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Q&A: Not About Heroes

posted on 9 September 2014
Ben Ashton - Not About Heroes

Two quick Q&A sessions with Ben Ashton (RSC) and James Howard (Donmar Warehouse, RSC) discussing their latest roles as the Great War poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon in Not About Heroes.

Ben Ashton (Wilfred Owen)

What was your first acting experience?
Playing the 4th King in the Year 6 production of The Nativity at Earley St Peters, Reading. Yes, that’s right, the famous 4th King who didn’t make it to see baby Jesus as he was busy helping Babushka!

What do you like most about your job?
Trying to work out why a character is the way they are, what they want and what drives them. That always fascinates me, trying to get under the skin of a character.

What was it that enticed you to Not About Heroes?
I hadn’t actually read the play until I’d been told by my agent that I had an audition for Not About Heroes. I confess I didn’t know much about Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon either. I read the play and straight away I was gripped. It’s an intimate play about two people and their relationship. When I read it I wanted to find out more about them straight away.

It’s a great piece about two people who find each other, help each other and form a great relationship. Meeting Siegfried Sassoon completely transformed Owen’s life and helped make him what we now regard as one of the finest ever poets. The transformation of Wilfred Owen is something that really interests me. It’s such a tragedy that just a week before Armistice he was killed, never to see the effect his poetry had on the world and our attitude to the First World War.

As an actor, what are the challenges with taking on your role?
Wilfred Owen was a real person who lived and breathed, so I feel a huge responsibility to do justice to the man and his family. Charting the journey from who the man was before and after he met Siegfried Sassoon is also a challenge.

One of the big challenges is also going to be living with a moustache for 4 months! I had to grow one for a previous tour and got so much stick for it from friends and family, and even from strangers walking down the street. Back in the First World War it was common place for a man of my age to sport a moustache, but that trend seems to have waned!

What can audiences expect from the production?
Hopefully truthful performances handled with respect, honesty and sincerity.

What are you looking forward to most?
I’m really looking forward to having the opportunity of going out on stage every performance and doing what I love, in a great play, playing a great person opposite a great actor!

James Howard - Not About Heroes

James Howard (Siegfried Sassoon)

What was your first acting experience?
I was born and brought up in Jersey in the Channel Islands. Although it is a small island there were plenty of opportunities for budding actors, and I performed in many plays and musicals for the local amateur companies. I was introduced to poetry and Shakespeare by a wonderful speech and drama teacher who helped to lift the words off the page and bring them to life.

What do you like most about your job?
Acting is a very precarious profession, but the variety it offers has to be its most appealing feature. I’ve been lucky to work on a huge range of projects, from a 3-year contract with the Royal Shakespeare Company to appearances on TV, radio and film. Most recently I was thrilled to work with Pierce Brosnan on a new movie called ‘Survivor’. I’ve always loved Bond, and to meet and work with (arguably!) the best was a career highlight!

What was it that enticed you to Not About Heroes?
I first read the play a few years ago and was gripped by the story and the power of the script and the poetry. It’s a huge challenge for two actors to bring the characters to life and to tell their stories over the course of the play, but it’s a challenge which I can’t wait to take on! There is also something very special about performing this piece 100 years on from the start of the First World War, and the power of the story is something which I hope audiences will be very moved by.

As an actor, what are the challenges with taking on your role?
The sheer quantity of lines is very daunting! With only one other actor on stage, there is a huge pressure to create a relationship that holds an audience enthralled for two hours. But the power of the script and the incredible flashes of poetry which appear throughout should be enough to help bring the story to life. Ben and I both went to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, so we have both had a similar training and we should be able to find a good connection both on and off stage.

What can audiences expect from the production?
It’s very early days, but talking initially to Eliot, the director, he was very keen to use lighting, projection and sound to help create a suitable and atmospheric setting. Together with the power of the script, I hope audiences will feel engaged, entertained, educated and enlightened by an incredibly moving story.

What are you looking forward to most?
I’m really excited about taking this production around the country and visiting towns and theatres that will be new to me. It’s a challenging piece but I’m hoping the reactions from audiences across the country will make it a new career highlight.

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