Actor David Benson: ‘As a gay Corbynite, it’s interesting to play Boris Johnson on stage’
- Credit: Richard Davenport
He’s played Kenneth Williams, Noel Coward and Frankie Howerd, but David Benson has taken on his biggest challenge yet – London Mayor Boris Johnson.
The ardent Corbynista stars in the satire Boris World King at Trafalgar Studios – a stone’s throw from Whitehall.
“I first played Boris to fill in at a rehearsed reading. Then when they offered me the part I said: ‘Me play Boris?” says the Kentish Town actor.
“I am miles away from him in every way. His social class, his whole physicality. His hair. My MP is Jeremy Corbyn and I am a total Corbynite yet here I am playing this man who’s the polar opposite politically.
“I didn’t think I could get away with it but I said: ‘Get me a blonde wig and a suit and I’ll do it!”
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In Tom Crawshaw’s play, the gaffe-prone, mop-topped Etonian enters on a Boris Bike and confesses his goal of winning a major Comedy Award - on top of his political achievements.
Amid homilies on wiff-waff and ancient Greece the would-be Prime Minister gradually reveals the steely ambition lurking beneath the buffoonish bonhomie, while his long-suffering assistant trails in his wake.
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Benson found the script hard to learn “as you would expect from Boris it’s verbally complicated and packs a lot in.”
He’s also grasped Bojo’s idiosyncratic bumbling gait and erm sexual charisma - a running gag sees him handing out his card to women in the audience.
“As a gay man it’s interesting to play a very full on heterosexual. When I talk to the women in the audience the way Boris would, you can feel them recoiling. For the first time I got a sense of what it must be like to be that kind of person who does what he wants, has no compunction whatsoever about annoying these women and no concept of personal space.”
During the original Edinburgh run, Benson was amused that the “absurd premise” that a man who is already an MP and London Mayor would aim for a fringe comedy award. But tellingly some audience goers believed it.
“People were coming to the box office wanting their money back because they thought it was actually going to be Boris. Extraordinary!”
Benson’s research included watching Michael Cockerell’s critical documentary with footage of the politician wriggling on the hook. But he’s aware many members of the public and media have fallen for his persona.
“It’s the hands, the hair. Everyone loves his hair! It’s a very engaging act, like all such acts there’s an aspect of the real man there. He uses it very cleverly to swat away criticism. At the beginning of the show he is very much the buffoon or ‘character’ the kind of person the public think they might want to have dinner with or who would liven up a party.
“He presents sections from his own life that he wants to show the audience but as it goes on it starts to reveal more than Boris wants and you start to see what happens when his trick doesn’t work. By the end you get a sense of who is underneath the carapace but he remains essentially a mystery.”
Benson who is known for his one-man shows, draws a parallel between politicians and actors commenting that despite the impression that Boris makes off the cuff remarks, like any actor he’s sticking to a script.
“Nothing politicians say is unconsidered or it would get them into trouble. But actors and politicians are doing opposite things. A good actor tells the truth about the world, politicians mostly try to disguise it and use dissembling oratorial skills to convince and persuade us.”
The 54-year-old wrote his one-man play Think No Evil of Us that referenced his own childhood and the experience of having a short story read out on Jackanory by Carry On Star Kenneth Williams.
He went on to play Noel Coward in TV sit com Goodnight Sweetheart and his own one man show and 60s comic Frankie Howerd.
“Playing real people gives you a short cut to a characterisation and their basic character traits, but it is still an act of imagination. Your job as an actor is to go deeper, to get to the emotional heart of it and find who is behind the mask”
Asked if he’s worried the real Boris might drop by the show after a session in the House, Benson says: “It’s quite a wounding piece but he has a towering ego and the hide of a rhinoceros so perhaps he’ll like it. This is going on the doorstep of Whitehall and it’s our chance to expose and ridicule the people with power and money.
“I really believe satire is healthy in a democracy. Shows like Spitting Image are a check on a politician’s sense of importance. The job of the satirist is to look at things in great clarity and not pull your punches or spare the powerful.”
Boris World King runs at Trafalgar Studios from April 19 to May 14.