Arthur Darvill is one of those people who appears to be able to do everything. He can lead major sci-fi dramas, like Doctor Who and Legends Of Tomorrow. He can provide a pivotal through line to three series of acclaimed drama Broadchurch. He can even write musicals for audiences both adult (Been So Long) and family (Fantastic Mr Fox).
Right now, he’s proving he can do intimate live performance as well, by appearing in Taylor Mac’s Hir at Bush Theatre.
We quiz Arthur Darvill about the unique family drama and his very early introduction to life in the theatre, and discover why he’s so delighted to be at the West London venue.
What does the play’s title, Hir, mean?
It’s a way of not saying “him” or “her” when referring to a transgender person. So in certain situations you say “hir” (pronounced “here”) instead.
How would you describe Hir?
It’s an extreme family drama. It has comedy running through it, but it’s also fairly dark. My character arrives home from being in the mortuary affairs section of the marines. He’s dishonourably discharged and he just wants to get back to the home he remembers. But when he gets back, he finds his father dressed up like a clown and his mother’s let the house go to seed. It’s a fast-paced, loud play and it’s a fun romp!
Why did you want to be part of this production?
I didn’t know much about [playwright] Taylor Mac, but I read the script and just said, “I really want to do this.” I hadn’t read anything like it. It’s an amazing play and Isaac is such a fascinating character. It’s also a big acting challenge for me as there are so many parts to him and he’s in almost every scene. Most plays build up to some big confrontation but this play starts in the eye of the storm. I also wanted to be back on stage in London, in a small space like the Bush.
How would you describe Isaac?
Isaac is a marine, but not a particularly good one. He definitely had some problems. He joined because he wasn’t good at anything else and didn’t really have any options at school. But he didn’t get on with the marines, either. He spent three years picking up dead bodies and it really affected him. When we meet him, he just wants to come back to the comfort of home. And he has a very specific idea in his head of what that means. When he finally gets back, he’s still searching for the memory of childhood and what that means to him, so he spends the play trying to get that back.
Why do you think the dysfunctional family is such a common theme in plays?
There are lots of reasons, but I think most people can relate to it. Everyone’s family is functional and dysfunctional to varying degrees. It’s also a good way of exploring ideas; families tend to talk about a lot of things together.
How do you feel about performing at Bush Theatre again?
Very excited. This is the first time I’m doing a full-length play here. I love what they’ve done with the space since the rebuild. It feels like an exciting place to be and there’s lots going on in the building.
I used to go to the Bush a lot when it was based above a pub on Shepherd’s Bush Green. I did readings and workshops when I left drama school. And then I wrote the music for Mike Bartlett’s play Artefacts. I did more music for more plays and they fixed me up with a desk and a piano – a space to work and write – but I was desperate to act there! So I’m thrilled to be back doing Hir.
What was your first experience of theatre?
My mum is a puppeteer. She used to work at the Cannon Hill Puppet Theatre in Birmingham, where I grew up. They’d put on these huge shows like Erik The Viking and Tiger Peter And The Video Pirates. I used to watch all of those when I was a tiny toddler. I grew up surrounded by it all and I remember thinking I was helping out.
Why is live performance so special?
There’s nothing else quite like it. I love TV, film, music… but there’s something about theatre. You’re actually there, with people talking to each other right in front of you. You feel like you’re in there with them. You can’t replicate that. It’s just like this play at the Bush – engaging and front-footed. I hope people will feel like they’re really involved.
Apart from Bush Theatre, what’s your favourite London theatre?
The National Theatre has a special place in my brain; the Olivier gives me goosebumps. It’s magical. And the Royal Court, too; the scale and history of that place. Plus you’re close to the audience because they’re so close to the stage. It’s the same feeling you get at the Bush.
What one piece of advice would you give aspiring performers?
Well, I would definitely say to my younger self, stay interested in everything and don’t be so afraid.
It’s okay to fail.
What’s your top tip for a trip to the theatre?
Check out High Tide. They’re taking a pop-up venue to Walthamstow later this year, which I’m really excited about. I’m totally biased because I’m actually doing a gig there, but I think it’s such a good thing for Walthamstow.