The most fearsome villainess on Broadway, the terrifying Miss Trunchbull, nemesis of Matilda The Musical, turns out to be not only a man, but also a man of great charm and irrepressible humor. Bertie Carvel is making his Broadway debut in the role that earned him a Best Actor Olivier Award and a host of other plaudits during Matilda's West End run. His excitement at being on Broadway is palpable, "I'm thrilled to be here. This is an iconic moment in any actor's life and it's still all so new I can't quite believe it."
So huge and fast was Carvel's impact when Matilda first opened that there were many London theatregoers who thought his must be an overnight success story. Not at all, it turns out. This versatile actor is so different in each role that his chameleon-like presence seems to burst out brand new in each part.
Matilda isn't even his first musical. Carvel was nominated for an Olivier for his leading role in Jason Robert Brown's Tony-winning Parade at the Donmar Warehouse, and while at the Royal National Theatre he has run the gamut from Restoration comedy to gritty drama.
"After Parade I had pretty much decided, no more musicals for a while, I'd stick with plays," he remembers, "then Matilda arrived and the script [by Dennis Kelly from Roald Dahl's story] is so trenchant, so clever, that I couldn't resist it. I was fascinated by the way he had found to turn the novel into a play, to restructure it dramatically, and by the way that Roald Dahl's unique voice was complimented by his own wicked wit. It engaged my imagination and I began to see the way Miss Trunchbull could come to life. How I could present a credible psychological profile that anyone can recognize, understanding, empathizing with her psychology, even with her cruelty. Why is she so cruel to children? It's such an opportunity for an actor who enjoys transformation, who loves to use the different tools of his craft. It's the whole package, really, Tim Minchin's music and [director] Matthew Warchus' staging ideas. It fired me up, engaged me, and here I am."
There are children at the heart of the show, not just Matilda herself, a little girl who discovers she has extraordinary abilities, but a whole stage-full of them, and I asked Carvel whether his little colleagues were actually afraid of his scary persona as Miss Trunchbull. "Oh no, they love it," he says, "they make believe so easily. They're playing. Children are used to pretending. They have very vivid inner lives, and we foster that. They've got to be real kids, not stage kids. Matthew Warchus is extremely passionate that the kids' kidness is protected. They're great fun and they have an un-neurotic, ego-less attitude to acting. I love them."
In fact, when I saw Matilda in London I found Carvel's Miss Trunchbull rather frightening and was somewhat surprised, looking around me at the children in the audience, that they weren't at all scared but laughing uproariously, with every indication of delight, at her apparent cruelty to Matilda. Carvel doesn't find this odd at all, "Kids are no fools, they're very sophisticated, they don't miss a lot, they don't miss nuance. One of the clever things about the show is that adults will engage with it on a different level to the kids, but nobody is being short-changed. Childhood is full of frightening things. They recognize cruelty for what it is and translate it into something in their own understanding. They might see the world in different colors to grown-ups, but they see the same world. They see Matilda surrounded by grown-up people who are cruel, who are damaged themselves, and who live in a world of darkness, and it's real, it has to be real, for adults as well as children. You have to recognize the darkness and children can."
There is very little darkness right now in Bertie Carvel's Broadway life. He laughs delightedly, "I have no idea whether Matilda will be as big a hit here as it was in the U.K. When it comes to theatrical success, nobody knows anything. But I'm very happy to be here."