Interview: Ben Caplan

Actor Ben Caplan’s most recent stage appearance was in the revival of Simon Gray’s The Common Pursuit at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, where he starred alongside James Dreyfus and Nigel Harman.

In the play, about a group of friends from Cambridge who run a literary magazine together and see their youthful principles and passion slowly slip away from them as they age, he played Martin, the unflappable magazine publisher.

The moment where Caplan’s character, so mild and inoffensive, is revealed to have betrayed one of his closest friends gave the play its biggest emotional punch.

In his twelve year acting career he has also worked with Mike Leigh, on Two Thousand Years at the National, playing Josh, the young man whose increasing orthodoxy starts to unsettle his family. He has also appeared on screen in Band Of Brothers and, more recently, in the BBC’s Easter production The Passion.

Last year he took a stage adaptation of John Fowles’s cult 1963 novel The Collector to the Edinburgh Festival, his first major production as a director. The book, in which a butterfly collector abducts a young art student and holds her prisoner at a large, isolated house in the countryside, is an unsettling read and one that is said to have influenced a number of notorious crimes. The serial killers Christopher Wilder and Leonard Lake were both said to obsessed with the novel. More recently, Wolfgang Priklopil, the Austrian man who held Natascha Kampusch prisoner for eight years, is said to have been influenced by the book.

It was this latter incident that inspired Caplan to bring the novel to the stage. Though The Collector was filmed in 1965 with Terence Stamp in the lead and has been referenced by numerous musicians and artists, previous stage adaptations had been rather wanting. The first really successful stage version was Mark Healey’s adaptation, which was first performed at the Derby Playhouse in 1998, of which this is a revival.

Caplan had been reading an article about Kampusch having coincidently purchased a copy of the novel in a second hand book store a few months previously. “I didn’t know the novel at all but had been interested in the subject matter. So when I finished the article, I immediately started to read it and then I bumped into Mark (Fleischmann), who is in the show, and he said he’d seen and loved the adaptation.”

“Because, at the time, it was so topical, I thought we should mount a production of it and the only place I thought of taking it was The Underbelly in Edinburgh.” The Underbelly proved to be a fitting space to tell such a story and, following some critical success, the production is now heading to London, to the Arcola Theatre’s Studio 2, which is also suitably dark and subterranean. As Caplan says, “I wanted to take it somewhere that would serve the play and the Arcola’s studio 2 was perfect.”

This current production stars Fleischmann as Frederick, the obsessive loner, and newcomer Rosalind Drury as Miranda, the art student. Healy’s adaptation updates the 1960s-set novel and gives it more contemporary setting, making it feel even more relevant. “I think people are fascinated in the human psyche, and in what makes people do what they do,” Caplan explains, when asked whether theatre is a useful tool in attempting to explore the darkest extremes of human behaviour. “I was driving along on the motorway and there was a car crash and people slowed down. It shouldn’t be anyone else’s business but people are interested in crises, in things that are a little bit abnormal, they are fascinated about what makes people act as they do, especially in the case of someone like Josef Fritzl. Theatre is a great way of trying to understand why people do the things that they do.”

It’s also satisfying from a dramatic potential, Caplan says. The play, a two hander, “is a constant battle between Miranda and Frederick who have a very clear agenda about what they want. She wants to get out and he wants to get to know her and for her to understand him as a human being. So it creates very interesting drama.”

Though he has over a decade of experience as an actor, The Collector is his first major production as a director. I ask him if this is a career path he’s interested in pursuing further. “I have directed short films and I’ve directing at drama school and in workshops before,” but this is different. “I want to try and continue to direct, but I am an actor and have been for twelve years. However I’ve always been fascinated by the role of the director and therefore when the opportunity arose, much as I was scared by the challenge, I thought I’ve got to get over this fear and put myself to the test.” Fortunately, as Caplan points out, he’s worked with some talented directors during his career, including Lindsay Posner (on Three Sisters on Hope Street) and, of course, Mike Leigh. “I’ve been really lucky to have watched the greats doing it, so I’ve been able to put some of that into how I direct and, as an actor myself, I understand what actors want from a director and try and put that into practice.”

“People are interested in crises, in things that are a little bit abnormal, they are fascinated about what makes people act as they do.” – Ben Caplan, on The Collector‘s continuing relevance.

Inevitably we end up discussing his experience working with Leigh. Two Thousand Years was his first stage production in some time and the media interest in it was considerable. The production was secrecy-shrouded and tickets went on sale before it even had an official title. Leigh’s writing and rehearsal process is notoriously improvisation-driven and the experience has clearly had an effect on Caplan. “Mike has a very particular way of working,” he says; working with him “has definitely influenced my work as an actor and also, to an extent, my work as a director. He’s very, very particular about getting the details right, and focuses on the way certain details contribute to the overall feel. Mike has been a great influence on me, both in how I approach my work and how I look at roles.”

In addition to having worked with Leigh, Caplan also has the poignant distinction of having appeared in the last London revival of a play by Simon Gray (who died this month at the age of 71), in Fiona Laird’s production of The Common Pursuit at the Menier. “I didn’t know that much of Simon’s work beforehand,” Caplan says, “I knew of his plays but wasn’t that familiar with them. I very much enjoyed working on the Common Pursuit; it was a real honour to have the opportunity to meet him and work with him. We went to his house and did a read through of the play, because he wasn’t very well by then. I think he would have liked to be at more of the rehearsals but obviously he wasn’t able to. He did come to a preview and to our press night and he was lovely. I was very sad to hear about his death, but in a way it made The Common Pursuit more memorable because it was the last of his plays to be staged.”

Caplan has been working solidly since The Common Pursuit, filming an ITV comedy drama called Trinity. Produced by Ash Attalla and co-written by sometime Evening Standard theatre critic Kieron Quirke, it is set in a prestigious university and also stars Charles Dance and Claire Skinner.

The Collector comes to London shortly after Anthony Neilson’s disturbing and genuinely horrific Relocated, which was staged earlier in the year at the Royal Court. This also subtly (and unsubtly) referenced the Fritzl case and left audiences upset and unsettled. It’s a hard act to follow but Caplan’s belief in the potency and dramatic power of the piece, in its continuing relevance, is clear and convincing.

The Collector will be at the Arcola Theatre from 26 August 20th September 2008

Read the musicOMH review of The Collector here.

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