PLAYBILL.COM’S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Stephen Mangan

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM’S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Stephen Mangan Meet Norman. Of The Norman Conquests, that is.
Stephen Mangan
Stephen Mangan Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Norman is the center of all the comic consternation taking place in the trilogy of interlocking plays that is Alan Ayckbourn's 1973 opus of love sought, love won and love spurned, connections made and connections broken, between six men and women, most of them somehow related, during an emotionally harrowing weekend at a country home in England. The London-born production has been uniformly hailed by critics and is selling briskly. Playing the incorrigible Norman, an assistant librarian whose libido needs no assistance, is Stephen Mangan, a well-known British actor who is making his Broadway debut. Mangan talked to Playbill.com about his life as a dog.

Playbill.com: Have you ever done anything like this — a play trilogy?
Stephen Mangan: No, I don't think I have. It's quite daunting, to pick up that wedge of script at the beginning and read through it. It's very exciting as well, to spend that much time with one character.

Playbill.com: How did you handle it? Did you rehearse one play at a time?
SM: What we did is we elongated the plays into one long, six-hour play, with all the scenes in chronological order and we worked through the play a couple times like that. Sometimes you exit one play and enter into another play. It's great to rehearse it knowing exactly what state of mind you are in as you crossing from the living room into the dining room, for example, or from the dining room to the garden. Then we jumped back and started rehearsing the individual plays. It's something to put these jigsaws in your head at first, it's a bit overwhelming. It's not only the sheer amount of lines you have to memorize, but you have to map the whole weekend. Once you get on top of it, though, it's exhilarating.

Playbill.com: Did you find it was important to you, as far as forming your character, to know that timeline exactly?
SM: Yeah. You need it in order to map your character's entire weekend. There are still gaps, so we tried to fill in those gaps as to what the characters would be doing. What's so marvelous about the play — especially since it was written quite rapidly by Ayckbourn over a week or two — was that there are no inconsistencies at all. The play really stands up to rigorous examination of the logistics, let alone the emotional journey.

Stephen Mangan in The Norman Conquests
photo by Joan Marcus

Playbill.com: So, when you're doing an individual play on a given night, and you're entering a scene, are you thinking about what happened in another scene in another play just before that?
SM: Yes. Even now, that's automatic. It's embedded in my performance. You know your character on a terrific surge of energy or you're feeling depressed. But you don't consciously think, 'Oh, I've just come from the living room.' Once you've done all that work, you can kind of forget it, because I know, for example, when I'm at breakfast in my pajamas in Table Manners, I know without thinking it's early morning, I've been incredibly drunk the night before, I tried to kiss everyone I could get my hands on, and I'm coming out for a show of bravura to overcome that embarrassment. Playbill.com: I recently saw the plays together on one day. What are those days like for you and the other actors?
SM: They're exhilarating. They're draining, there's no question about that. Norman has an unquenchable wealth of energy that I don't always feel I have. He's unstoppable. But the plays gather momentum on their own. In London, you're only allowed to buy tickets for those days to see all three plays. You couldn't just pop in to see one or the other. I'm not sure producers here felt New Yorkers would take to being corralled in that way. But you can feel the mounting energy from people who have seen it all who to get to the jokes that are only gettable once you've seen the other plays.

Playbill.com: Is one of the three plays more enjoyable for you to perform than the others?
SM: It really varies. They all have a very different feeling for me. Living Together is a bit quieter and darker; it feels like the middle, slow movement to the symphony. Table Manners is perhaps the most giddy of the three plays. Garden is kind of all wild and has more primal passions.

Playbill.com: You're often described by other characters as a big dog or a sheepdog, so I guess you had no choice but to grow out your hair and grow a beard.
SM: I didn't really. Not my normal look. The play is set in 1973. I was thinking I might lose the beard this time. My worry was always that I'd be this big ball of hair wandering around the stage. When I got here, there were hundreds of drawings of Norman all outside the theatre and on the program wearing a beard. So, the beard had to stay.

Playbill.com: I don't know if you read reviews, but in the notice in the New York Times, the critic kept comparing The Norman Conquests to Chekhov's The Seagull. Does that surprise you?
SM: Not at all, actually. When I met [director] Matthew Warchus, one of the first things I said to him was, "I know this is going to sound strange, but when I read these plays, I'm reminded of Chekhov." He said that wasn't strange at all, and that was something that he'd thought. Obviously, Chekhov is a mountainous figure as a playwright. But I think there's something about a group of lonely people, trapped in their lives, looking to connect with each other, the absurdity of that situation, how funny that situation can be, and at the same time how heartbreaking it can be — that reminds me a lot of The Seagull.

Stephen Mangan
Stephen Mangan