Cast Notes: James McArdle/Louis

Ah Louis. Ah James. Where to start? How do you start with an actor who essentially re-writes what it is to be the most difficult roles in the play? What I actually started with was a blog about how hard this was to write, and my personal relationship with Louis which is here. Short version I love, and am a bit in love with this messed up jumper wearing mess of a man, and for me he’s always been the heart of the play. In this version what James McArdle did was at once wonderful and heart stoppingly difficult to watch. 
Louis for me then, is also the most important character in the play- he divides people. He’s a brave character for Kushner to write- he was Kushner’s response to the ‘assumption’ that people went from ‘disco bunnies to Florence Nightingale’, the idea that everyone is naturally able to care for sick loved ones, and that everyone copes. And for young men unused to caring responsibilities, that was often a big ask. Louis as written doesn’t ever act out of malice, selfishness sure, immaturity, definitely and fear most of all.  He’s overbearing, overwrought but he gets unfairly labelled as cruel, unfeeling when in fact Louis’ problem is exactly the opposite- he feels far too much about everything and doesn’t know what to do with it. There’s a little bit of Louis in all us-whether it’s the neurotic insecure side, the side that has a mouth that runs away from them or frequently a foot in it, and the side that doesn’t hold up under pressure. But more terrifying perhaps for some audiences that Louis, in McArdle’s hands becomes very relatable, and understandable. And that is the skill that McArdle makes that decision honest, real and awfully relatable, deep down that if we all took a long hard honest look at ourselves, there are very few of us who don’t understand why Louis does what he does.
McArdle builds Louis again from the ground up. I find his version of the character at once unrecognisable from anything else I’ve seen but also the very essence of what I feel like I’ve been banging on about regarding Louis for ten years or more. Louis is a very vulnerable, insecure and complicated character. His actions are terrible, he isn’t, another mistake to make is the idea that he doesn’t or never really loved Prior. His love for Prior is utterly, devastatingly at the heart of what he does. Everything he does stems from that- at the start of the play he’s a young man who hasn’t worked out a lot of his place in the world. McArdle himself has said that through what happens he works out what it is to love and what it is to be a man. And that’s the crux of him in many ways, he’s figuring out life, just as life falls apart- and so does he.
He said that for Louis, Prior is his ‘Goddess’ and that sense of sheer worship and an overwhelming love for him still comes through in everything he does. There’s a sense in terms of their wider relationship of him not quite believing his luck- to him Prior is this shinning beautiful being that he’s somehow ended up with and he’s not sure how. He plays the insecurity of that but also the overwhelming nature of it. He seems to be playing the first great love of Louis’ life (given they got together when he was probably 27 this seems logical) and possibly (in my own theories anyway) the only great love of his life. And for a young man, a young Gay man, that as much as ensuing events seem to overwhelm him- and Louis is a man easily overwhelmed. McArdle plays his love for Prior with a puppy-dog sweetness and a vulnerability, that we don’t see from Garfield’s Prior as easily. But Garfield is playing a Prior with defences sky-high because of the situation they’re whereas McArdle plays Louis with everything crumbling. Louis as written can read as hard, spiky full of politics and anger and not a lot else. But that isn’t the Louis we meet in this production, this Louis is a young man desperately in love and desperately scared of life, the world and what it is throwing at him.  McArdle’s playing Louis’ insecurities as in part borne out of a sheer overwhelming kind of fear of the love he’s found himself embroiled in with Prior. The way it comes over is that Louis isn’t quite dealing with this idea of a big love, a real relationship anyway, but it’s easy enough to carry on when everything is fine. When something big comes along- as Prior says- he can’t handle it. He’s a young man struggling with what it means to be a man, and what it means to love. It’s a simple thing, that normally young men get to work out with little harm than a broken heart or two. It’s unfortunate for Louis that the reason it falls apart is more serious than that.  But I never doubt for a second through McArdle’s version that he utterly loves Prior.
A credit also to the costume department for ‘designing’ a Louis that fits around McArdle’s incarnation- he’s scruffy and rumpled. None of his clothes fit properly, and have all seen better days (except perhaps the Tux for ‘spectral’ Louis) The battered trainers he wears everywhere including to work are a nice touch in that- Louis is nowhere near getting himself together in any way shape or form and his attire everywhere from his Grandmother’s funeral, to work to everyday casual is indistinguishable. It reflects a few things- the not-particularly well-off office temp, the young guy who hasn’t discovered a sense of style, and the cerebral nerdy guy who has never really thought of that side of things. Next to Prior and Belize’s fabulous ‘put-together’ looks, or Joe’s buttoned up straight-man look, it’s an important distinction personality wise, and within the gay community- where looks tell a lot about a person. Again, we look at Louis, as he probably does himself, and wonder how such a fabulous Queen as Prior ends up with the scruffy looking boy. It’s a great touch, and the scruffy yet soft look reflects perfectly McArdle’s take on him. Despite all that he does there are no hard edges, and much like his oversized clothes he often feels like a little boy lost in some else’s world.  
