INTERVIEW: Actor Richard Cant on Maydays at the RSC

Richard Cant in Maydays at the The Other Place, RSC. Photo by Richard Lakos

THERE’S something tremendously likable about Richard Cant, who is appearing in the RSC’s production of Maydays, which opens tonight, Tuesday.

He has a lovely manner, friendly and engaged; he has pale blue eyes that frequently crinkle in merriment; and when he speaks his tones are polite old school English but without pomposity.

Richard Cant during rehearsals for Maydays

It seems perfectly unsurprising that he is the son of a similarly charming man, the late Brian Cant, the beloved actor and children’s presenter who ruled the telly airwaves fronting such shows as Play School (1964 to 1988) and Play Away (1974 to 1984).

Richard’s dad, children’s TV presenter and actor Brian Cant

More of the lovely Brian later. For now, as Richard has taken a short lunch break from the Maydays rehearsal to meet me in the marketing offices of the RSC for our chat, we press on with talk about the play.

David Edgar (“the RSC’s most produced living playwright” it says in my notes) wrote political drama Maydays in the early 1980s and it was performed to great acclaim at the Barbican by the company in 1983. Edgar has also had success with the RSC presenting his plays Destiny, Nicholas Nickleby, Pentecost, The Prisoner’s Dilemma, Written on the Heart and, most recently, A Christmas Carol.

A story of defection from east to west as well as from left to right, Maydays tells the interlocking stories of a vicar’s son turned student radical, a young communist who becomes a conservative ideologue, a single mother and political activist, and a Soviet army officer who ends up as a dissident. It is being performed as part of the Mischief Festival at the Other Place. It doesn’t exactly sound bright and breezy, but what is Richard’s take on it?

“The play works on very different levels. Everyone can identify with the play, even if you know nothing about politics you are carried along on Martin’s journey.

“Likewise the Soviet story – it’s very revealing about how people live. So there’s that human interest side of it, but then for me it’s about what influences people’s thinking, and how the power of one idea can rule the lives of millions of people and how extraordinary that is – how someone says something, someone takes it up and it becomes a system. It could be communism, fascism, conservatism, socialism – any of those.”

When Maydays was performed in London in 1983 it was hailed as “an outstanding play for our time”. Since then it has sat on a dusty shelf; presumably its touchstone of 1960s idealism as a reaction to a Britain beset by Thatcherism seemingly too much of its time. Now the play is being revived, as the RSC is keen to point out, on the 50th anniversary since the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. How relevant is it today?

“It feels absolutely current,” says Richard. “Because generally people are quite polarized, and with nobody shifting much I think it is the perfect time for doing it. It covers a lot of ground and a lot of themes; a lot of political persuasions and extremes of all of them.”

Apparently David Edgar has been working in the rehearsal room with the cast and director, changing the script as they work.

“David is tinkering as we go,” explains Richard. “The essence of the play is still there but a lot has changed. For example the female perspective in the play has been broadened and enhanced; some characters who were male are now female.”

The original cast of 34 has been whittled down to ten, and features a stellar bunch, including Mark Quartley, who played Ariel in the RSC’s 2016 Tempest, as Martin, and Gillian Bevan, last seen in Stratford as Cymbeline. Owen Horsley is directing, who took the helm of Salome at the RSC recently, and with whom Richard has done a lot with working with theatre company Cheek By Jowl.

Richard describes Edgar’s play as “beautifully elegant” and defends it readily when I suggest it sounds a bit heavy.

“It is entertaining,” says Richard. “Also because it’s an intimate space, and the audience are everywhere, they are very close to the actors, which I think makes it exciting. The sets are simple but there are hundreds of costume changes and we are all playing different parts; there’s different accents and countries… there’s always something happening in it.”

He continues: “It’s very clear and I think that’s something that Owen gets from Cheek by Jowl; when they do Shakespeare it’s all about clarity, he’s very good at getting you to focus on a scene then click [snaps fingers] taking you somewhere else – it happens in a heartbeat. Plus there’s a chorus and we address the audience, giving times and places.”

What does Richard think the audience will make of the play?

