As Coriolanus opens at the Sheffield Crucible we talk to rising star Tom Bateman

A scene from Coriolanus, currently at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.  Picture: Johan PerssonA scene from Coriolanus, currently at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.  Picture: Johan Persson
A scene from Coriolanus, currently at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. Picture: Johan Persson | other
Last year on the set of Death on the Nile, Tom Bateman had plenty to discuss with his co-star and director ‘Ken’.

There was, of course, the fact they had worked together before. There was the fact Bateman was about to play a role the other actor has played previously and Tom was able to pick the brains of ‘Ken’ – Sir Kenneth Branagh to you and me – about his next acting job.

“He told me how much he loved being on that stage and he said he was really looking forward to going back. He said he was going to come and see me. In fact he said the other day he had booked his tickets,” says Bateman.

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‘That stage’ is the Sheffield Crucible, where Sir Kenneth Branagh played the Hunchback King in Richard III in 2002 and it is the stage where Bateman is playing another of Shakespeare’s great anti-heroes this month in Coriolanus.

Tom Bateman, as Coriolanus in Sheffield Theatres new production of the Shakespeare play.  Pictures:Johan PerssonTom Bateman, as Coriolanus in Sheffield Theatres new production of the Shakespeare play.  Pictures:Johan Persson
Tom Bateman, as Coriolanus in Sheffield Theatres new production of the Shakespeare play. Pictures:Johan Persson | other

Bateman is a rising star of the acting world. As well as taking on this great Shakespearean part, this year he will also see the launch of the Netflix series Behind Her Eyes and Death on the Nile, the follow-up to Murder on the Orient Express, where he first worked with Branagh and co-starred with Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi and Penelope Cruz. He returns in Death on the Nile as Monsieur Bouc.

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“I try to make sure my work ethic matches that lucky-star feeling.”

Bateman has his work cut out for him this month. Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s most divisive figures and one of the most difficult to grasp for an actor.

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“It’s one of the least-desirable roles in terms of those big Shakespearean roles. It’s definitely not a Hamlet or Macbeth. It’s actually a bit of a problem of a role,” says Bateman.

“He is essentially a bit of a bad guy and the audience sides with the people who are against him.

“As someone who comes from a liberal standpoint, it is interesting to be playing someone who is essentially a fascist. It’s actually a very attractive challenge to find that as an actor.

“Then of course there is the poetry. I get goosebumps every single time I hear those words coming out of my mouth.”

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It’s easy to understand why Bateman leapt at the chance to play this challenging role with its beautiful poetry but there was more than just the play that pulled him towards this latest role.

Robert Hastie, the Sheffield Theatres’ artistic director, is at the helm of this production and it transpires he was a part of the equation.

A former actor, as all the artistic directors of Sheffield have been over the past two decades, Hastie and Bateman worked together on the director’s first job as an assistant director.

“When my agent called to ask if I wanted to play Coriolanus with Rob directing, I said ‘Yes’. My agent pointed out they hadn’t even told me where it was or when it was, or anything before I said Yes,” says Bateman. “But I just knew I wanted to do it.”

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In last weekend’s Yorkshire Post magazine I wrote about the remarkable success of theatre in Sheffield in the modern era.

One of the elements of the

success of the theatres is built around the special alchemy that exists in the Crucible. It’s something Bateman is experiencing since his arrival in the Steel City.

“It’s something Ken talked about, what a special place the Crucible is,” he says.

“He used to say that it was a place that allowed for intimate spectacle. I’ve never actually been here before but I understand it now, having been on the stage. You realised it’s this huge space that feels really epic where you can stage battles and have explosions and then in the same space you can have an intimate moment like a son crying on his father’s shoulder and then it suddenly feels like an intense studio space.

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“It’s an actor’s dream. It’s a theatre space that’s designed for an actor’s toolbox. From the stage you feel like you can see every single seat in the auditorium.

“In terms of the director, it’s like Rob is a manifestation of the space. He knows exactly how to stage those epic scenes and exactly what to say to an actor to help you stage those intense and intimate scenes too.”

While we talk, Bateman reveals that he is in a cafe and one of the members of staff is in the Sheffield People’s Theatre, a collection of local people who work with the theatre, appearing in shows – including Coriolanus. He also reveals that he and the member of staff/member of Sheffield People’s Theatre have been talking about nerves.

The reason is that – highly unusually – we’re talking on the morning of the Coriolanus press night, the night when the play officially opens and members of the press are invited to review the production.

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I suddenly feel quite guilty about talking to Bateman on the morning of such an important performance.

“It helps. I’m just trying to stay calm, do normal things and approach it as I would any performance,” says Bateman.

Then you realise he’s going to be playing this role – famously played by the likes of Sir Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen – for Sir Kenneth Branagh on one of British theatre’s great stages and it sinks in. That’s pressure.

Sheffield Crucible, to March 28. Tickets 0114 2496000.

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