Infinity Hill’s Phin Glynn talks STAGED on Sky News.
Sept. 24th, 2020
David Tennant and Michael Sheen Zoom into a funny side of the pandemic
By Robert Moran – The Age (Australia)
It’s a lingering anxiety, or a full-blown crisis of identity, that’s perhaps afflicted many of us at some point during this pandemic. What is my worth at this moment? What can I offer? What am I even doing with my life? Is everything I’ve worked towards kaput?
As a theatre director in London, suddenly caught in a performing arts industry decimated by stalled productions and venue closures, Simon Evans felt it hard. His own upcoming gig – his first foray into film directing, an adaptation of Lawrence Osborne’s gritty Hunters in the Dark to be shot in Cambodia – was indefinitely waylaid.
“I very quickly realised there was nothing I could do,” laughs Evans via Zoom from LA. “I sat there going, ‘I have no transferable skills. There is nothing I’m in any way accomplished at that could benefit this situation at all.’ That’s a funny thing to realise in lockdown.”
In an effort to salvage their working relationship, Evans’ producer on the film asked him if there was anything they could create in lockdown to “keep the iron in the fire”. Evans related a story about a “well-meaning” artistic director of a London theatre he’d been directing for, who, nervous about rumours of the impending virus, had suggested cast rehearsals just turn to Zoom. The odd suggestion tickled Evans.
The end result is the new BBC sitcom Staged, a hilariously resonant reflection of the absurdities of our socially-distanced present, starring British stage and screen icons (and real-life buddies) David Tennant and Michael Sheen as themselves. Evans also features as himself, a bumbling theatre director leading the pair in online rehearsals for a production of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, the idea being that when the COVID shutdown lifts and theatres reopen they’ll be ahead of the crowd.
Filmed almost entirely over Zoom, the series took just two months to complete, with Evans starting writing in late April and the show premiering on BBC in June.
“It was wild,” he says. “But it was a conscious decision to try and do something during this [lockdown] time. The idea was if these are our limitations, how can we possibly make those our strengths?
“We were nervous that everyone was already Zooming all the time, that everyone was going to be very tired of it by the time the show came out. But when you’ve got great actors like those two, actually just seeing their faces onscreen like that is quite engaging. They were rarely doing more than three or four takes of a scene and going, ‘We’ve got it, it feels fresh and the more we do it the staler it gets.’ It was such a fun thing to do.”
That sense of fun is the show’s key appeal. Much like Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip, the series finds the stars delightfully skewering their own relationship and personas, both peeved at a locked-down world insensitive to their celebrity egos. Tennant acts a wet rag at home, completely lost away from the comfort of a film-set; Sheen, with unkempt beard, is all actor-ly arrogance, a simmering rage triggered by any inane professional slight. The pair clearly revel in their goofy interplay, launching pointed barbs at their own career successes and failures.
“I didn’t know them well, but I’d seen enough of Good Omens to know they’d work for this,” says Evans of the pair’s casting, noting he’d sent the script to Tennant first with the hopes he’d lure Sheen along to play.
“I was nervous initially, writing something where you’re asking someone to be a version of themselves. I think they needed me to give their character something that was not them so they could go, ‘OK, I see where this person is different from me.’ It was making David completely ineffectual that was fun, and making Michael a bit more wild man and slightly chaotic. But they both just got it. The thing was tightly scripted but there were plenty of moments where you’d see a glint in the eye of one or the other and got the sense they could push it further.”
Although Tennant and Sheen play fictionalised versions of themselves, they still reveal their inner worlds in the show – their real-life partners, Georgia Tennant and Anna Lundberg, are in the series, it’s filmed in their real houses, their kids sometimes accidentally wander into shot. But beyond requests from both that their newborns not be included in the series, “there was no trepidation” at exposing their private lives, says Evans.
“Let’s consider that I was writing stuff, especially towards the end, where the line was really close. I’d go, ‘Are they going to be happy with this? Because they’re not saying this as a character, they’re saying this as themselves.’ But they always were. If they were to preserve an ego, or if they wanted their characters to maintain a status throughout, it wouldn’t have worked.
“And the interesting thing about their houses – Michael lives in a sort of townhouse in Cardiff; the wifi is a bit sketchy so there was only one room that could guarantee the connection we needed, so Michael is always in the same place. Whereas David, because he’s got five kids and his wife in the house, he had to move to a different room for almost every shot just to be somewhere where the rest of his family weren’t,” says Evans.
“There have been some very kind reviews that go, ‘Isn’t it fascinating that the character of Michael is so stoic they only shot him in this one room, whereas David is more ephemeral so he’s everywhere …’. No, not at all!”
While the series comically plays with the flimsy problems of the privileged, there’s obviously a lingering reality just off-screen. With social gathering restrictions still necessary, many in the arts have lost their livelihoods and still have no clear idea on when or how the industry might return. Was there any hesitation in looking for the funny in what essentially remains an ongoing tragedy?
“What’s happening in the arts at the moment is devastating. I’m very lucky, I had a foot in the door before this all happened. Those people who are not even a generation behind me, I don’t know how they can look at what’s happening at the moment with much optimism,” says Evans.
“But I think it’s always interesting to ask, ‘How much time needs to pass before we can start being ironic about our situation?’ There was a slight punt we took and it could’ve backfired; people could’ve gone, ‘Too soon.’ But I think people recognise the absurd way we’re forced to interact right now.
“I adore shows like Extras and Episodes and The Kominsky Method, those types of shows that are about artists struggling with being artists. But this didn’t feel the right time to make a show about being a lovey, or just ‘Isn’t being an artist so difficult?’,” he adds. “It felt like a time to, if anything, try and make the normal person on the street go, ‘My god, if David Tennant and Michael Sheen are feeling this way, isn’t it nice to know we’re all just as useless as each other?’
“That was sort of the point, to go: ‘OK, literally unless you’re a doctor right now there’s very little you can do.’ So we’re all in that together. And David and Michael were such good sports because they wanted to be shown up a bit. They were constantly telling me to try and make them look a bit more pathetic, which was lovely.”
Staged is on ABC Comedy, Monday, 8.30pm and iview.
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