Alan Rickman has a voice that’s bitter and rich and sinister, like a malevolent cup of coffee. “At drama school, it was the subject of a great deal of criticism and a lot of hard work,” he says during a recent phone interview. “They said I had a spastic soft palate. They were right.” Actually, he can’t discern his distinctive tones. “I don’t hear what anybody else hears,” he says. “I’m six-foot-one, I wear size 11 shoes, and I have this voice.”
Rickman will lend that voice and that height and indeed those feet when he takes on the title role of Frank McGuinness’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, which begins at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on January 7. Borkman, Ibsen’s penultimate work, concerns a disgraced banker (played by Rickman), who spends his days pacing an upstairs room and bemoaning his downfall. Below, his wife (Fiona Shaw) and her twin sister (Lindsay Duncan) battle for the affections of his son.
Considering the current economic climate—particularly in Ireland, where the production debuted at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre—the role of a corrupt banker would seem quite a wicked one, though Rickman resists such a classification. “As an actor you must never judge the character you’re playing,” he says in a slightly scolding tone. He does suggest that audiences may see certain resonances between Borkman and the actions of Bernie Madoff or Conrad Black, and believes that the financial situation gives the script immediacy. “It’s a play completely about now,” he says. “It’s about the dichotomy between the fact that this man has manipulated and used other people’s money, but at the same time that even now we need these people because they have larger visions.”
Does Rickman need “these people”? Surely, his career has benefited from playing villains, such as the German terrorist in Die Hard, the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and the menacing Severus Snape in the Harry Potter franchise. Borkman might easily be seen as joining their villainous ranks. But Rickman bristles politely at any suggestion of typecasting. “I’ve played many more people who aren’t villains,” he says. “Most of the work I’ve done, most of the people I’ve played don’t have one word you could tie to them.”
Indeed, you might struggle to find much in common among his three New York stage roles—the scheming, seductive Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons dangereuses; the dapper, ironic Elyot of Private Lives; and the decrepit, rageful Borkman. Rickman doesn’t see much similarity among them. “The part chooses you,” he says. “You don’t choose it. Time moves on, and you change, and you’re not the same person anyway—your center is different, your experience is different, what you have to say is different.”
Rickman first encountered the part of Borkman as a student at London’s Royal Academy for Dramatic Arts. Sir Ralph Richardson, for whom Rickman once worked as a dresser, played the title role, flanked by Peggy Ashcroft and Wendy Hiller. “It was a rather seminal influence on me, actually, at the time,” Rickman recalls. “Watching an extraordinary actor and two extraordinary actresses. It stayed with me.”
The current production also boasts a pair of extraordinary actresses in Duncan and Shaw, though with one so fair and one so dark, few would think to cast them as twin sisters. This is Rickman’s third pairing with Duncan, who previously played the Marquise de Merteuil to his Valmont and Amanda to his Elyot. “What I have is the most profound respect and affection for her,” he says of Duncan, “but the important thing is that she would never trade on either of those things. We don’t piss about. We’re out there doing our best for each other.” Duncan is equally complimentary, noting that Rickman “doesn’t seek approval for the characters he plays, so you’d better engage and keep up. I think there’s always an invigorating hint of challenge in the air.”
Rickman has partnered Shaw almost as often. She also had a role in Les Liaisons dangereuses, and they have shared the stage in Mephisto and As You Like It. “It’s one of those great moments in life,” he says, “where you all come back into the rehearsal room again, and go, ‘Well, where have you been for the last God-knows-how-many-years? What’s been happening to you?’ And, of course, in Fiona’s case, enormous things, so it’s a real privilege to get back together again.”
Since they last prepared a play, Shaw has begun to direct operas, which Rickman suggests makes her particularly acute and inquisitive in rehearsal. Rickman has also become a director, staging the documentary play My Name Is Rachel Corrie, which ran at Minetta Lane after New York Theatre Workshop unceremoniously dropped it from the schedule, and a marvelous revival of August Strindberg’s The Creditors, which played at BAM last spring. He says he would like to direct again, but can’t discuss any forthcoming projects. “Ask me in a year’s time, when the things that I’m attached to are over or have started or have found their financing,” he says.
You might wonder why Rickman continues to bother with the theater at all, considering how much more remunerative film is and how it plays to a much wider audience. But theater, he notes, “is part of me, it’s where I learned anything. It’s in me, and it puts its hand up every so often and says, ‘Oi, it’s about time you used this.’ ” In addition to directing and acting in it, Rickman attends the theater as often as possible and will try to see Time Stands Still and The Merchant of Venice before Brooklyn rehearsal begins. “I’ll go see anything,” he offers. “I’m a willing listener, a willing viewer. The aim is to keep current.”
And he’s eager to assure viewers that John Gabriel Borkman is very current, despite its 1890s composition and setting. “To me, John Gabriel Borkman isn’t an old play—it’s brand-new and of the moment,” he says. As to those who consider Ibsen rather hidebound, he absolutely dismisses the charge. Ibsen, he declares, “is thrilling and monumental and often very funny. Stuffy? Forget that. There won’t be anything stuffed on view.”