Actor Elliot Levey is one of the good guys
The poster for Dominic Cooke’s new production of CP Taylor’s Good displays David Tennant’s name in large black block capitals. That’s what happens when you have starred in Doctor Who. By comparison, the name of Tennant’s co-star looks barely visible. Yet for regular theatregoers, Elliot Levey is just as much of a draw.
For years, Levey has elevated the standard of every production he joins. Formal recognition came in April with an Olivier award for his performance in Rebecca Frecknall’s Cabaret. His profile was boosted when his acceptance speech went viral: describing himself “as the grandson of a refugee from Kyiv”, he called for a more welcoming attitude to migrants and attacked the “incompetence and hostility” of the asylum system. Good touches on issues raised both by Levey’s speech and his role in Cabaret—the hopelessly optimistic Jewish greengrocer, Herr Schultz, who refuses to accept the threat that Nazism poses. When persecution comes, what does it cost to flee? And why does bureaucracy so often stand in the way?
Taylor’s 1981 play asks how far we can stretch our idea of the “good”. Tennant plays John Halder, a 1930s Frankfurt professor of literature who persuades himself that he can be a force for good as he rises within the Nazi party. Levey plays his best friend Maurice, a Jewish psychiatrist, whom Halder fails to save from Auschwitz. Sharon Small completes the cast as Halder’s neglected wife.
Good begins with Halder facing the collapse of the Reich and imminent capture. “The game’s up and he’s sort of going, ‘How did I end up here?’” Levey tells me, in a break from rehearsals at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, the day after the Queen’s funeral. Cooke’s production shrinks the dramatic scale of the original—“It was written for an RSC cast, so they could employ about 20 people”—into a three-hander. Levey and Small take on not only their major roles, but morph into characters who appear in Halder’s memory. “I have to manifest Eichmann”, says Levey, with a twitch of the shoulders.
Cooke retains the musical schema of his original, in which Halder is pursued by a haunting refrain, which becomes the brutal reality of a concentration camp marching band. Levey describes the soundscape as “intrusive musical tinnitus in Halder’s head”.
Levey is a swift and reactive actor, dangerously alert on stage. He’s well fitted for an elusive role like Maurice. In other roles—the plebeian tribune Brutus opposite Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus, Bishop Cauchon in St Joan, Burleigh in Mary Stuart—he has specialised in a light-footed gravitas, which brings unpredictability to pompous politicians and bureaucrats. When I see him, he’s sporting a head of grey but boyish curls, one of the perks of a big budget show: “All the haircuts I’ve ever had in my life, added up, wouldn’t be as swanky as this haircut.” He insists, half-joking, that it has reversed years of damage from his regular swims in north London’s Parliament Hill Lido.
Levey remains a passionate advocate for the Ukrainian resistance—he’s currently supporting the Odesa opera house as it stages an adaptation of Kateryna by Ukraine’s national poet Taras Shevchenko—but it’s a support complicated by his family’s memory of deep antisemitism in Ukrainian culture. “I grew up with a deep ambivalence towards Ukraine. It was referred to as the bloodlands, it was Gehenna, it was hell. It was the place you never go back.” President Zelensky’s Jewish heritage makes Ukraine easier to support—but “part of the point of Good is that, in hot war, you minimise your critical faculty when it comes to more nuanced politics. Things are censored.”
Levey won’t be drawn on the fraught conversations around identity politics, though he stresses the need for productions to be informed by the input of groups they represent. But he’s wary, he tells me, of being “seduced by lovely, plausible, comforting notions of past and identity and authenticity as a result of being born into a certain tribe.” In previous interviews, Levey tells me, he has downplayed his own Orthodox Jewish upbringing—“puberty happened, and I thought it was in or out, so I was out.” With maturity, he acknowledges, culture and selfhood become more complicated again.
Levey, who studied philosophy at Oxford, is a big reader. We cover everything from Cardinal Newman to Philip Larkin, via Hannah Arendt and Victor Klemperer. Is evil the absence of good? Or for Halder to be “good” would it have been enough for him to avoid active evil? “David has to be the perfect person to play Halder. Because he’s a good man. Even when he’s playing serial killers you just know that he’s good. And you can tell when people are good. Well, I can.”
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