Taking a gamble on the family name

Bridget Jones to Gogol - Crispin Bonham Carter is on the move
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The Independent Culture

Crispin Bonham Carter's life has been full of strange, and lucky, coincidences. Take his own surname. He is distantly related to the actress Helena - they're third cousins. Bonham Carter didn't know her when younger (he does now) yet the very name was opening casting agents' doors even before he had finished his classics degree at St Andrew's in Scotland.

Crispin Bonham Carter's life has been full of strange, and lucky, coincidences. Take his own surname. He is distantly related to the actress Helena - they're third cousins. Bonham Carter didn't know her when younger (he does now) yet the very name was opening casting agents' doors even before he had finished his classics degree at St Andrew's in Scotland.

Similarly, by a stroke of good fortune, filming the big-budget Bridget Jones movie provided some useful background information for Bonham Carter's other ongoing project - directing a fringe production of the play Gamblers by the Russian dramatist Gogol.

"There's this big literary party scene in Bridget Jones and I found myself standing next to Salman Rushdie (who was playing himself) for two days. It turns out he knows a lot about Russian literature and he thinks that Gogol is the greatest Russian writer so we talked about him a lot," says Bonham Carter. "I'm hoping he will come and see the play."

He is not the first actor with a burning desire to act and direct. Janet Suzman, Antony Sher and Simon Callow have all done so before him. "Directing is a way of taking control, of seeing something through from beginning to end," Bonham Carter says. "Actors are always the last people to be informed."

When he started rehearsing Gamblers, he had no work lined up afterwards. Now he knows he has a role alongside Diana Rigg and Peter Ustinov in a major BBC film about Queen Victoria.

He is thrilled as he gets to play Lord Standish, "a really strong character, quite Machiavellian" instead of the rather nice, ineffectual young men he seems to have specialised in. And he believes it is his directing that is boosting his own performances.

"One of the things I find about directing is it teaches me so much about acting," he says. "It really makes you realise that actors worry about the wrong type of things, such as whether they're believable so they become self-conscious. And the worst actors are only interested in their own performance without paying attention to the other actors."

The play is about four card sharks who combine their wits to strip a wealthy youth of his family fortune. It has been translated by the American critic and Brecht collaborator, Eric Bentley, and is, Bonham Carter says, "really alive, very funny, with very little sentimentality". His actors are being paid £50 a week and the £5-6,000 costs of putting on a production have been raised from a band of personal theatrical angels. It was a financial model he first tried last year when he directed a modern work, Four Dogs and a Bone by John Patrick Shamley. His angels got most of their money back.

With a wife and two young children, it is not work he could afford all the time, but juggling film and television with the theatre makes it feasible. And plays can be mounted in a short amount of time. "You take your actors and a space and there you go," he says.

He already has plans for future productions. There is a play by Graham Greene, called The Complacent Lover, and a work by another Russian dramatist, Bulgakov, he is keen to put on. "Hopefully, through doing this, I gain experience," he says. "Quite a lot of people are coming to see Gamblers and I'm hoping someone will then trust me with a 'proper' theatre."

'Gamblers': Camden People's Theatre, NW1 (020 7916 5878) to 22 Oct

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