He has sat among the audience in Grosvenor Park’s theatrical faerie ring, and now actor Joseph Millson is stepping on to the wood bark stage for the first time.
And the actor is relishing the chance to spend his summer entertaining crowds at what he describes as a place that’s “head and shoulders above every open-air theatre I’ve seen in England in the last decade.”
But while it might be his first time on stage here in Chester, it turns out Joseph is no stranger either to performing outdoors – having enjoyed the vagaries of the British summer in Wimbledon, Ludlow and Stafford, or to Rep, with two seasons with the RSC including one in which he played both ‘the Bastard’ in King John and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.
It certainly keeps the adrenaline pumping, particularly, he reveals, as he likes to turn up for work without knowing which play he’s going to perform that day. “I find that thrilling and really outrageous,” he admits. “It’s like you’re carrying around a secret code, you’ve got a whole play in your head. And to have three whole plays in your head is quite extraordinary.” But with three productions to juggle, preparation is key – particularly when one of the roles is as demanding as Henry V. And that includes both mental and physical preparation.
For Joseph that means getting his lines learned early…. and taking plenty of long walks with pet dog Oaky. “Once I’ve learned it, I have a weird thing,” the 45-year-old confides. “I have to be able to go for a walk with the dog, or on my own, and run the entire play in my head without ever looking at a script, three times through from start to finish. “So if you see someone wandering the fields near Chester, muttering away to themselves, that will be me!”
Juggling is something the actor is used to doing in a career where stage and screen appearances have run in parallel over the course of more than 20 years. On stage he’s appeared as Hamlet, Macbeth, Bolingbroke, Orlando and Oberon, along with a host of varied roles at the National, Almeida, Arcola, Old Vic and Royal Court theatres. He won a UK Theatre Award for playing the title role in Aphra Behn’s The Rover at the RSC, directed (as Henry V is here) by Loveday Ingram, and a WhatsOnStage accolade for Raoul in Phantom of the Opera sequel Love Never Dies.
And following his summer here at Grosvenor Park, he’s returning to the world of musical theatre for the first time in a decade, appearing as George Banks in a West End revival of Mary Poppins.
“I did a lot of theatre first, then a lot of filming,” he explains. “And I thought I was a theatre actor who could do a bit of filming. But it turns out the older I’ve got, the more I’ve fallen in love with the problem of film acting. It’s all shot out sequence and I really enjoy the problem of painting a picture by numbers like that.”
His busy TV and film career includes forthcoming roles in George Clooney’s Catch-22 and alongside Gerard Butler in blockbuster action thriller Angel Has Fallen. But he perhaps remains best known for his small screen medical roles as Dr Sam Morgan in Peak Practice and Dr Luc Hemingway in Holby City.
It was on the latter that he met his wife Sarah-Jane Potts – this Henry V’s ‘fair Katherine’, although according to Joseph there was ‘no twinkle of us being a couple’ during filming. It was only when they ended up living in different countries that they realised they missed each other. The pair married on New Year’s Eve 2013, and since then have worked together on a host of screen projects. But perhaps surprisingly, never theatre – until now. “So this is just heaven to us,” he beams. “Hard work heaven.”
Shakespeare’s Henry V is an inspirational leader who achieves his ends through what some might say are controversial tactics and decisions. But how does Joseph see the character? “What he’s doing is trying to be good,” he says. “He’s determined to atone for the sins of his father. I won’t go into a big long essay about why, but his father (Bolingbroke – later Henry IV) was essentially a king killer. “And he talks about God a lot; possibly more than any other Shakespeare character I’ve played. So, I think he is devoutly trying to serve God and be a good king. He’s all sides of the coin. But I don’t think he has a bad bone in him really. If you’ve watched The Crown with Claire Foy playing Elizabeth II, you see in that how she has to sacrifice her personal feelings for the job.
“And Henry V really feels like that to me.”
Along with his portrayal of Henry V, Chester audiences can also see Joseph as Antonio in Twelfth Night, and Oliver in The Borrowers, a role he describes as “maybe the greatest part I’ve ever had”.
“I’m so thrilled,” he smiles. “I feel like the luckiest kid in school.”