IT’S like pulling teeth for me,’ says actor David Threlfall, 65, of doing promotional duties for his title role in Don Quixote at London’s Garrick Theatre. ‘I cannot necessarily be witty and urbane and I don’t think that I’m the best subject for an interview.’
It’s a balancing act for the self-effacing Threlfall, 65. On the one hand he is wary of revealing too much or sounding pretentious, on the other he is simultaneously trying to get people to come along to the play.
‘When I played Tommy Cooper people wanted to know how I did it,’ says David. ‘But I like to keep something back. I like the idea of some sort of magic happening. And there’s enough publicity about actors transforming… But you don’t do something for people not to come and see it. And I hope they do — people will have a lot of fun.’
David stars as Don Quixote in this Royal Shakespeare Company production of Cervantes’ early 17th-century literary classic, with Rufus Hound playing his sidekick Sancho Panza. It was originally performed at The Swan in 2016 to rave reviews.
This is the same production — but with 20 minutes trimmed off to suit a snappier West End running time. The action follows Don Quixote as he emabrks on life as a wandering knight and gradually loses his grip on reality.
‘It’s about a guy who decides to go on a quest on a crappy old horse and recruits a man from a village with no name as his squire, and they go on chivalric adventures,’ explains David.
‘It’s like someone dressed in a full suit of armour going into a pub today. And people either humouring him or being very cruel to him — both those things are exhibited in the play.
‘We castigate people because they might seem a bit bonkers — but their passion and imagination and love of whatever cause they are putting out there might be worth stopping and thinking about,’ he says, before catching himself and adding: ‘That sounds a bit high flown…’
David is keen to emphasise the comedic aspects of the production. He says: ‘There’s fun in it — maybe a bit more fun than in the book. It’s classed as the first great comic novel, I don’t know that it’s side splittingly funny to read — I wasn’t falling over laughing — but it’s 950 pages long so you have to cherry pick things for the play.’
Don Quixote marks a return to working with the RSC for David — he originally joined the company aged 24 and starred in a ground-breaking near nine-hour long production of Nicholas Nickleby. He won an Olivier Award for his portrayal of Smike but found it an intense experience.
He says: ‘It was nice to film it and take it to Broadway, but to do it for so long — and with what I was doing with the performance itself — took a toll both physically and mentally. It took me a while to straighten out. It was my own fault.’
On TV, David is best known for his long-running role as Frank Gallagher in Shameless — a part he played for ten years. And it was a character that stayed with him, he says. ‘When I finished that he took time to lose. These people sit around in the basement of my soul when I do them to a certain degree. I don’t want to join these actors who say they were always in character, but I was pretty thorough…’
The day after he finished the final episode of Shameless he was playing a retired detective on the set of murder drama What Remains. Since then he’s played characters as diverse as Noah in movie The Ark and Priam in BBC drama Troy: Fall Of A City.
‘I haven’t changed since the lad who joined the RSC at 24,’ he says. ‘I just enjoy getting on with it. There’s far too much frippery around the industry and that’s not my thing.’
‘It sounds cheesy but it’s really nice to do a job I enjoy doing. I’m doing now what I enjoyed doing then — being in a room with nice people working something out and then performing it.
‘It’s great to do something which people will hopefully think is worthwhile — and if they do, that will make me happy.’
■ Don Quixote, until February 2, Garrick Theatre, London, donquixoteplay.com
Threlfall: A man of many parts…
Threlfall won an Olivier Award in 1980 for his role as Smike in this eight-and-a-half-hour long adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic, which was subsequently filmed for TV and enjoyed a run on Broadway. Ben Kingsley and Timothy Spall were also in the original cast.
Threlfall played alcoholic unemployed father-of-nine Frank Gallagher in smash-hit Channel 4 council estate comedy drama Shameless for ten years. He also directed several episodes. He says: ‘We didn’t know year on year if we’d keep doing it. No one said ‘You’re going to be here for ten years.’
Not Like That, Like This
Virtually unrecognisable in his acclaimed performance as comedian Tommy Cooper, this 2014 TV biopic was a showcase of Threlfall’s versatility.
Troy: Fall Of A City
Playing the part of the King of Troy in this loose adaptation of Homer’s Iliad earlier this year, Threlfall again assumed a new look for the role, and was unrecognisable from the actor who starred in Shameless.