George Irving Milton Keynes interview back to the French Lieutenant's Woman

Hold on to your hearts!

Katy Lewis
He may have left heart surgery behind in Holby City but George Irving's latest role is set to make pulses race as he directs events in a timeless story of forbidden love and temptation.

The French Lieutenant's Woman

Milton Keynes Theatre

2-7 October 2006

Eves: 7.30pm

Mats: Wed & Sat: 2.30pm

Set in 1867, the story traces the relationship between Sarah Woodruff, a social outcast in Victorian Lyme Regis, and Charles Smithson, a well-to-do paleontologist, drawn to her defiant spirit.

Charles becomes fascinated with Sarah (who is known as locally as ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ following a rumoured affair with a married French sailor) when he sees her cloaked figure standing alone at the end of a sea rampart.

In his quest to discover the truth about her Charles eventually risks his own social ostracism when he breaks off his engagement to his respectable and wealthy fiancée to pursue Sarah, who is not the hapless victim he has assumed her to be.

John Fowles' groundbreaking novel The French Lieutenant's Woman is regarded as one of the greatest books in 20th century literature. Now, for the first time it is being brought to the stage in an adaptation by Mark Healy.

A timeless story of forbidden love, temptation and the fight for personal freedom, it is set in the mid-Victorian period, but with 20th century perspectives. The writer is able to shift the characters and the reader back and forth between centuries and at times Fowles himself appears and forces us to participate with the action.

Because of this, at first glance its structure would appear to make it a bit of a nightmare for adaptation and it was a while before Fowles gave permission for it to be done. But, impressed with Healy's adaptation of another one of his novels, Fowles worked with him to produce this play.

And just as the writer appears in the book, he is also a character in the play. In this production, the role is taken on by George Irving, a familiar face from the small screen, but probably best known as Anton Meyer in ‘Holby City’.

He told us about some of the challenges this production threw up and how hard it is to leave Meyer in the past!

How would you describe the story of the French Lieutenant's Woman?

George: It's primarily a romance but the interesting thing about the novel is that it's a lot more complex than that. There are many other aspects of Victorian society in it as well and it's also about when people fall in love - do they use their heads or their hearts?

It's also the story of a woman who at the beginning is an enigma, a kind of iconic figure, and through the play reveals herself to be the three dimensional woman that she is. In that way it's a departure from Victorian romance because she is more like a modern woman. So lots of things are interwoven in it.

The structure of the novel is quite unusual as the writer often speaks, how is this dealt with in the play?

George: Yes - it's quite difficult to adapt because it's about the person writing the novel who talks about himself and how he sees the characters and the adaptor Mark Healey wanted to capture that. John Fowles hadn't given permission for this novel to be adapted then he read The Collector, an adaptation of another one of his novels that Mark had done and he liked it so he worked with Mark on this adaptation so we know that it's how he would have wanted it.

I play the writer and I am on stage throughout, bringing characters on and correcting their lines. He [the writer] is in control of events at the start and then loses it but this just indicates the role of the writer in that characters should be given their own life to be who they are. The writer sets them in motion but then the characters suggest something different and it goes another way. It's about how the writer should listen to his characters.

So, it's almost like it's a dramatisation of the novel writing process?

George: Yes to some extent, but I wouldn't want to emphasise the intellectual element, as it's not a lecture in novel writing! But I do intervene in events. When I first started doing the part I said "I hope he's not going to be a bloody old nuisance interfering all the time!" but he doesn't, he intervenes at some crucial key moments but the characters are left to take on their own life.

But it's not like anything I'd ever seen or been in before and to be part of making it work was interesting. It's also good to be involved in something different from what I'm normally offered.

What sort of thing are you normally offered then?

George: Well - since I left Holby City four years ago I've wanted to do some theatre but it had got to be something interesting and creative but nothing grabbed me. What I've been offered on TV has been tempered by Meyer for a few years now and I wasn't really interested in them, I like my range to be stretched. Despite what they might say, actors don't usually like to do things they've done before.

Have you been offered lots of parts like him?

George: Well, TV is more like a factory process in some areas these days. They see you do something and want a bit of that in their characters as well which makes sense really I suppose. But I wouldn't turn down a character because he was biographically like Meyer, it's the acting challenge that I'm looking for.

I can't believe it's been four years since you did Holby - do you miss it?

George: Yes, I've now been out of it for as long as I was in it! I do miss the people but most of the people I was in it with have gone now, but I stayed with it for a while afterwards while people I knew were still there.

And I miss the character, I enjoyed it, he was a terrific character to play. Even though I knew it was the right time to go I knew I would still miss him. Meyer had a comforting certainty about him, he knew where he was in life, what he wanted and where he was going and life's not like that. So there are definitely aspects of the character I miss.

Have you been to the Milton Keynes Theatre before?

George: No, I've never played the Milton Keynes Theatre before but I hear it's quite big, people say it's a smashing space. Another aspect of touring is that you have to adapt the show to the space you're working in which is always interesting. It's not just a matter of shouting louder, you have to react to the space you're in and reach the back.

Do you enjoy touring?

George: Yes but I haven't done a lot of it! The last tour I did was about 15 years ago with "A Tale of Two Cities" but I enjoyed that. We'll be about half way through when we get to Milton Keynes and we go on until the end of November. It's quite demanding, even if you're staying at home which I probably will for Milton Keynes. I'll still have to set off in the middle of the day to get there so it makes it difficult to do anything else with your life. But I'm with a good bunch of actors, they're a good crowd and that's important. You have to get on together.

Do you look for anything in particular in a town when you first arrive?

George: I like Wagamamas which I didn't know about until this tour! We usually have to sort out where that is when we arrive, instant food is very important!

Finally then, for all those people thinking of coming along, does it make a difference to how you enjoy it if you've read the book or seen the film?

George: If you've read the book, you will be aware that it's not just a Victorian love story and you can rest assured that it is a lot closer to the novel than the film was. What we've got is something very close in spirit to the novel even though of course it's shorter. You won't be disappointed.

If you don't know the novel it's still definitely worth seeing, it's a good production and it's very interesting the way the story is told. Audiences seem to enjoy it, regardless of whether they've had contact with it before or not.

It's difficult to imagine what it's like watching the show from the outside but we talk to audiences and they seem to be getting it!