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Will Rathbone for Culture Calling, Monday 17 July 2017
(Images Credit: John Douet)
Oliver Johnstone is a young British actor whose impressive CV spans Shakespeare and James Bond, taking in plenty of TV roles along the way. He’s currently starring in the UK regional premiere of Nina Raine’s award-winning 2010 play Tribes, about a young deaf child and his dysfunctional family, at Sheffield Theatres. We spoke to him about the play and his career to date.
Culture Calling: Hi Oliver! Thank you for speaking to us. Please may you start by telling us a little bit about Tribes, and your character Dan?
Oliver Johnstone: Tribes is a family drama about a pretty eccentric family. When we meet them they’re gossiping and bitching about people whilst having debates about the nature of art, music and philosophy. They have three children and the youngest, Billy, is deaf. Sylvia comes into Billy’s life and that relationship profoundly affects both the family and the relationships within the family. Billy was raised as a hearing child – they made the decision not to teach him sign language – and when Sylvia makes Billy learn sign language it blows the family apart.
I play Dan, who is the eldest child. He is stuck at home trying to finish his thesis and going through quite a messy break-up. He is deeply affected when Billy decides to renounce the family – it sends his mental health spiralling and he becomes very troubled because of it.
CC: This is the play’s regional premiere – is it exciting working on such fresh material?
OJ: It really is. I feel that a lot of people in the audience can relate to it. There are some knowing laughs when Dan and Ruth are horrible to each other because they’re brother and sister, and most people can relate to that. Audiences understand just how loving and damaging a tight-knit family can be – a sentence can be both loving and filled with spite at the same time. I find it very exciting because of how relevant it is, and how much it speaks to the audience.
CC: You’ve performed on West End stages, opposite legends like Anthony Sher and been in a Bond film. What’s your career highlight so far?
OJ: Wow – that’s difficult! [Long pause]. Working at the Donmar, because I grew up in London and my parents used to take me to that theatre a lot. When I got offered a role there it was really special for me – it was a childhood dream realised. It was really cool standing on a stage where I’d watched so many amazing performances – ones that had inspired me to become an actor in the first place.
They programme so well, and even though they have quite an old audience it doesn’t stop them doing really exciting stuff. Everyone who works there is great – it’s such a lovely theatre – and I’d kill to work there again.
CC: How have you found Sheffield? Sheffield Theatres are consistently voted as some of the most popular regional theatres.
OJ: I love being in Sheffield town and working at Sheffield Theatres – it’s incredible. Rob Hastie, the artistic director, is programming really diverse, exciting work and giving young directors a chance – which is fantastic. It truly is a very welcoming place!
There’s a café near where I’m staying, in Nether Edge, called Home Made and I’ve pretty much spent all my wages there because the food is so good!
CC: Any big career goals?
OJ: Just to keep playing interesting parts! It sounds a bit tame, but it’s true. The part – that’s what keeps you excited about the work. I would like to work at The National as well. I remember seeing Peter Pan there when I was mini and thinking: “God – I’d love to work here!” So a career goal is to work at the National Theatre.
CC: What’s on your cultural radar at the moment?
OJ: I just finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom – which I absolutely adored – and I’m going to go straight onto his next book The Corrections. I’ve been listening to quite a lot of old music recently. I like Tame Impala – I played Currents on repeat for an entire year! I love that album. I saw them at Glastonbury in 2016 and they were incredible.
Glastonbury has such a community feeling. Despite the shit that the country is going through everyone gets together, is kind to one another and has a good time. It reminds you that it’s not all crap! Theatre-wise, Titus Andronicus at the RSC is incredible: I really enjoyed that. I’m also really looking forward to watching the film Dunkirk!
Tribes runs at Sheffield Theatres until July 22. Tickets from £20.