Interview: Danny John-Jules and Nigel Harman talk all things The Da Vinci Code. Coming to the Belgrade Theatre Coventry 22-26 Feb 2022

Simon Button talks to

Danny John-Jules,

 playing Sir Leigh Teabing in the UK tour of

THE DA VINCI CODE

Based on Dan Brown’s classic novel, The Da Vinci Code now comes to the stage in a thrilling new adaptation starring Nigel Harman and Danny John-Jules, arriving at the Belgrade Theatre from Tues 22 – Sat 26 Feb.

Credit: Johan Persson

How would you sum up the character of Sir Leigh Teabing as portrayed in the play?

He’s a huge character who was previously played by a huge character [Ian McKellen] in a huge movie based on a huge book. [Laughs] So no pressure! I’d describe him as a puppet-master. You’re not supposed to be able to work him out but he’s one of these eccentric millionaires we’ve seen living in big houses who are pretty much just waiting for someone to come round and visit them.

Can you relate to Sir Leigh in any way?

Well, in the early days when you’ve left home, you’re plying your trade and you’re in your house alone grafting away before you settle down etc – that’s something I can relate to, namely being the lonely guy at home, waiting for the next phone call and the next job. The difference with him is that he has loads of money and can do whatever he wants but the biggest want in his life is the one thing he can’t get.

What appealed to you about playing him?

If you ask anybody who sees the poster for the first time they’ll go ‘What? Danny-John Jules is playing Sir Leigh Teabing?’ But that’s exactly what art is supposed to do – to make you ask questions. Then you look at it and you go ‘What’s so strange about that?’ You’ve got Sir Garfield Sobers, you’ve got Sir Keith Richards, you’ve got Sirs out there nobody would bat an eyelid about.

Does the role present any challenges?

Most of the people know the story. With any book that has sold 80 million copies so many people already know the story so there’s a double pressure there. It’s not like it’s something nobody has heard of or seen, at least in the film version. They know the character and they know the story, and that to me is the challenge – to bring him to life in my own way. There will always be people who go ‘I preferred the film version’ but my reaction to that is ‘Bring it on!’ The thing I go for is that within five minutes you’ve forgotten who I am. That’s the thing, isn’t it? If the portrayal is working the way it should then you’re not watching Danny John-Jules and you’re certainly not thinking about Ian McKellen.

Have you done any research?

When you first read the script you go ‘Holy mackerel! What does this word even mean?’ I’ve been on howtopronounce.com for ages. It’s all Latin and Biblical. But I already knew some of the stuff. I knew about Emperor Constantine, for instance, because I researched him for a radio play I wrote called Knight Talker which was based on a lot of things we talk about in The Da Vinci Code.

Were you already familiar with The Da Vinci Code book and film?

I’d seen the film and in some ways it’s bad to see a film without reading the book because people then seem to think the film version is the gospel, whereas I’d say nine times out of ten Hollywood takes the heart and soul out of the piece.  Plus, what you’ve got to remember is the book came out nearly 20 years ago and a lot of things have changed. For example, when the book was written the SmartCar was a phenomenon and that no longer applies because the play is set in the present day and Sir Leigh Teabing is a very different guy because it’s a very different world.

What is it about these characters and this storythat you think continues to fascinate people?

If you think about it, we live in a Christian country and The Da Vinci Code makes people question their religion. Then there’s the conspiracy theory aspect to it, conspiracy theorists will always be around and their questions will never be answered. You could do The Da Vinci Code in 100 years’ time and people would still be torn as to whether they believe it or not. That’s the fascinating thing about doing this play: The questions it raises will never be answered. It’s what keeps the wheels of religion turning because nobody has the answers and if that’s the case all people are doing is arguing their own opinions. The Da Vinci Code invites you to listen, decipher and try and make your mind up but I guarantee you every single person who walks out of that theatre will not be able to fully make up their minds.

The stage adaptation is a new play rather than a revival. Is that exciting for you as an actor?

Absolutely but then I’m lucky that I’ve never really done what you’d call recurring work like soap operas. Red Dwarf is a sitcom but each season we move the show forward. It doesn’t sit on its laurels and the guys are always pushing the boundaries to see ‘What haven’t we done?’ I love those conversations. With Maid Marion and Her Merry Men nothing has since been on children’s TV to touch it. 

Youve done a lot of high-profile TV. Which roles are you most recognised for?

It goes from The Story Makers to Maid Marion and Her Merry Men to Red Dwarf to Death In Paradise. Take your pick.

What do you especially enjoy about live performance?

That’s where I started. That’s my thing. I’m a song-and-dance man, I’m an entertainer, and theatre is where entertainment started. Before cameras there was an audience and as Laurence Olivier used to say you should always do theatre before you do film and TV because that’s the root of the art.

Simon Button talks to

Nigel Harman,

 playing Professor Robert Langdon in the UK tour of

THE DA VINCI CODE

Based on Dan Brown’s classic novel, The Da Vinci Code now comes to the stage in a thrilling new adaptation starring Nigel Harman and Danny John-Jules, arriving at the Belgrade Theatre from Tues 22 – Sat 26 Feb.

Credit: Johan Persson

How would you sum up the character of Robert Langdon as he’s portrayed in the stage version of The Da Vinci Code?

He’s the Harvard professor that we all know and love. He’s one of the smartest people in the room but what’s wonderful about the play is that he’s also a little inept in some areas, such as when he’s handling his gun and when he makes silly mistakes about the most obvious stuff whilst also solving the most complex matters, equations and Newton’s theory of gravity. So, he’s very human in our play. There are moments where he’s vulnerable and he loses his temper at one point because he’s so frustrated. That’s the joy of the play – it fleshes out our main characters more than I’d say has been done before. That’s what drew me to it.