“I don’t think that when people come out they are necessarily going to have an immediate response. It’s the sort of play that you need to think about over a glass of wine. It would be great if it gives the audience a new perspective or maybe they will learn something about the Hungarian Revolution and look at what is happening there now – it all seems very relevant and important and to at least know what these things are about.”

Richard is playing the part of Jeremy who he describes as fascinating. He explains: “He’s born in Mansfield and grows up in the 1930s, experiencing poverty and misery, and at 17 becomes a communist – he leaves the party when they invade Hungary and suppress the population. He starts teaching at a public school which is the start of a weave off politically to the right, then he meets Martin as a young boy who he influences.”

Again it may sound heavy but Richard assures me the psychology of the characters makes the drama real and compelling.

He observes: “The thing that interests me about people with very strong opinions, including a lot of politicians today, is ‘what is it that’s made you like that?’ what makes you change and develop and change your ideas? How people completely jump from one extreme to another is very interesting psychologically.”

Richard is also positive that despite its historical references, Maydays will appeal to a young audience too.

“I saw the play in 1983 at the Barbican when I was 17 and I wasn’t politicised in any shape or form. I think now young people seem much more interested. Because it’s the youth that are joining the Labour Party and that voted for Remain – and look how much worse off they are now than before, what with debt, student grants and unaffordable housing.”

We have a long chat about the politics of the 70s and 80s; Richard and I were both born in the same year and can remember the long nights of the Winter of Discontent and the rise of Thatcherism. We ponder, like his character in the play, whether growing more right wing as you age is a ‘thing’.

“Personally that’s not what’s happened to me,” says Richard. “And I was talking about this to my mother and she sounded quite indignant ‘Well that’s not what’s happening to us, I know plenty of left-wing people!’”

Richard’s mum is former actress Sylvia Gibson, she had two sons, Richard and his older brother Nicholas (“He works in finance thank God someone in the family is earning some money!”), with Brian, who died from Parkinson’s disease last year. In 1984 Brian remarried Cherry Briton (daughter of actor Tony Britton) and had three children, Richard’s half-siblings – one of whom is Christabel, a scenic artist and regularly at the RSC – and who’s coming to opening night, says Richard.

Richard grew up in Kent, where he still lives, and followed in his actor parents’ footsteps, going to Bristol University then Central Drama School. I wonder if having such a well-known actor dad is a blessing or a curse?

“He was very famous – but in the end your parents just do what they do, it doesn’t seem remarkable in any way. They just go to work and come home like anyone else. And it was definitely a blessing rather than a curse, it meant I could always talk to him about acting – he was a stage actor before the TV work; in fact when he stopped doing the children’s stuff he went back into touring and a bit of directing.

“So in a way we were in the same world, but in another way our interests were quite different. What he did was very much his thing, but it wasn’t where my skillset lay.”

A quick Google of Richard and the range and quality of his work is quite dazzling. He was first at the RSC 20 years ago – in Cymbeline, Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing, and has enjoyed numerous acclaimed stage and screen appearances, including a notorious turn in Midsomer Murders as vile undertaker Dennis Rainbird (episode Dead Letters – a must-see) and the part of Degsy in the hilarious cult sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme.

When he’s not acting Richard teaches at drama school – currently Mountview. “It’s a great thing for me to try and pass on to young actors how I like to work,” he says.

As our chat winds up, Richard tells me if he were to be asked back to the main house to perform in a Shakespeare play, he would quite like a comic role, “a character part like Peter Quince”. He’s also got his eye on Jaques (As You Like It) “or perhaps Polonius in a few years…”

Of his Midsomer appearance, Richard muses: “It wasn’t profound but it is entertaining and people need it – like watching Strictly and then coming to Maydays, they balance each other out!”

When and where: Maydays is being performed as part of the Autumn Mischief Festival in The Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon from 27th September to 20th October. There will also be three performances of David Edgar’s one-person solo show Trying It On at The Other Place on 18th, 19th and 20th October. Aged 20 in 1968, Edgar was caught up in the student revolt of the time, which defined his politics and gave focus to his playwriting. In Trying It On he confronts and is confronted by his 70-year-old self today. Do they still share the same beliefs? Has the world changed, or has he? Why did his generation – supposedly so radical in its youth – vote Brexit? Has he sold in or sold out