The big Interview: Arthur Wilson on Force Majeure, 'It’s quite a big feat to create this story for the stage'

Arthur Wilson is talking to me from the production room at the Donmar Warehouse the week before Force Majeure, directed Michael Longhurst and starring Rory Kinnear, enters technical rehearsals. It's been a brilliant experience, he tells me. "I feel very, very fortunate."

This is Wilson's first role since the pandemic cut short a touring role in the The Tempest in March 2020 - "and it's at the Donmar!" he says. "It's really nice coming to work. There’s a real ensemble feel, there’s a real feeling everyone is pulling in the same direction... [and] having Rory and Lydnsey [Marshal] playing the emotional arc of the story is excellent, you just sit back and appreciate how brilliant they are."

The play, based on the film by Ruben Östlund and adapted for the stage by Tim Price, is set during a family's ski holiday to the alps. Wilson, who has performed at the National Theatre in Man and Superman and the Young Vic in She Ventures and He Wins, is one of the four ensemble cast members, who he tells me have a dual role. "We are both playing the characters that the family meet along the way on their holiday, as well as helping to create that physical language of the piece which is being created by the brilliant Sasha Milavic Davies (movement director)."

And it's not just the acting that is incredibly physical. "Jon [Bausor], the designer, does an incredible job," says Wilson. "Without giving too much away, the stage is not flat...this isn’t really a rake, this a slope. The way it’s designed is that the stage sort of slopes in two directions to give that sense of movement in the space." If you've seen the rehearsal photos (below), you'll know there's onstage skiing involved.

Arthur Wilson in rehearsal for Force Majeure. Photo: Marc Brenner

Tomas and Ebba and are determined to have quality family time with their children on the ski trip but the family unit is tested when disaster strikes.

"It’s essentially about what happens in a relationship when someone doesn’t live up to the ideal that you set for them or someone doesn’t behave in a way that you assumed they would," Wilson tells me. "It’s not necessarily anything ostensibly awful that they do but it makes the family question their character, and then how does that person then keeps hold of their important role within the family when people are doubting who they are."

Watching the film version before starting R&D, Wilson's first thought was to wonder, "how do people do this? How does this become a stage show? Because it’s so extraordinarily, beautifully shot and so much of the film is the mountains, the landscape - they are essential character in the film." He's been enjoying the challenging of recreating that in a different medium. 

"It’s quite a big feat to create this story for the stage, and especially for the Donmar, which is a beautiful theatre but it’s not the biggest. So it’s figuring out how we can create the physical language and how we can build a space with the world - it's full on, it’s great."

Holly Cattle, Raffaello Degruttola, Kwami Odoom and Arthur Wilson in rehearsals for Force Majeure at the Donmar Warhouse. Photo. Marc Brenner

I wondered if, as an audience member, watching the film in advance of seeing the show would influence my perspective of the adaptation, and whether watching the film had influenced his approach to the role - he thinks the answer to both questions is probably 'no'.

"So much of what we’re doing is trying to give life to the story that is told just through the photography of the film, so in that sense it’s not really feasible to recreate what's in the film... [watching it] did give an idea of the sheer scale of the mountains - it’s both kind of peaceful and aggressive... you’re just trying to recreate that impact for the audience, that they appreciate how huge the mountain is and how much potential danger is in the mountain."

There are differences between the film and the play too. "In the play there’s a little bit more of an exploration of different people’s perception of truth - people having their own truth. We explore a bit more the actual impact of characters having a very different experience of the same thing, a different perception of the same thing, and how difficult that is. How do you come to terms with, or come to closure on, something when two people view something that happened in a completely different way?"

With rumblings about how COVID might look over the winter period, we talk about the future of theatre and whether the outlook feels more positive now. "The theatre community will always come back [because of] the need for storytelling...but we don't want to lazily assume that that happens easily," he says.

"We have to be aware that it is feeling positive, just being in a room with people creating stuff, but there are lots of rooms that haven’t reopened and lots of companies that rely on full capacity shows, that rely on the same people coming back, to actually break even, and I think for a lot of those it’s going to be really hard to get back at it and that’s concerning." The emergence of the Omicron variant following our conversation is likely to only increase that concern.

The company of Force Majeure in rehearsals. Photo: Marc Brenner

Given that Wilson’s career has taken him on tours of the US and stints at the Young Vic and the National Theatre, I ask him how playing at the Donmar rates in terms of career highlights. “This is a highlight, playing the Donmar, and it’s also now - it’s nice that the highlight is the present.”

But he has one other ‘strange’ career highlight to share. Harry Enfield he says was like a hero to him when he was young. “My sister and I used to watch Harry Enfield & Chums and we’d annoy all of our family by rerunning, word-for-word, Wayne and Waynetta and Tim Nice but Dim… he played a real big part in me becoming an actor.”

And, in 2018, Wilson ended up playing opposite Enfield at Hampstead Theatre in Genesis Inc. at the same time as World Cup fever gripped the country. The cast were quickly checking iPads backstage between scenes as England took on Colombia, with Colombia equalising to take the game to penalties just as Wilson was about to go back on for the final scene. 

“[During the scene,] Harry Enfield, my comedy hero, came onstage dressed as Karl Marx and found a way within the action to come near to me, lean close to me and whisper in my ear, ‘ve von!’ in a dodgy Karl Marx accent. Ten year old me would not believe that I was on stage being told by Harry Enfield dressed as Karl Marx that England had finally won a penalty shoot out!”

Force Majeure is at the Donmar Warehouse until 5 February 2022

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