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John Hannah - The Titanic Orchestra

You could be forgiven for thinking John Hannah had done a vanishing act. The last time the East Kilbride born actor was on a Scottish stage was back in the 1980s, when he appeared in Communicado theatre company's take on Carmen and at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow in 7:84's production of Robert McLeish's The Gorbals Story, directed by David Hayman.

Playing a down at heel magician in a little-known play called The Titanic Orchestra, however, marks Hannah getting back to his roots with his first Edinburgh Festival Fringe appearance since he was a drama student at what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama before being restyled as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Written by contemporary Bulgarian writer, Hristro Boytchev, The Titanic Orchestra focuses on a quartet of tramps hiding out in an abandoned railway station who dream of escape when a mysterious stranger turns up promising them the ultimate way out.

Steve King's translation of the play is directed by Russell Bolam, who cast Hannah in the title role of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, which was given a grim-up-north Yorkshire makeover in London last year. That production marked Hannah's first time on stage in six years, and led directly to Bolam and Hannah working together again on The Titanic Orchestra. Hannah plays the stranger, who, depending on which way you see it, may or may not be Harry Houdini.

“Weeellll......,” Hannah hedges regarding his character's true identity. “He's someone who never confirms or denies who he is. He's described as a failed magician, which leaves you wondering. He's somebody who has a certain philosophy on life, but maybe he's a different kind of conductor. Maybe he's not an orchestra kind of conductor, but is actually a transport kind of conductor, but you don't know, and are never quite sure about what's true or not.”

Described as “a sad comedy” by its author, The Titanic Orchestra has been seen all over the world since it was first produced in Bulgaria in 2002, with King's version first seen at the Arcola Theatre in London in 2010. The only other of Boytchev's plays to have been seen in the UK was The Colonel Bird, which was directed by Rupert Goold in 1999 at the Gate Theatre in London, with a radio version heard on the BBC World Service. For Hannah, at least, The Titanic Orchestra is a play like few others he has worked on.

“I don't know if you could call it experimental or Becketttian,” he says, “but it's not linear or naturalistic in any way, and it's got this very east European philosophical kind of quality, and is a very difficult thing to challenge yourself with as an actor.”

Hannah was an apprentice electrician when he joined East Kilbride Rep Theatre Club, where he decided to take the plunge professionally. His first big break on-screen came in 1987 with a lead role as a student in Brond, Michael Caton-Jones' three-part adaptation of Frederic Lindsay's novel. While the series confused some viewers, it nevertheless opened the door for Hannah into a world that would see him become a fully fledged A-lister following his turn in Richard Curtis' 1994 rom-com, Four Weddings and A Funeral. Playing one half of a gay couple with Simon Callow, Hannah's graveside reading of WH Auden's poem, Stop All The Clocks, was one of the film's defining moments.

Hannah subsequently took the title role of a police pathologist in McCallum, appeared opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors, and was the first TV incarnation of Ian Rankin's grizzled Edinburgh cop, Rebus. He acted alongside Rachel Weisz in The Mummy, and more recently was a cast regular in Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Somewhere in-between Uncle Vanya and The Titanic Orchestra, Hannah has also made a couple of independent films as well as a pilot for a sit-com produced by UK Gold.

“I like being challenged to do things I don't know I can do,” Hannah says of the increasingly diverse range of work he's embarked upon. “It can get tedious if you're just asked to do the same sort of thing all the time, so when something like The Titanic Orchestra comes along you grab it while you can. It's great as well, because sometimes in the past I haven't always enjoyed being onstage as much as I have rehearsing, but I enjoyed doing Vanya and I'm really enjoying this.

“It's a fun piece,” he says. “It's not something you need a degree to enjoy, but it still posits some pertinent questions around the meaning of existence. The fact that the play's got tramps in it it is interesting itself. I'm sure some professor somewhere might be able to tell you about the position of tramps in literature and society. Both my character and the others are very much on the margins of society, so that perhaps allows them to comment on society from their position.

“This kind of work gets done, but not so much in the mainstream, I don't think, but you don't have to be making a deep comment on society to be profound. There's profundity in a custard pie in the face.”

The Titanic Orchestra, Pleasance, Aug 5-31, 5.25pm
www.pleasance.co.uk

The Herald, July 30th 2015

ends

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