played Fabian in Twelfth Night and I went to the Shakespeare Institute and found that my grandfather, George Hayes, who died before I was born, played him here too. He played masses of roles in the 1930s and 40s, including Prospero.
“It was the Memorial Theatre then, and because the proscenium arch is still at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre the first time I stepped out as Fabian I did have a really peculiar sort of feeling, that sense of history — in a comforting way, a lovely thing.”
What was the last thing you boasted about?
“I’ve just built a shed and I’ve been going on about that a lot. Admittedly it may have been more like converting a garage – but I’m claiming I have built a shed.
“My assessment of my skills is probably greater than my actual skills.”
“Wildlife cameraman. The other thing that nearly got me was zoology — my other grandfather, uncle and aunt were all scientists. I’ve always had a passion for throwing myself into a jungle and sitting in a hide looking at bowerbirds or something.”
“I have an absolute enormous admiration for Jim Broadbent. He’s wonderful. Of the careers I ogle his is my favourite.”
Favourite Shakespeare quote?
“I love Caliban’s speech about the island in The Tempest: ‘Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises… The clouds methought would open and show riches/Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked, I cried to dream again.’”
Last social media post?
“A photo of my daughter holding a slow worm.”
Favourite children’s author?
“I’m going to have three: Quentin Blake, I think he’s a genius; Roald Dahl and Phillip Pullman.”
Last thing that made you laugh?
“Sophia who plays Dexter in our show, she makes me laugh.”
Last thing that made you despair?
“Election poll results.”
“Ooh badgers — I love them but they are playing havoc with the vegetable patch at the bottom of the garden. I think they’re looking for worms and they’ve decided that this nice tilled bit of earth is the perfect spot to dig.”
Monkeys feature a lot in your life at the moment [Felix writes the Monkey and Robot children’s books with his wife; and there is a monkey in Vice Versa] — what animal would you be?
“A pangolin, which is like a funny ant-eater, is my favourite but I’m not very pangoliny so I would probably be a little bear, a sun bear or a spectacled bear. They don’t seem like they would eat you.”
Vice Versa runs until 9th September. Book tickets here