Rupert Graves and Philip Goodhew first worked together in 1996, when Philip directed Rupert, to award-winning effect, opposite Julie Walters, in his 1996 film Intimate Relations. Now, the long-time friends reunite professionally for the world premiere of one-man play The Ungrateful Biped, which is once again written by Philip, but this time performed by him and directed by Rupert in his directorial debut. Check out our head-to-head interviews with the two men about the new play, Dostoyevksy’s 1864 novella Notes from Underground, from which it’s adapted, and how they feel about reversing roles. And then get booking!
Underground Man, from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, is one of the most paradoxical, self-lacerating and mesmerising characters in literature; the first existentialist anti-hero. In The Ungrateful Biped, Philip Goodhew has relocated the story and the misanthropic character to London today.
Question: “what does a civilised man drivel on about with most satisfaction?” Answer: “himself”.
Immured in a horrid basement flat in the hinterlands of London, an anonymous Man creates a video blog. Haunted by disturbing memories and nurturing an abiding malice towards all humanity, including himself, he embarks on a forensic analysis of his “underground soul”.
Sick, spiteful, and ugly, yet convinced of his own genius, he is tormented by the belief that his intelligence is a disease which, in an irrational world, renders him less valuable than an insect. Bitter, alienated and crippled with inertia, the Man shamelessly revels in the depths of degradation he has plumbed in order to validate his existence and demands the right to screw up his life as he sees fit. After all, is he really any different to the rest of us?
In conversation with Philip Goodhew
When did you first read Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground? When did you first think you’d like to stage the story?
I read Notes from Underground about twenty-five years ago as a young man going through my own tedious existentialist angst. It had a profound effect on me. I thought the world was a pretty dark and dangerous place back then, and my immature interpretation confirmed all my prejudices. I wrote a ghastly self-indulgent and stodgy version of the play after my first reading. Thank God I had the insight to know that I was too young to play it then, and thankfully I did nothing with it. Over the years, the story has revealed many more layers and subtleties to me. It’s incredibly rich and very rewarding to explore.
How would you describe Underground Man? What do you think you have in common with him?
He’s a paradox. He’s both brilliant and stupid; incredibly perceptive yet totally blind to all that makes life worth living. He is vain, cruel, and vicious. He has formed the bleakest view of humanity from a very young age, refuses to allow life to divert from his prescribed vision, and is therefore unable to function in any meaningful way.
But he is not a monster. He is a lost soul struggling to find any meaning in his own existence, and failing. This of course is what makes him utterly human and compelling. The extremes that he goes to, to justify his appalling behaviour, are also darkly funny – if you have a black sense of humour.
I find I identify with him on various levels. I’m pretty sure I don’t share any of his spite or bitterness, but I empathise with his search for meaning in life and his craving for purpose. His despair at the direction in which civilisation is taking us and its inability to learn the lessons of history are also things that I find challenging. He doesn’t have the answers but he has many, many fascinating questions, and I find his hunger to understand life, however skewed his vision, utterly compelling.
Why was the story ripe to relocate to modern London?
Dostoevsky, in his genius, created a character that resonates through time and across cultures and still packs a punch today. Notes from Underground was published in 1864, and is, of course, set in St Petersburg – and that city plays a great part in the atmosphere of the book. But it’s anonymous central character, I believe, can be found in any major metropolis today; New York or Tokyo, Berlin or Belfast. I felt that London, which I know, was the perfect setting for a highly educated malcontent, hiding away in a basement flat, invisible amid a seething mass of humanity.
How did you come up with the title The Ungrateful Biped?
It is a quote from the book. It is how “The Man” characterises humanity, reducing us all to a simple animal. The irony is that, while he is using it to describe mankind in general, it is most apt when applied to himself.
You’ve previously directed Rupert Graves – what’s it been like having him direct you?
It’s been great. He’s brilliantly instinctive and very insightful and has a wonderful ability to help me dig deeper and deeper into the character. He’s very clever at keeping the piece clear and digestible and very strict about me not descending into self-indulgence. We also have a great rapport, as we’ve known each other forever, and can cut to the chase without worrying about how either of us will react.
Funniest anecdote from rehearsals?
I can’t think of a particular anecdote but I do find it most amusing, at the end of each day’s rehearsal, to hear Rupert expressing surprise at how exhausted he is. He’s finally realising just how much work a director has to put in!
Anything else you’d like to add?
I know that some people are wary of one-man plays as they often lack the essential element of conflict. The character I play in The Ungrateful Biped is so conflicted within himself that I’m sure theatregoers will have a great time watching him tear into himself. The White Bear Theatre is a great venue too. The intimacy of the space is perfect for it.
In conversation with Rupert Graves
How familiar were you with Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground before this project?
I read Notes from Underground as a disenchanted young man. It’s a great book, but I had not picked it up again it until I read the play.
What was your first reaction when reading Philip’s version of the story?
I didn’t know Philip knew me so well! I was struck by the visceral power of the language and its contemporary tone. He has captured the dark power and complexity of the original work and revealed its contemporary relevance in a remarkable way.
How would you describe Philip’s greatest strengths as a writer? And as an actor?
That’s a hard question, there are so many. As a writer, he has an ability to reveal the extraordinary in the ordinary and express it in the rich, almost Gothic, manner that flows naturally and does not sound literary.
As an actor, he is very talented and, on a technical level, very responsive to new ideas; he has a real skill to take any direction I’ve thrown at him, absorb and digest and turn into real behaviour. He always lands on his feet.
What are you most enjoying so far about the job of directing for the first time?
What is interesting and revealing to me has been making all the early decisions; creating the production vision and guiding the rehearsal to create that decision. I never knew, as an actor, that directors came into the rehearsals with so many secrets.
Would you like to direct more in future? If so, anything in particular?
Yes, I would like to direct again. This experience has given me a real taste for it. I have not got anything in particular in mind. It would be interesting to direct more than one actor!
Funniest anecdote from rehearsals?
There is a flat above where we are we are rehearsing. One day the guy who lives there took a shower and it overflowed and came through the ceiling. Philip got soaking: that made me laugh. A lot.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m glad to have had the opportunity to direct for the first time in a venue that supports a lot of emerging talent. Michael Kingsbury, the artistic director of the White Bear Theatre, has been incredibly supportive and, through him, we’ve had the opportunity to work with a young creative team whose careers he has promoted. The company has an admirable reputation for giving opportunities to new writing, which is great. And I’m a huge fan of smaller theatre spaces. You get a great connection with the audience.
The Ungrateful Biped runs at the White Bear Theatre, 138 Kennington Park Road, London, SE11 from Tuesday 30 January to Saturday 17 February 2018, with a press night on 2 February. Performances are Tuesday to Saturday at 7pm, with tickets priced £16 (concessions £12). CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE.