A cut-throat business

A new Sweeney Todd offers the darkest portrayal yet of the human condition. But audiences just can't get enough. Rhoda Koenig meets the leading man
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The Independent Culture

When Paul Hegarty, a Glaswegian, began in the theatre business, strong regional accents were impossible. "You couldn't sound as if you were from the North, or from Wales, especially at the National, though now, of course, directors welcome it as a way of making it clear that a character comes from another country," he says. "It's also truer to the way the lines would have been said in Shakespeare's time. Stage English is spoken with a very relaxed lower jaw, which gives an air of authority - you don't build an empire by moving your jaw up and down. But, as a director I know says, we have so focused on speech in the English theatre that we have drained it of life."

When Paul Hegarty, a Glaswegian, began in the theatre business, strong regional accents were impossible. "You couldn't sound as if you were from the North, or from Wales, especially at the National, though now, of course, directors welcome it as a way of making it clear that a character comes from another country," he says. "It's also truer to the way the lines would have been said in Shakespeare's time. Stage English is spoken with a very relaxed lower jaw, which gives an air of authority - you don't build an empire by moving your jaw up and down. But, as a director I know says, we have so focused on speech in the English theatre that we have drained it of life."

The latter action, however, was the business of Sweeney Todd, the character Hegarty has been playing since February, in John Doyle's production, which has been touring and will settle at the Trafalgar Studios later this month on the 25th anniversary of the première of Stephen Sondheim's musical (or, as the composer called it, "black operetta"). The demon barber of Fleet Street, who slits his customers' throats and makes their flesh into pies, was a terrifying enough character when Dennis Quilley played him at the Drury Lane in 1980 and at the National in 1993 - women in the front rows would regularly faint. But this version may be the scariest of all.

Instead of taking place amid complex Victorian architecture, the show is performed in a clinical white setting by a cast of only nine. "It's meant to suggest," says Hegarty, "that they're in an asylum, where Tobias [the one survivor of the barber's household] has been incarcerated, and that they're taking part in drama therapy. The set looks like an operating theatre in a Victorian hospital, and it's lit in red from beneath to suggest blood and fire and the rotting foundations of that society." Hegarty makes his entrance Nosferatu-style, lying in a coffin and abruptly sitting straight up. "I've been doing lots of sit-ups at the gym. It wouldn't do to wobble halfway through."

Hegarty never saw Sweeney Todd before taking the part, but has researched the psychology of mass murder. "I read a book about [Dennis] Nilsen [who was jailed for life in 1983 for killing 12 men] - actually, I read part of the book. I couldn't finish it. He grew up in an isolated Aberdonian community where they would go off to fish in the dark. No one in his family ever talked to him - ever communicated with him, emotionally as well as verbally. His grandfather died and was laid out on the table for a few days, but nobody ever told the boy he was dead - they just said he was sleeping."

Technically as well as psychologically, the part is, he says, "a tricky one. It has an enormous vocal range, as well as difficult timing and structure. What can trip you up is Sondheim's inversion of rhyme and his infuriatingly complicated alteration of the music and lyrics - the same line varies from scene to scene. For instance, Sweeney at one point sings the same song as Anthony [the innocent juvenile] but with part of it missing, to show that he's missing some aspect of a normal man. That's been taken away from him."

Sweeney Todd, in its first production, bowled over many of the critics and carried off most of the awards for the 1979 Broadway season but had no more than a respectable run, and failed to return its investment. The blame has been laid at its plot - the book, by Hugh Wheeler, was based on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond, itself based on a novel of 1847 by George Dibdin-Pitt that had been a great success in England and America. A stage adaptation, The String of Pearls, entertained sensation-seeking audiences at the Bowery Theatre in New York for many years.

Sweeney was called a show without an admirable character or a sympathetic relationship - a reasonable enough charge to make against a story of mass murder and cannibalism for profit. The music was thought by some to be pretentious and complex. With the passage of time, however, audiences have become either more sensitive to its virtues or less sensitive to its buckets of blood. This show, like other simplified versions, is shorter than the original, having discarded the music Sondheim wrote to cover complex set changes. Opera North performed it two years ago, and last year an American production was performed at the Royal Opera House - the embrace of the show by patrons of a higher art a sign of its increasing popularity. Theatregoers are now more likely to be excited than repelled by the relentless, grinding nature of the piece, its gung ho sadomasochism - this version includes a number, cut from the first run by the director, Harold Prince, in which the wicked judge berates himself for his sexual feelings; it ends with a musical orgasm. Enveloped by its darkness, one cannot escape the feeling that this is Sondheim's most personal work. When Prince's wife heard the opening bars for the first time, she exclaimed to the composer, "It's the story of your life!" He did not disagree.

Hegarty does not agree that Sweeney's characters are beyond sympathy. "When Mrs Lovett [his accomplice in the pie trade, who loves him] shows him that she has the knives he used before he was transported to Australia, she says" - he adopts a soft, crooning voice - "'I've kept them for 15 years.' I think that's touching. She gives him a maternal kind of love, though he's unable to return it - at one point, I put my head in her lap. You can also see that, in his possessive love for Johanna [Sweeney's stolen child], he is destructive to her and to the love he has for her - the desire to possess is, after all, the desire to destroy, because you want to destroy the aspect of the person that you can't control."

Sweeney has also, in this version, been given a moment of recognition. In the original, he is killed by Tobias when the boy realises what his master has been up to, but in this version Hegarty wanted to do something different that would enable the audience to identify with Sweeney. "I hand the razor to Tobias so that he can kill me. Sweeney at that point knows what he has done, but he's not looking for salvation because he's gone down too dark a hole."

In fact, some theatregoers now enjoy Sweeney so much that they're told off by others for laughing. Hegarty doesn't mind - the melodrama has moments of lurid, fiendish humour, and it's right, he says, that these should be appreciated. "It's not all black. There's light and shade." Elderly audiences at matinées, he finds, eat it up. "They sit there, looking very intent, and mutter, 'Ooh, 'orrible, innit?'"

Audiences in the North have also not been shy about expressing themselves, in ways that sometimes made it difficult to remember he's in a serious play. "In one town, someone said when Mrs Lovett came on, 'Has she got a chopper in 'er 'and?' and in Huddersfield one woman cried out, when I picked up the knife, 'Oh, my God, he's got it out again!'"

Fortunately, it has been consistent with the characterisation for him to grip the knife tighter and fling the shrieker a vicious look. There have been no fainting spells yet, but Hegarty has been amused by the frequent reaction of men whom the show has reminded of the vulnerable position in which they put themselves every time they go to the barber. "I can always count on there being someone in the front row," he says, "fingering his throat."

'Sweeney Todd', Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall Theatre, London SW1 (0870 060 6632) previewing from tonight; booking to 9 October

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