Gerard Murphy: History in the making for an actor with class

Only five years since it was first created, the role of Hector in Alan Bennett's The History Boys has taken on a daunting status. Nick Ahad spoke to the man following in Richard Griffiths' footsteps.

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The History Boys sneak preview

YOU might not immediately recognise Gerard Murphy's name, but his roles, you'll know.

He's played King Lear, Salieri in Amadeus, appeared in Waterworld and Batman Returns, had parts in Spooks, worked extensively with the RSC and pretty much every theatre you care to name in Britain.

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He is the sort of actor that is recognised as being at the top of his game, but because he doesn't play the "fame game", is not the sort who would be recognised in the street.

How good is he?

When the role of Hector in Alan Bennett's The History Boys was up for grabs after being created on stage by Richard Griffiths, director Christopher Luscombe called Murphy to ask him to play the role. The traffic on that particular street normally only ever flows in the other direction, directors are normally swamped by actors after a part, particularly when the role is as good as Hector.

"Alan Bennett actually has approval on the part of Hector, so it was nice to think that Chris had asked for me to play the part and he had approved it," says Murphy.

The affable actor is chatting during a break on what turns out to be a 13-hour rehearsal day during the final week of previews before the production opens at the West Yorkshire Playhouse next week.

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He clearly can think of nothing he would rather do than talk about The History Boys during his hour off.

"I didn't see the play, because I was working, then it went into the West End and I missed it again because I had a job, and I was kicking myself. I never got a chance to see it at the cinema, then it was on television recently, but I didn't watch it because I was already rehearsing for the part and I didn't want it to have any influence on the way I was going to play it.

"I have been desperate to see it – I'm a real Alan Bennett groupie."

The History Boys premiered at The National Theatre back in 2005 and turned out to be a remarkable success, which led to a reappraisal of the oeuvre of Leeds-born Bennett.

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The production opening in his home town on Monday is the first new production since the National's, which went on to tour the country, New York and Australia.

Murphy says: "Although it's a relatively new play, this is already an iconic role, and I'm the first person to have taken it on since it was created, so it's scary, it's very scary."

The play tells the story of a group of eight young men who have performed well enough in their A-Levels to be able to take entrance exams for Oxbridge. They return to school to take extra lessons to prepare for the exams, where they are taught by Hector, who tries to inspire in them a love of learning. They are also taught by Irwin, a younger teacher brought in by the Machiavellian headmaster to train the boys in passing exams. Bennett has said that he thinks there is a thesis behind the play, but for him it began with the character of Hector. His lessons are not just fun, but hugely inspiring, and in them the boys learn about poetry, Shakespeare and movies.

Murphy says: "It's hard to say what the play's about and in a way it's not our (the cast) job to know what it's about. it's our job to do it. But I think for me it's about teaching and the two different kinds that we see in the play. It's about the argument between the ancient and modern, the brash and the intellectual, about red brick and Oxbridge.

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"It's not as black and white as that, but it's about the importance and the problems of education. But that's the last thing I think about when I'm on stage."

Murphy also admits that it is about what he calls the eroticism of teaching – Hector molests the boys while giving them lifts home.

"In the play Hector says that teaching 'is in itself an erotic act' and it explores that idea very deftly," he says.

Having examined the play and given that he now "knows it backwards", what does Murphy think lays behind the extraordinary success it has achieved? "Simple. I think Alan Bennett is a genius, and as he gets older he gets better. Part of his genius is a knowledge of what interests people, what makes them howl. When people laugh you think 'how did he know that people would react like that?'

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"Lines like 'is it your gap year sir?' stop the show. That's genius. How did he know?

"The reason I think he's the greatest living playwright is that he combines a fierce classical intellectualism with accessible sensibility.

"I think that's why he's an extraordinary writer and that's why he's getting better and better at it."

The History Boys, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, to March 6.