Bertie Carvel keeps finding himself torn — locked in a battle between the rational and the irrational. Currently, it’s because he’s in rehearsals for Bakkhai, a fresh, modern translation of Euripides’ tragedy by poet Anne Carson, part of the Almeida Theatre’s Greeks season. Carvel plays Pentheus, ruler of Thebes, who refuses to acknowledge the god Dionysos — played by Ben Whishaw — who has inspired the women of the city to go “off to have a rave on a mountain,” as Carvel puts it. Driven out of his wits by Dionysos, the uptight Pentheus goes spy on them, dressing up as a lady himself. But the god’s followers, the female Bakkhai, find him and literally tear him apart.
“So it’s pretty bonkers …” acknowledges Carvel with a grin. Not that he’s flippant about it; the 37-year-old actor talks earnestly and at length about the play, its history, its relevance today, its psychological metaphors. Son of a psychologist and a journalist — his father is John Carvel, former social affairs editor of the Guardian — it’s perhaps not surprising that he’s keen to take our conversation immediately and seriously into analysis. And what he’s most interested in is that tension, between Pentheus’s insistence on order, logic and rules, and Dionysos’s wild, sensual, spiritual force.
“It’s about a slow transformation of Pentheus from the epitome of rational man to uncovering his irrational side, and that turns out to be his punishment,” explains Carvel. “It’s a play about reason and un-reason. Euripides is absolutely writing a play about human psychology and using these myths to try to understand our condition. But if you just go with the plot, then it seems to operate on an instinctive level too — which is apt, given that it’s a play about the god of instinct.”
Carvel was most recently a lead in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the BBC’s flashy adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s novel about two clashing magicians in 19th-century England — “another drama about the conflict between the rational and the irrational, the romantic world view and the enlightened,” he points out. So is he a Pentheus, governed by reason, or an impulsive Jonathan Strange?
He laughs, and declares himself a rational man. “[But] I like acting because it is the Dionysian art form. I’m not just being glib — that’s why I’m so lucky I became an artist because I can be both things. I think you have to do both — that’s maybe the lesson of this play.”
Directed by James MacDonald with music by Orlando Gough, Bakkhai goes full Greek, with choral speaking and singing. “Modern productions often avoid that, with a sense of some embarrassment about the idea of people speaking together,” posits Carvel, but to his mind it’s where a lot of the play’s power comes from. It has meant, however, that rehearsals are largely taken up with the chorus; luckily, playing opposite Ben Whishaw has proved a handy short cut for both actors.
Carvel was brought up in Hampstead — he now lives down the road in Chalk Farm — and after getting a first in English at the University of Sussex, went to Rada. Whishaw was in the same year. So are they friends? “Yeah, we’re chums! It’s been really lovely. It allows you to do braver things in the rehearsal room.”
Which is welcome, as not only is Carvel tackling Pentheus but he also plays his mother, Agave. Quite a leap … but it’s the way the Greeks would have done it, Carvel points out, and he trusts the audience will just go with it, “because of something called good acting — I hope!”
Carvel is no stranger to donning a dress: his breakthrough role was the terrifying Miss Trunchbull in Matilda the Musical in 2010. A whopping hit for the RSC, the show stormed the West End and Broadway, with Carvel winning both an Olivier and a Tony for his fearsome transformation. It’s still running, but Carvel left the cast in 2012. “I’m so proud to have been involved – and it continues to be an amazing phenomenon. But I did it 650 times. That’s enough!”
It seems Carvel, although quietly intense and thoughtful in person, has a talent for teeth-gnashing villains: he’s played a glass-eyed racist psychopath in BBC’s The Wrong Mans, a scheming Met press officer in Danny Boyle’s Babylon, and even had a small but dastardly part in the film of Les Misérables. Does he enjoy playing baddies? “Everyone likes playing the baddies! But one hopes they’re three-dimensional, like real people.”
Still, he can turn on the dashing charm when he wants to — as early episodes of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell proved. The role was a “fairy tale” for Carvel; the book has long been one of his favourites. The series was well received by critics — and seems to be going down well in the US — but was a ratings flop here, slithering down to only 1.5 million viewers (Poldark, by contrast, netted 5.9 million).
“It’s obviously a little bit disappointing,” he acknowledges. “I don’t mind if people don’t like it, that’s their prerogative. But I want people who do like it, to love it.” And he thinks that was the case, pointing out that such figures don’t take into account online catch-up services.
Which leads us onto the BBC — the news that there will be some kind of charge to watch online has just been announced, a move Carvel considers “a no-brainer”. He’s exasperated by the current round of BBC-bashing from the Tories and portions of the press. “It’s a huge cultural treasure; it really does stand alongside the NHS as one of the great things we’ve done as a nation. What it stands for — the idea of a public service — is important to me.”
Carvel is on the Beeb again this autumn, in new drama Doctor Foster. He plays the husband of a GP who suspects he’s having an affair; the script is penned by acclaimed playwright Mike Bartlett, who had a hit with King Charles III. Carvel praises his “forensic, truthful” writing but struggles to define the show. “I almost want to call it a soap opera — it’s not really a soap but it is an opera: an incredible domestic opera.”
It’s not the first time he’s been in a TV drama penned by a fellow thesp: earlier this year, Carvel played Nick Clegg in Coalition, a one-off drama about the 2010 election by playwright James Graham. Does he enjoy this increasing cross-fertilisation? “I do. Theatre is a place of collaboration, there’s a way of everybody bringing their best to the game. Writers who have worked in the theatre are used to seeing their work animated by actors, and changed and challenged. Often in filming, actors are an afterthought; you come in at the end of the process and all the grown-up decisions have been made.”
His appetite for theatre won’t go unfed for long — it’s just been announced that, fresh from Bakkhai, he’ll be leading the cast in Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape at the Old Vic in October, as part of Matthew Warchus’s first season. Busy man — and whatever the medium, it seems unlikely anyone will consider Carvel an afterthought.
Bakkhai is at the Almeida, N1 (020 7359 4404, almeida.co.uk) until Sept 19; more tickets are being released on July 27