What the Dickens is Eddie Izzard doing this August playing all the roles in Great Expectations? We interrupted rehearsals to ask him.
Words Jean West.
You are definitely one for a challenge. What keeps you going with such diverse ideas and genres?
Eleven years of failing as a performer and actor inspired me to keep pushing forward, once a bit of success started to come my way. Acting was my first love and comedy my second. I just got them going back to front.
Why Dickens and why this particular work?
I was born 150 years to the day after Charles Dickens.
This seems to resonate in some crazy way. So, as a dyslexic person who had never fully read a work of literature,
I recorded an audiobook (now on iTunes) of Great Expectations to encourage myself to read the whole book. Now I want to perform an abridged version of it that will combine acting and stand-up skills.
Like Billy Connolly, you have made that fairly rare crossover into the acting world and worked with some of the best. Was the transition tricky and did it take time for people to appreciate your versatility?
Billy Connolly is a great actor, and he should have been nominated for an Oscar for his role in Mrs Brown. But the transition is tricky. Some critic once wrote about me,
“Why does he want to be a so-so actor, when he’s a really good comedian?” My answer was, “Because I used to be a
so-so comedian.” I’ve worked very hard over the years and now I seem to be getting better and better film roles to play.
Politics is your other passion. Dickens would surely have had a field day with the major players on the world stage just now. Do any of his characters remind you of our political representatives?
I don’t really do those comparisons, but I do feel you could find all his characters in today’s politics, as we as human beings have not changed much over the last 150 (or 150,000) years.
You were not orphaned like Pip in Great Expectations, but you did experience tragedy and related difficulties early in life. Was this personally inspiring?
I think he did write these characters who suffered early but achieved later, to inspire all citizens of that time to hope and strive for the Enlightenment dream of a better life – which he achieved. But I must admit that I didn’t see myself in these characters when I was growing up. I think I do so more now. And I do find I’m inspired by his own journey through life:
he worked early at Covent Garden and then later toured Britain and America. I seem to have accidentally been following in his footsteps.
Of all the characters in Great Expectations, who do you like best?
I think I like the character of Jaggers best. I identify with his precision and his intelligence as being the best way to
survive and progress in the 1800s.
Social justice, wealth and poverty, and triumph over evil are all themes in Dickens’ works. Do they strike a chord with your own politics?
Absolutely. I think we have progressed from the 1800s to the 2000s, but sometimes it does seem less than we would have hoped.
On a more serious note, what do you make of Miss Haversham’s frocks?
I push back on the word ‘frocks’. As for Miss Haversham’s dress, it does actually seem rather impractical to keep wearing the same dress for 40 or 50 years. There seems to be a washday section missing from her life at Satis House. Or did she have two wedding dresses that she swapped between?
What else is on your personal and professional list?
My list is very small, actually. When we were all younger, each of us had a few ideas of what we wanted to do in life. It took so long for anything to work for me that I just decided to do all four: comedy, drama, endurance sport and politics. So I just want to continue trying to get better at all of them.
How do you find Edinburgh these days – better or worse than when you first visited? Any favourite places you’d like to share?
My advice for favourite places is to run, walk or stagger to the top of Arthur’s Seat and also to visit Waverley Gardens, the Meadows and Brodie’s Close (where I first performed 38 years ago). Also try visiting Edinburgh on a winter’s evening. Arrive at Waverley Station and then look up to the Castle, the Bank of Scotland and the High Street. That’s how I first saw Edinburgh back in March 1981 – a sight that has stayed with me ever since. And I think and hope that Edinburgh is always getting better. It has always had an international and positive outlook and that is what I believe in.
WHERE & WHEN
Eddie Izzard: Expectations of Great Expectations
Assembly George Square Studios 2, 7-25 August
(not 12, 13 or 20), 2pm (11.10pm on 19), £17.50,
assemblyfestival.com. He also reads from and talks about Great Expectations at the Book Festival on 10 Aug, 5.45pm, pay what you can, edbookfest.co.uk
Eddie Izzard: Wunderbar Gilded Balloon – Debating Hall, 12-14 Aug, 10.30pm, £25, gildedballoon.co.uk, then Glasgow King’s Theatre 2-6 Oct, Edinburgh Festival Theatre 19-20 Oct