In May, Will Adamsdale will tread the boards at the National for the first time in the UK-premiere of Lisa D’Amour’s hard-hitting comic drama, Detroit. As a performer, Adamsdale is in fact best known for devising his own shows, from his recent performance in The Summer House at the Gate Theatre to Jackson’s Way, his Perrier Award-winning one-man show created in 2004 and revived for a hectic 26-venue tour last year. So how does it feel now to be performing in a play penned by another hand?
“I thought that it might be less work, but it’s actually not,” Adamsdale confesses. When we meet on a weekday lunchtime ten days into rehearsal the actor is already feeling consumed by the play. It’s an intense experience, he says, but after a break of seven or eight years, “it’s refreshing to revisit this kind of work”. Whereas in creating his own shows, the majority of energy goes into “what I would loosely call ‘writing’: devising, messing about, trying things out [here] the spotlight is on thinking about performance down to the commas”. He describes Austin Pendleton (who directed the original Steppenwolf production in Chicago and returns here with an all-new cast) as like “a birdwatcher, or a poker player”. Watching shrewdly, perceptively, Pendleton zones in on details and understands (as an experienced actor himself) the process of rehearsal inside-out. “An enthusiast, funny and mischievous, he never shows boredom”, and he has an obvious fondness for actors that Adamsdale wonders whether all directors share.
In fact, it was Pendleton who suggested that Adamsdale (who originally auditioned for the more conservative Ben) try his hand at Kenny, a former addict living on the fringes of society with his wife Sharon. Detroit peers at the backyard interaction between these two very different American couples and D’Amour cites her inspiration as being “those first-ring suburbs in which the building materials themselves are falling apart, where maybe a quarter of houses are empty”. In such a setting, Ben and Mary struggle to maintain the appearance of upward mobility, while for Kenny and Sharon the uncertainty of the economic climate is itself an opening. “They’re opportunists”, Adamsdale says, “thrill-seekers going from one thing to another”. But such risk-taking and opportunism also means that the couple get up to some fairly squalid activity.
So how does a British actor, educated at Eton and the Oxford School of Drama, approach a character from such a vastly contrasting background? “Maybe there are some places where we meet,” Adamsdale explains, “but it’s quite interesting to play someone so far removed; someone you feel uncomfortable being around but who can also be quite charming.” It’s also a process of discovery: “I occasionally snap into what feels like an interesting vein of something – some latent ‘trailer trash’ somewhere in my entirely white, middle-class body,” he says, laughing. But Adamsdale is also able to call upon deeper foundations for building his character, having spent time in the states (in Washington DC) between the ages of five and eight. Later experiences travelling across America, sometimes while touring shows, as well as a long-held interest in American literature and music have meant that the play’s subject, ‘middle America’, is one that Adamsdale feels both comfortable with and eager to take on: “I couldn’t play a working class Glaswegian living in a tenement because I have no experience of that,” he says, whereas Detroit “was a real Godsend – completely the sort of milieu that I love.”
The genre of the play was also very appealing to Adamsdale. Reminiscing amusedly about early trips to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with friends in which “we weren’t happy with a production unless there were at least two rapes and a murder,” it’s clear why the actor was drawn to a play described in a New York Times review as “scary-funny”. The same review credits the play as evoking powerfully “that fractious, frightened American moment,” something achieved to a great extent by the play’s comedic tone, as Adamsdale explains. “Comedy is the best approach for something serious. It’s easier to go from light to dark than dark to light.”
Without setting out intent on a career in comic theatre, it was when Adamsdale starting making his own work that he discovered both the power and satisfaction of comedy: “it’s the only way of knowing for certain that the audience have had a good time”. Often finding myself chuckling during our interview, I needn’t refer twice to his Perrier Comedy Award to believe the authenticity of that audience enjoyment.
But what does this American play have to say to UK audiences? Can it address a frightened British moment? Adamsdale believes that perhaps the play’s key draw is in the superficial normality of its characters and setting: “In the UK we tend to romanticise the underside of American life, so that aspects of it that would be commonplace for a US audience are weirdly seductive to British viewers.” That’s something that the production might draw on, but that it may also need to a certain extent to overcome, Adamsdale continues. He thinks British audiences at times tend towards a glamourised view of America as being unshakeably cool, when in fact, as Detroit powerfully demonstrates, today’s Americans are “as ridden with insecurity as we are”. And “the older we get”, the actor in his mid-thirties adds, “the more easily spooked we are” by such subjects, suggesting that A Younger Theatre readers are likely to relish the dark undertones of the play.
So what’s next for an actor who seems to have kept himself exhaustingly busy over the last year? “Hopefully a good rest. I’m getting married in September.” But he also reveals that a couple of creative projects are in the pipeline: one currently in development at the Royal Court Theatre, and another in collaboration with a band with which he performs, the quirkily named London Snorkelling Team. That’s assuming, of course, that Adamsdale finds the time he thought he’d have at his disposal whilst rehearsing for Detroit: “I thought I’ll be free in the evenings, and I’ll probably be working on something else, but in fact it’s just as much work [as devising a show] or more.”
Detroit opens at the National’s Cottelsoe Theatre on 15 May, and runs until 14 July. For more information and to book tickets, click here.
Image credit: Will Adamsdale by Catherine Ashmore