“It’s a bit of a monster,” claims Arthur Darvill. “The whole thing is very ambitious and something I am very proud of.”
Speaking from the picturesque balcony of his New York apartment (“I can see the Empire State Building from my balcony, which I still find ridiculous”), the 31-year-old Doctor Who alumnus isn’t referring to his lead in Tony award-winning musical, Once. Although thanks to its current stellar Broadway run, Darvill’s star has never been brighter Stateside.
The Brummie actor is musing on his new project back in London. Wearing his composer’s hat, the self-confessed “soul man” is making history at Shakespeare’s Globe, having penned the score for the first musical ever to be staged at the venerable venue.
The Lightning Child – a ‘remix’ of Euripides’ Greek tragedy The Bacchae – is his biggest composition to date. It reunites Darvill with writer Ché Walker and director Matthew Dunster five years after the trio brought The Frontline to the Globe in what was the first contemporary play ever to be staged within the renowned wooden ‘O’.
“I’m really surprised that there hasn’t been a musical at the Globe before,” Darvill says. “It’s a space that is crying out for big soul tunes. We will get people moving.”
Darvill’s buoyant personality has lit up the stage and screen in the last couple of years: appearing alongside Matt Smith in Doctor Who bagged him a primetime following, and led directly to his role as vicar Paul Coates in sinister whodunnit drama Broadchurch.
The Lightning Child struck a chord with his first love: music. “Music has always played a big role in my life,” he reflects. “My dad’s a keyboard player, mainly Hammond organ, who played for Ruby Turner and Steel Pulse, and toured with Fine Young Cannibals.
“Growing up in Birmingham there was a big reggae scene, with UB40, that kind of thing. It was all around me and it’s in my bones. Then meeting Ché opened my eyes to writing for theatre.”
This doesn’t mean composing the sexed-up, riotous modern remix of a Dionysian epic was easy, however. “When Ché first sent me a copy of the script it was three times as long as it is now and sat on my desk for a year,” Darvill explains.
“I just didn’t know where to start. This has been a real stretch for me. There was no restriction and I had to research so many different styles of music going back generations. It’s been a real learning curve.”
If it’s not quite Doctor Who meets Shakespeare jamming over a 2 Tone Records back catalogue, The Lightning Child does transcend generations in a way that the Time Lord himself would be proud of.
Classical and contemporary, its cast of real and imagined characters – including Billie Holiday, Neil Armstrong, Caster Semenya, a couple of heroin addicts and a pitbull terrier named Cleopatra – explores the musical roots of Ancient Greece and the squats of contemporary London. And this is before a group of intoxicated worshippers gather in pre-Christian Africa to honour the god Dionysus with orgiastic rites, to the disgust of prudish king Pentheus.
Ché Walker explains: “People need to expect the unexpected. You won’t have seen anything like this before. My dream is that people will still be thinking about this play long after they have left.”
Walker’s dream of bringing the 2,400-year-old Athenian tragedy to life began in the 1990s. “It’s probably been 20 years in the making, since I was first involved in a student production of The Bacchae at drama school,” he says. “It was electrifying and from the very first moment it gripped me.
“It was my first exposure to Greek drama and I’ll never forget it. With Euripides, he put regular folk at the centre of his work – a fisherman, a servant and so on – and this was a really radical thing to do in his day. That stuck with me.”
This ethos also resonates in his teaching experiences. Walker is one of Britain’s most respected contemporary playwrights and finds time to work with Camden’s Wac Arts, which offers affordable training to young people, as well as at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). “Teaching is something that I am most proud of,” he says. “It’s my espresso and it keeps my feet firmly on the ground.”
But, he points out, it is at grassroots level that the continuing erosion of Britain’s arts budgets is having the most devastating effects. Just weeks ago councils in England were told their cultural spending will be cut by another £124m by March.
“We are witnessing tremendous funding cuts,” he says regretfully. “It’s very difficult to see and is just coming from all angles. We don’t want the industry to become inaccessible to those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
The Globe is in many ways a perfect home for Walker, with his egalitarian worldview and passion for entertaining the masses with riotous, mould-breaking and thought-provoking productions.
“It was only when I finished writing The Lightning Child that I realised how suited it was to the scale and noisiness that the Globe is known for,” he says. “It felt like a natural fit.”
The Lightning Child is at Shakespeare’s Globe from September 14 to October 12