Can you relate to Langdon in any way?

You know when you get completely focused on something that you really love, a passion of yours, and the world becomes really quiet because you’re just doing that one thing? I relate to that aspect of him, when there’s something to solve or something to think about or a puzzle to put together. That’s where Langdon comes into his own and I think there are moments in my life when I’m really focusing on a project I’m doing, reading a book or whatever it may be… You have those moments where you have utter calm and just focus on that one thing. I share that and I like it when it happens. It doesn’t happen all the time because we’re all trying to juggle so many balls but when there’s only one ball it’s brilliant.

Does the role present any challenges?

The challenge with this one is staying as present as possible. Every night the story unfolds in front of me. As Langdon I turn up in Paris to give a lecture and suddenly I’m contacted by the police, taken to the Louvre, then the next 24 hours are a rollercoaster ride. The challenge is not to pre-empt what’s coming, not even to think about what the next scene is and just stay in the moment because each clue leads to the next step and if I get ahead of myself then it loses its magic.

Have you done any research or are you just going by the script?

The research I’ve done is quite simple because, like I said, it’s about staying present and not learning too much because then I can be surprised as I’m playing it. I did read the book, which I’d never done before; I’m one of the few people who hadn’t read it.  I sat there and read it out loud to myself in an American accent so I was learning about the more fleshed-out version of the story whilst practising my accent at the same time. I really enjoyed the book so it was absolutely a pleasure.

Had you seen the film version?

I had seen it before and [laughs] the one thing I wanted to do was not have the mullet. That was a key character decision there! But the stage version is very different. It moves as fast and it’s just as complex but we’ve got an extraordinary visual landscapes with all sorts of projections and gauzes. We’re telling the story through a visual medium and then we’ve got what I would describe as a banging soundtrack. We’ve got this energy that is propelled throughout the play and it’s underscored so you get a real sense of time, tempo and all that sort of stuff. If you like the book and you like the film definitely come along and see the play because you’ll get another layer. I think that’s really clever about what the writing team [Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel] and Luke [Sheppard] the director have done with it.

The stage adaptation is a brand new play. Is that exciting for you as an actor?

It is, yes. When we did our first ever performance [in Bromley on January 10th 2022] it was the world premiere of this play and when that was announced before the show started we were like ‘Wow, it’s amazing’. It’s very exciting to be part of something new and also it means there’s work to be done. We’re doing little re-writes and trying different things so it’s very fresh and very alive. New writing allows you to work a little bit more and play with it a little bit more rather than if you’re turning up to do Shakespeare. When things work you’re like ‘Yeah! That’s staying’ and when they don’t you go ‘I don’t think we’ll do that again tomorrow night’.

What is it about The Da Vinci Code that you think continues to fascinate people?

For one thing there’s the question at the heart of it: Did Jesus have descendants? That’s a brilliant question. Then the rewriting by men of the church of the female place in society is very prescient and a really good debate to be had. The other thing I love about it is that it’s an Agatha Christie, it’s a thriller, it’s a whodunnit and there’s a baddie, but I won’t tell you who that is if you don’t know the story already. On that basic level it’s ‘How are they going do it? Are they going solve the clues, who is going to get in their way and what are they going to find?’

Its been more than 15 years since you left EastEnders but do people still recognise you for playing Dennis Rickman?

It’s for a range of things now but when it comes to EastEnders it depends on the length of my hair. If my hair is cut around the same length as when I played Dennis then people get me much quicker. If it’s longer they look at me and go ‘Do you work at the Sainsbury’s in Cheltenham?’ EastEnders is still very much with me and it’s actually quite sweet because people light up when they talk about it or they remember a storyline and share it with me, when half the time even I can’t remember it.

Obviously that was a life-changing job but what have been your other career highlights over the years?

Downton Abbey was cool. I did a comedy on Channel 4 called Plus One that I really enjoyed. Then on stage I did The Caretaker, which I also really enjoyed, and doing Glengarry Glen Ross was amazing. I also love singing so every now and again when the clock starts ticking I try and muscle my way into a musical somewhere.

Youve done a lot of theatre. What do you especially enjoy about live performance?

The audience and the connection. There’s a pact and I don’t even know how it happens but subconsciously we connect and we go on a journey. Also, from the moment the lights go down and the play starts it’s live and it’s the actors who kind of own that space. We tell the story and we do it all in one evening or afternoon. Every performance is unique whereas working on telly you get a few takes, then that is forever what will be seen plus it’s shown on a box with a glass screen in front of it and people watch it from a distance. You don’t get the live sense with TV and film.

What are you most looking forward to about taking The Da Vinci Code around the country?

I like the idea that we’re going to people’s communities rather than asking them to come to London. I love that we go to them and go ‘Here’s our play’. What I really like about this play is that they haven’t skimped on the set. It’s really flashy and it’s classy, and I love that we’re taking that to people’s hometowns and going ‘We’re here to entertain you, please come along’ rather than ‘We’re all in London, come down here, it’s great’. I love London. I live in London and the West End is brilliant but I also think there’s a time to get out into the communities and that’s what I really like about touring.

The Da Vinci Code runs at the Belgrade Theatre from Tues 22 – Sat 26 Feb. Tickets are available online at www.belgrade.co.uk or by phoning the Box Office on 024 7655 3055. Phone lines are open 10:30am – 2pm, Mon – Sat.

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