Nigel, in Paris, with the symbols
The DaVinci Code – the best-selling novel that captivated the world and sold over 100 million copies – has been turned into a stage thriller, which arrives at Theatr Clwyd from Valentine’s Day.
We sat down with its star, Nigel Harman, who plays Professor Robert Langdon – the role taken in the movie by Tom Hanks – to find out more.
“Robert Langdon is the Harvard professor we all know and love,” says Harman. “He’s one of the smartest people in the room – solving the most complex matters, equations and Newton’s theory of gravity, for example – but what’s wonderful about the play is that he’s also a little inept in some areas – such as handling a gun or making silly mistakes about obvious stuff.
“So he’s very human; there are moments where he loses his temper because he’s so frustrated. That’s the joy of the play, it fleshes out our main characters more. That’s what drew me to it.
Harman found himself admiring the character he portrays more and more as rehearsals, and now performances, have continued: "You know when you get completely focused on something that you really love, and the world becomes really quiet because you’re just doing that one thing? I relate to that aspect of him; I think there are moments in my life when I’m really focusing on a project I’m doing, reading a book or whatever it may be. I like it when it happens; it doesn’t happen all the time because we’re all trying to juggle so much. But when there’s only one ball, it’s brilliant."
Though there’s no running breathlessly around famous landmarks as Hanks does on screen, the stage role presents other challenges, says Harman.
“The challenge for me is staying as present as possible. As Langdon, every night the story unfolds in front of me. I turn up in Paris to give a lecture and suddenly I’m contacted by the police, taken to the Louvre and the next 24 hours are a roller-coaster ride. The challenge is to not even think about what the next scene is and just stay in the moment, because each clue leads to the next step and if I get ahead of myself, it loses its magic.”
Langdon is famously a master of that made-up specialism, “symbology”; did it mean research for the role was difficult?
“The research I’ve done has been quite simple because it’s about staying present and not learning too much, because then I can be surprised as I’m playing it,” he explained. In fact research took one obvious turn; he read the Dan Brown book for the first time, and killed two birds with one stone by reading it aloud to himself... “in an American accent, so I was learning the more fleshed-out version while practising my accent at the same time. I really enjoyed the book, so it was absolutely a pleasure!
“I had seen the film before, but the stage version is very different. It moves just as fast, and it’s just as complex, but we’ve got extraordinary visual landscapes with all sorts of projections and gauzes.
“We’re telling the story through a visual medium but then we’ve got what I would describe as a banging soundtrack, with an energy throughout the play, underscored so you get a real sense of time, tempo and all that sort of stuff.
“If you like the book and you like the film, definitely come along and see the play, because you’ll get another layer. “When we did our first performance in January, it was very exciting to be part of something new, but it also meant there was work to be done. We’re doing little rewrites and trying different things, so it’s still very fresh and alive. New writing allows you to work a little bit more and play with it, rather than if you’re turning up to do Shakespeare.
“When things work you’re like Yeah! That’s staying in... and when they don’t, it’s I don’t think we’ll do that again tomorrow night!”
It’s been more than 15 years since Nigel left EastEnders, and these days, he admits, people mainly recognise him from that according to the length of his hair.
“If my hair is cut around the same length as when I played Dennis in EastEnders, then people get me much quicker. If it’s longer, they look at me and go, ‘Do you work at Sainsbury’s in Cheltenham?’ "EastEnders is still very much with me and it’s actually quite sweet, because people light up when they talk about it, or they remember a storyline and share it with me, when half the time even I can’t remember it!”
Since then he has been in Downton Abbey (“which was cool”), and did a Channel 4 comedy, Plus One, as well as many stage roles – in everything from Pinter’s The Caretaker to an award-winning performance as Lord Farquaad in Shrek, The Musical.
“I love the audience and connection of live theatre,” he said. “There’s a pact, and I don’t even know how it happens, but subconsciously we connect and go on a journey. Every performance is unique, whereas working on telly you get a few takes, then that is forever what will be seen. You don’t get the live sense with TV and film.”
The Da Vinci Code is at Theatr Clwyd from February 14-19. More information and tickets here.