Interview: Jack Monaghan talks about The Graduate in Leicester

Jack Monaghan and Richard Clothier
Jack Monaghan and Richard Clothier

There is still a chance to book tickets for The Graduate coming to The Curve in Leicester.

The stage adaptation of the much loved film stars Catherine McCormack as Mrs Robinson and Jack Monaghan as Benjamin.

We chatted to Jack about taking on the role, the appeal of the show and the differences between working on screen and stage.

It’s been 50 years since the original release of The Graduate, what is exciting about this new production? How do you think audiences will respond?

Well, one obvious thing is that this is a theatre piece rather than a film, so that means the audience is in the hotel room with Benjamin and Mrs Robinson - I think that’s really exciting, as well as excruciatingly funny, and terribly awkward too.

Another exciting thing is that this production uses sounds and projections to play with and explore the inner turmoil going on inside Benjamin’s head. An example of this would be the first image of the play where we see Benjamin as if at the bottom of the sea, and we hear the world around him a long way away above the surface. One of the real strengths of theatre, in comparison to film, is that you can have several things going on onstage at once, and the audience’s focus cuts between them.

The world has changed hugely since the film was released in 1967, and that’s reflected both in Terry Jonson’s adaptation of the story for the stage, and in Lucy Bailey’s direction of our version of it. We don’t shy away from the prejudices of that time, and I hope that gives the audience a sense of progress that nowadays we are a little less sexist and so on. But we can also reflect on how little progress we’ve made in some areas too – especially our ability to communicate.

There’s a huge amount of potential for comedy in that inability to communicate though, and I hope at least that will be a source for lots of laughter in the audience. We’ve had lots of great responses so far so I hope that will continue.

Benjamin’s character is recent college graduate feeling disillusioned and aimless in 1960’s suburban America. Would you describe him as a timeless character, with the pressure of University studies as a rite of passage relevant to young people today?

Ben says to his Dad: ‘I’m through with all this.’ His father asks ‘All what?’ And Ben replies: ‘All this. I don’t know what it is but I’m sick of it. I want something else.’ That feels like something a young person might say today too. The idea of a ‘generation gap’ was quite new in the 60s, but now it is everywhere from pop-culture to politics. The idea that young people see a different future to their parents, but struggle to communicate that future certainly feels very relevant. I guess that for younger audience members they can watch Benjamin faced with some similar anxieties and pressures and deal with them in the worst way. That’s both funny, and recognisable – but hopefully not too recognizable…

But this play is also about parents too, in a way that I think is missing from the film. We see parents lost, unable to comprehend the actions of a child they have put so much love and hope into. This is brought to life so beautifully and with real tragi-comedy by Rebecca Charles and Tom Hodgkins who play my mum and dad.

How does your Benjamin differ to Dustin Hoffman’s suave, self-assured portrayal in the 1967 hit film?

Dustin Hoffman’s performance was completely ground-breaking, not just for audiences but for a whole generation of actors too he defined a new type of screen naturalism. Any conversation about The Graduate begins with that – so I want to get that out, and humbly put his Benjamin to one side.

Lucy Bailey said a great thing in rehearsals – ‘Benjamin is not an awkward character, he is a character in an awkward situation’. I’d add that he is under a whole lot of pressure – from his parents, from Mrs Robinson, from his own inflated and self-destructive ego – and he can’t find a way to vent that pressure.

The script tells us that Benjamin is an exceptional student, and Terry Johnson’s adaptation draws on the original book to give us a more socially clumsy character than we see in the film. That being said I think it lets the audience off the hook if Benjamin gets too gawky, because it allows us to believe we would somehow deal with his situation better. So that’s a fun rope to walk – a smart kid under pressure who thinks he’s a man already.

Benjamin’s affair with Mrs Robinson is iconic. Who do you think has the power in the relationship?

First off, I don’t want to give anything away for people who don’t know the story. It has been brilliant hearing how many audience members don’t know the story and haven’t seen the film. If you’re reading this and you haven’t watched the film then skip this next bit – it’s such a joy watching a story for the first time and I don’t want to give any spoilers away.

On the surface of the affair Mrs Robinson has all the power – she is much more experienced than Benjamin, and she uses this to manipulate him into doing what she wants. However, Mrs Robinson has a lot more to risk in the affair. Of course she has her husband and daughter at stake, but also her self-esteem which we discussed in rehearsals as being much more fragile than her bravado suggests.

Benjamin has the plasticity of time and youth on his side, and he knows it. Any barbs thrown his way wash off with no real bite, whereas the frivolous way he treats Mrs Robinson has the potential to do lasting emotional damage.

So the short answer is it’s a balance. Mrs Robinson has the power of knowledge and Benjamin the power of youth.

How would you describe working with director Lucy Bailey?

Lucy is an absolute dream director to work with as an actor. She has an endless, relentless energy for the play and for getting to grips with what the characters want and feel. That added to an incredible, passionate excitement about new ideas. Anyone who has seen a Lucy Bailey play before will know that.

With success in TV with Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror alongside a career on stage, can you elaborate on the differences between acting for theatre and film?

Theatre and TV are very different environments to work in. In theatre you get weeks to rehearse all the scenes and to build a relationship with your fellow cast members. In TV you may be recording a scene that you saw for the first time the night before, with an actor you only met that morning. That can be quite nerve wracking, but can also be a very fruitful and exciting way to work. Sometimes it takes a while for actors to work well together, but sometimes that freshness really pays off.

Screen can be quite fleeting too, and I have found this hard in the past. You do a scene a few times, get a bunch of different shots, and then that’s it – it’s in the can and you won’t see it again until the premier. I find it is always in the shower next day that I think – ‘oh hey, that’s what the character means there!’ – in film that’s too late, but in theatre you get to come back and try it a different way the next night. You keep honing and learning and pushing things around on stage, and I get a real kick out of that.

Could you describe your role in the National Theatre’ War Horse? How has the rehearsal process differed between War Horse and The Graduate?

I played Albert in War Horse – he’s the boy whose horse, Joey, is taken off to war and Albert signs up to go to France and find him.

The rehearsal process was very different indeed – that show is all about how we make an audience care about a pile of brown wicker and string. The whole cast spent the first week in puppetry school, learning how to bring bamboo and bits of paper to life. Then slowly we built in the real puppets. The actors who worked the horses were incredible, and often hadn’t worked with puppets before - so we went on a real journey together discovering how to bring Joey and Topthorn and all the other animals to life.

I joined that show when it was already on the West End, so the design and tech was already done. That meant that we had a luxurious two month rehearsal period, and all of it was onstage with all the props and scenery already there. But it also meant that as soon as we’d finished rehearsals we were in front of an audience with no previews and no chance to change anything technically.

For The Graduate we were designing and building on everything as we went along. We only had one month rehearsal time split between London and Leeds, but when we first opened we had three preview performances to learn from, and adapt to our audience. This meant we had to be lighter on our feet at times, but it also meant we could be much more flexible – trialling new ideas and making changes, not only through rehearsals and in those first few preview performances.

The Graduate can be seen until Saturday June 10. For tickets visit www.curveonline.co.uk.