Barbara Hodgson talks to actor Tom Conti who invites us all to judge his performance in Newcastle next week
Mercy killings are such an emotive issue that for and against arguments rage for weeks when euthanasia hits the headlines.
But how do right-to-die supporters feel when the “sufferer” at the centre of the issue is a baby, unable to make the life and death decision?
That’s the dilemma at the heart of Terence Frisby’s thought-provoking courtroom drama Rough Justice, which stars Tom Conti as a father who kills his brain-damaged child.
As if it isn’t tense enough waiting for the verdict after hearing the to and fro of the case that lands his character James Highwood in the dock, the play doesn’t let the audience off the hook – asking us also to decide: guilty or not guilty of murder? So, don’t expect to sit back and be presented with a neatly-wrapped piece of undemanding theatre when the touring play brings Conti to Newcastle next week.
For his part, the renowned actor is as fascinated by the audience reaction as he is by the story he’s been wrestling with for months.
“People get very exercised about both sides,” says the 71-year-old star of 1989 hit Shirley Valentine.
“There’s a verdict in the play and then we ask the audience for their verdict, guilty or not guilty of murder, and it changes at every performance.
“It’s extraordinary – you can never tell, never second-guess the audience.”
From the show of hands to date it’s working out “pretty well even – sometimes it’s a hung jury”.
Conti’s character is a television journalist used to challenging the justice system in his documentaries.
When he finds himself on trial before a judge (Benjamin Whitrow, who played Mr Bennett in TV’s Pride and Prejudice) he decides to defend himself and so the audience is pitched into a twisting-turning plot tangled with sparky speeches, emotional soul-bearing and sound legal argument, with sprinklings of humour to lighten the dark subject matter - all giving us plenty to grapple with.
“It’s intriguing and the audience is absolutely gripped, literally from the first line of the play,” says Conti.
“People like courtroom dramas and this is different as it has an emotional charge all the way through.”
He laughs: “One night the producer heard one couple get up at the interval and he said to her ‘that’s two choc ices and a valium then is it?’!”
Deciding which side to come down on is “all down to people’s personal feelings” , says Conti, adding: “It’s slightly more difficult for the audience because they have been privy to information that a real jury would never know,” although counsel in a real case might raise an issue in order to get it in the jury’s mind, knowing there will be an objection. But by then “the jury has heard it - and you’re unable to un-hear something!”
It’s all “part of the game”, adds the actor who memorably set hearts aflutter playing taverna owner Costas in Shirley Valentine, the moustached seducer of the 40-something bored housewife (played by Pauline Collins) who flees the monotony of her weekly routine (cooking egg and chips every Tuesday) for Greece, to drink wine in the country where the grapes are grown.
It’s a heart-throb role that people continue to ask him about but he takes that in his stride, saying: “It’s very nice to be part of something as nice as Shirley Valentine. It’s not something to be complaining about!”
Over the years, in a career that has taken in numerous stage, screen and TV roles and made that voice of his instantly recognisable, Conti’s popularity has never waned.
He’s won a Tony Award on Broadway for his 1979 performance in Whose Life is It Anyway? and received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in 1983 film Reuben, Reuben, while more recent roles have seen the Scotland-born actor on the small screen in BBC sitcom Miranda, playing the comedienne’s father, and last year in films City Slacker and Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises.
And he’s found himself the subject of another vote, one which saw him picked alongside Dame Judi Dench as “most popular actor” in the West End in the last 25 years.
“It was very nice because it was the public vote,” he tells me. “They came up with Judi Dench - and me for some reason!”
Yet it all might so easily never have happened, he claims.
“At the beginning it was dreadful,” he says of the early uncertain years of his career. “It was 10 years of misery - but I think that’s kind of normal.
“I was about to stop, I really was. My wife Kara was pregnant and suddenly a baby was coming into the world.
“I was about to chuck it in and go back to Scotland and become a mature medical student then suddenly I got this part in a play in the West End with Paul Scofield - Christopher Hampton’s Savages - and I thought everything might change if I did it.
“From that moment everything did!
“Scofield was at the height of his powers; everybody came to see him - some came to see me as well. And it was fine - and it was all down to his talent!”
He and Kara, to whom he’s been married since the sixties, have a daughter, Nina, who has talked about her parents’ “open marriage”.
He’s hugely proud of her success as “a comedienne, and a ventriloquist which is secondary” - “to be making a living is such a relief” to him as a father, he says.
Conti also writes. In 2004 he published his novel The Doctor, about a former secret operations pilot “and a love story”.
“I’m halfway through the next book, well you can’t sit around all day can you?
“It’s another novel, a love story but it’s extremely dark - it’s difficult to write some bits of it!
“I have to clear the diary to write for the next however many months. I won’t take anything, I’ll just finish the book.
“But then something might come up, like this. I’d expected the book to be finished before I started the tour.”
He says of his writing: “The characters start telling you what to do, you don’t tell them!” And it’s essential to have “a keen ear for how people talk”.
He says: “Some writers are too literary; some people write in a way which is not enough to the point - and sometimes too much to the point!”
His truck with some TV drama is its focus on “ordinary people”.
“There is no such thing as an ordinary person. Everybody is unique and special with worries and fears but there’s a sort of blanket character which is thrown into drama these days.”
Then there are those who watch EastEnders - just people “snarling at each other” - to learn how to write drama.
“Drama is a woman alone in an empty house,” he says.
As an actor, it’s stage drama that gives him the kick. “One of the biggest differences between the theatre and screen is that there aren’t people between you and the audience.
“There are in TV and film. Film is ill-informed people making decisions about the movie - and often very poor decisions.
“You don’t get that in theatre. It’s you and them.”
He’s looking forward to coming to Newcastle, which he says has been missed out of tours of his previous plays.
“I’ve only been once, many years ago in the 90s in a Noel Coward play but I remember the theatre. It’s beautiful and we always try to book Newcastle but for some reason we are never able to do it.
“The nice thing about touring is that all the people outside London, like Newcastle, really want to go to the theatre. It’s really nice.”
:: Rough Justice runs at Theatre Royal, Newcastle, from next Monday to Saturday. Visit www.theatreroyal.co.uk or call 08448 11 21 21.