Robert Glenister on Brian Friel, Hustle and working with brother Philip – one day
Actor Robert Glenister will be in Ireland this week to take part in the annual Lugnasa FrielFest. He spoke to David Roy about tackling Faith Healer in Donegal and Derry and why he's yet to appear onscreen with brother Philip
WHILE he's best known for his roles in TV hits Hustle and Spooks, Robert Glenister has also enjoyed a long career in theatre. Earlier this year, he starred in Alice Always at London's Bridge Theatre, while other recent productions include the Harold Pinter plays Moonlight and Nightschool at London's Harold Pinter Theatre and the West End revival of Glengarry Glen Ross alongside Hollywood star Christian Slater.
Glenister's latest stage role brings him to Ireland this week as part of the annual Lughnasa FrielFest in Derry and Donegal – but doesn't actually involve a 'stage' at all.
The Watford-born performer, whose younger brother is fellow actor Philip Glenister (Life on Mars, Living The Dream), will star in a promenade performance of Brian Friel's 1979 play Faith Healer, a monologue-based piece centred on Frank, a travelling faith healer who has been working across Scotland and Wales.
During the course of the play, Frank's manager Teddy, Frank's wife Grace and Frank himself recount their memories of these healings, gradually revealing the details of a tragic event.
Glenister (59) will be playing Teddy in the production alongside Patrick Bergin as Frank and Dearbhla Molloy as Grace. Indeed, he's actually in the middle of reading the play when we call to discuss the project.
"It's quite a dense piece – the more you read it, the more you discover about it," enthuses Glenister. "It's fascinating. It's like reading a poem, really. It's very evocative, you know, about memory – are we listening to what really happened or are we listening to people's warped memory of what happened?"
The promenade nature of the piece at FrielFest means that audiences are bused between different locations, each featuring a different actor waiting to begin a memory-based monologue.
"From what I gather, [the production] actually crosses the border from Derry to Donegal," Glenister says, pointing out how this is entirely appropriate given the recurring themes of nationality, narratives and history in Friel's work over the years.
"The very first time I came across Brian was when I went up for the first London production of Translations. I got pipped at the post, and then I went to see it when it opened. It was the most extraordinary piece of writing. He's just so delicate and so subtle. He makes his points without ramming them down your throat but it's all the more powerful for that."
While the actor admits that solo performances can be a challenge, he tells me he's also really looking forward to the Faith Healer experience.
"I've never done 'promenade' as such, but I did a 90 minute Neil LaBute monologue called Wrecks at the old Bush Theatre," he says. "It was in this tiny room above a pub which seated less than 100 people and it was the most terrifying thing I've ever done in my life. I remember having to smoke all the way through this play and there was a particular line where I had to say to the audience 'Do you mind if I have another one?'
"This woman turned round and said 'Oh no – I wish I could have one!' The intimacy of it was extraordinary, so hopefully that same intimacy will be created when we do Faith Healer."
Another reason Glenister is looking forward to taking part in FrielFest is that he once actually got to work with the celebrated Omagh-born playwright directly – an experience he still cherishes.
"Many years ago, when I was a real baby actor, I did Brian's version of Fathers And Sons [the novel by Ivan Turgenev] at the National," he tells me.
"He was around a lot so we all got to know him quite well. He was just such a lovely, gentle, easy-going man. I wasn't that great in it, if truth be told – I sort of bit off more than I could chew – but it was just an amazing experience to work with him on that piece and have him in a rehearsal room to answer questions and solve problems.
"He was an absolutely charming, supportive, optimistic, gentle man – but obviously with deeply held passions and convictions."
From 2006 to 2010, Glenister was starring in two of the most popular BBC series of their day, playing Ash 'Three Socks' Morgan in slick long-con drama Hustle (a role he portrayed in all eight seasons of the hit show from 2004 to 2012 alongside screen veteran Robert Vaughn) and ultimately traitorous ex-home secretary Nicholas Blake in spy serial Spooks, a period he remembers fondly despite the hard work involved.
"Often, we used to do them at the same time, " he recalls. "I'd be doing Hustle during the week and Spooks on Sunday, with Saturday off – which was great. I rather enjoyed it, but it was a lot of work just trying to get the lines into your head."
Around the same time, Glenister was almost part of an even bigger TV phenomenon, but sadly it wasn't meant to be.
"I went up for a part in series two of Game of Thrones," he tells me. "I didn't get it in the end, but I did have friends who were in it who had a ball. I remember them talking about 'doing this thing in Belfast' and then suddenly it blew up into the biggest TV show of all time."
While both Robert and his brother Philip have enjoyed long and varied careers, thus far they have only acted together once, in a Radio 4 adaptation of Sam Shepard's play True West directed by Robert's wife, Celia de Wolff, in 2016.
"People have suggested that we do something together on the telly, playing brothers or something," Glenister reveals. "We're still busy doing individual things – but maybe, one day."
:: Faith Healer, Lughnasa FrielFest, August 9 to 11 with Dearbhla Molloy, Patrick Bergin and Robert Glenister / August 16 to 18 with Amelia Bullmore, Paul McGann and Pearce Quigley. Tickets, times and full festival programme at Artsoverborders.com