Autumn saw Blake Ritson playing the infatuated pastor Mr Elton in the BBC adaptation of Emma, but now he is swapping his dog-collar for a rather less holy Rope at the Almeida theatre, he tells Matthew Amer.
“He’s the perfect society host,” Ritson cheerfully tells me, describing his character in Patrick Hamilton’s 1928 thriller, Rope. “He makes the perfect cocktails, he has this wonderful Georgian townhouse, he’s very urbane, he’s ferociously witty…” So far Wyndham Brandon doesn’t sound too dissimilar to the Ritson sitting before me, drinking a mint tea and sporting a newly shorn, side-parted, Brylcreemed, authentic 1928 haircut. “But he’s also a psychopath.” Ah.
What a psychopath he is. Brandon is one of two student killers in Hamilton’s macabre tale who, rather than simply disposing of the body of their victim, choose instead to secrete him in a chest and invite his friends and family around for a party. The murder is motiveless and the party a sinister entertainment to see how far they can push their luck and morality.
“There was just every reason to get involved,” Ritson, who is more often seen on screens than on the stage, says of the Almeida theatre production. “I haven’t done theatre for quite a long time and I’ve always said to myself I’d love everything to be right; the play, the part, the theatre, the director. It was with this. It was impossible to say no because everything was so terrific and exciting.”
High on that list of requirements was Roger Michell, a director of whom Ritson is a big fan, both of his theatre and his screen work. The director, he says, whose films include Notting Hill and Venus, and who last worked in London on The Female Of The Species, creates an open, non-judgemental rehearsal room, while still being attentive and detailed. “It’s just very gently being coerced into a terrifically truthful show,” Ritson explains, inadvertently conjuring an image of Rope as a frightened puppy being tempted away from the safety of his basket with a dog biscuit.
"He makes the perfect cocktails... but he’s also a psychopath"
Much preparation, Ritson says, has been spent on ensuring the show is well rooted in its late 1920s time period. There was never any question of updating the piece for a modern audience, quite the opposite, in fact, as many of Hamilton’s later additions have been culled for this production. As Ritson says, an updating would hardly be necessary: “The idea of two murderers killing a body, putting it in a chest and inviting the father over; I wouldn’t say it was 1920s specific.”
This research has found Ritson educating himself in Nietzsche, the philosopher who inspires Brandon’s malicious act, while the whole cast has been delving into the social and economic context of the time. “I’ve even been doing a little bit of Charlestoning,” Ritson laughs, “which is yet to be improved. I doubt the audience will be able to gaze into our eyes and see exactly what was playing in the music hall in 1928, but it has been very useful. It adds to the depth and power of the piece.”
Rope sees him jumping forward a century from the series in which he was last seen, Emma, set in the early 1800s. It was a job he describes as “magnificent. I was slightly in mourning when it ended.”
“It was one of those jobs where you drift seamlessly between work and play,” he says of the costume drama that also starred Romola Garai, Johnny Lee Miller and Michael Gambon, who, Ritson exclaims, “is the best raconteur I have ever met. The only danger is he starts a story and it balloons magnificently.”
Having also appeared in Mansfield Park in 2007, Ritson knows his Jane Austen and the passion in his voice exposes a soft spot for the Regency period. “All the social etiquette and the tiny interactions between people; it’s wonderfully nuanced. The period for clothes for me, it’s so wonderfully sculptural. They’re beautiful,” he says. Many of the viewers who saw him playing Mr Elton and Edmund Bertram, I am reliably informed, wholeheartedly agree.
"The idea of two murderers killing a body, putting it in a chest and inviting the father over; I wouldn’t say it was 1920s specific"
Though he has also played Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, there is far more to Ritson’s repertoire than flowing tailcoats and top hats. His recent roles have taken him from Austen to Auschwitz-set drama God On Trial, Guy Ritchie film RocknRolla and action movie Dead Man Running opposite hip hop artist 50 Cent. It is probably as eclectic a mix of projects as you are likely to see. “It keeps me animated and excited and inventive,” he states very simply.
Ritson was a youngster at Reading’s Dolphin School when he first experienced life on the London stage, playing the roles of Paul Etheridge (White Chameleon), Fleance (Macbeth) and Augustus (Arcadia) at the National Theatre in productions directed by Richard Eyre and Trevor Nunn. Rather than head to drama school after completing his A-levels, he studied Medieval Italian – “well, Dante primarily” – and English at Cambridge, but returned to acting as a profession.
Having built a career on stage and in front of the cameras, five years ago he chose to move behind the scenes, working with his brother to write and direct short films. They have not done too badly either, recently collecting the Best International Short award at the St Louis International Film Festival.
On the success of their first three short films – the fourth, a comedy starring a host of British talent, is currently having music added to it – they are writing and directing two feature films and have been commissioned to create a TV series. “It’s all good and busy,” Ritson understates.
It is also one of the reasons that Ritson has been away from the theatre for so long; committing to long stage runs draws him away from this familial project. “When we’ve got quite a lot of momentum behind our features it seems a shame to put them on hiatus,” he quite sensibly reasons.
"[Michael Gambon] is the best raconteur I have ever met. The only danger is he starts a story and it balloons magnificently"
This may mean, with the wealth of projects in the pipeline, that Rope may be Ritson’s first and last stage outing for some time, although with commercial producer Sonia Friedman attached to the production, he confirms “there’s certainly one eye on a West End transfer”.
Though it would be an exciting proposition, and would follow the success of Duet For One, which made the same move from the Almeida theatre to the West End earlier this year, a transfer of Rope would be slightly more complex as the production sees the Islington venue’s auditorium reconstructed to present the performance in the round. Finding a suitable West End venue to rearrange in such a fashion might be trickier than keeping a body concealed in a chest during a cocktail party, though the new set up, Ritson says, makes it feel “very real and fresh and truthful”.
Mint tea finished, Ritson heads back to the Almeida theatre’s rehearsal space where, day by day, new members of the cast are having their hair cut for the 20s setting and new costumes are arriving. “It’s very slow, but as it creeps into tech week it all begins to take shape.”
It is only on the day before the first show, he tells me, that the cast will be able to use real cigarettes rather than the imaginary fags they have been smoking throughout rehearsals, which is a shame, as: “It’s always so much easier to get rid of imaginary ash than real ash, they last forever the imaginary cigarettes and they just disappear when you don’t need them.” They don’t, however, bring the same ominous glow to a dimly lit auditorium.
Having entertained me perfectly over a drink, the banjolele-playing – “It’s a hybrid instrument between a ukulele and a banjo; teamed up with the gazoo it’s a winning combination” – witty, friendly, engaging Ritson leaves me thinking him a thoroughly nice chap. But then, that is exactly what the psychopathic Brandon would want me to think too.