And maybe at the start he’s a bit lost in Prior’s world. But McArdle is clearly playing a Louis who is devastatingly in love with Prior. Their first scene plays out some of the parameters of their ‘normal’ relationship- the only sort of glimpse we get into it before Prior’s news rips into what they know. When Prior bitches about the cat at Louis, McArdle plays it with a well-worn resignation of this is how their relationship goes. A slight sense of the power-play of their relationship at work- Louis’ need to be right offset slightly by the fact Prior is clearly in charge of this- and we later learn-probably many a debate but playing it, as affable and endearing McArdle creates a charm to Louis that will also be integral to the other side of his coin- the political animal- but in the relationship, even when goading Prior to debate, he’s sweet and funny.
We see this again in their scene in bed together when McArdle delivers Louis’ speeches on Justice are again, sweet endearing Garfield plays Prior as the boyfriend who enjoys winding up his easily led partner. The picture they create-sat in bed, with smaller, slighter Garfield curled up against McArdle- physically larger and stronger it’s a great momentary image of a Louis that could be- the one that is there steadfast and strong and supporting (literally in the staging) his boyfriend. The taller, heavier set McAdle with the slighter more delicate looking Garfield curled up against him makes Louis look like someone who in another life would have protected his vulnerable other half to the death. And that’s a good image, considering things to come.  A very tactile scene, Garfield is curled around McArdle who ‘pets’ (for want of a better description) him throughout the scene-they’re rarely not touching. And there’s a look from McArdle, that Louis when watching Prior is somewhere between territorial and in awe. It’s an incredibly sweet scene and one that shows aspects of the relationship, dynamics clearly worked out between the two- from whose side of the bed is which (and why they’re in the ‘wrong’ side to begin with). But above all things, the end to that scene shows the heart of McArdle’s Louis and the heart of why what he does gives us so much more of him.
 After Prior has given his latest litany of bad news, Louis begins to fall apart again. Scared of what is to come, scared for Prior. The lines themselves can be read as cold, unfeeling, selfish. He asks the very worst thing a person could ‘what if I walked out on this’. And it’s still a terrible thing to say, there’s no letting Louis off on that one, but in McArdle’s hands it comes from a place of absolute fear. The moment when he leaps down the bed to embrace Prior fiercely from behind has this sense of raw urgency to it, particularly as he clings on as if for dear life of them both.  Much is made of Louis’ actions in the play- and rightly so. But what McArdle teaches us about Louis is the humanity with which we need to view what he’s going through. He has managed to capture with a real empathy, what a person goes through when a loved one is (potentially) dying. For his Louis it starts innocently enough, in not being able to cope with the news itself.
The scene on the bench really encapsulates their relationship- bickering which covers a deep-seated love and affection on both sides. A well-worn established relationship, couched in domesticity. The conversation that rips apart Louis’ world comes out of nowhere, out of an ordinary not-quite-fight over the cat. And it comes off the back of his Grandmother’s funeral. It can be played understated, but I think McArdle’s reaction- the great heaving sobs and the inability to contain that wave of shock and grief pitches right- not everyone would react that way, but Louis, one who cries too easily, is prone to hyperbole would. It blindsides him and he has no time to prepare a reaction and McArdle gives us that, raw and honest. When he hears this news, and when he finds Prior on the floor covered in blood. The screams and sobs he gives out in that moment are frighteningly accurate for anyone who has ever come across a loved one in any kind of state like that. The raw grief of those two moments tell us so much about McArdle’s understanding of Louis’ reactions. It’s one of fear and love.  
His crying obviously is a feature of the play McArdle taking the line ‘I cry way too easily’ at its word. Perhaps if I’m, a little too much at times though it works as an excellent punchline when he seems to realise this fact- mid-cry in fact, there is something to be said for holding it back a little for the moments that matter. But that his Louis cries as frequently out of anger as grief is incredibly humanising. It might be Garfield that does pretty-crier better but in McArdle’s hands tears are something of a deadly acting weapon. His tears of frustration when Belize challenges him about Joe are all too real too. He plays that sense of overwhelming frustration that results in tears that the criers among us will all recognise. 
Underneath that physical/emotional tic there’s also an element of the brewing constant emotional battle that goes on underneath. Another example being the scene with Joe in the toilet which is beautifully played. Who among us hasn’t done that thing of sobbing our heart out in the work toilet only to pull it together when a colleague walks in and pretend everything is fine (while snot runs down our face). He does a perfect switch flicking moment there, distracting himself with Joe while half his brain is still clearly sobbing over that sink. We also see a little of sassy, fun Louis as well. It’s a perfect response once again to that ‘rabbit in headlines’ moment of being caught vulnerable like that, to flip instead to funny and flirty. And in an instance, we get a moment of the other Louis, the one before all this and perhaps the version of him that Prior fell for as Joe starts to. 
It’s easy to dismiss what Louis does as cold, unfeeling but McArdle shows us just the depth of the feeling. His ‘failing in love’ is indeed a failing, of himself, of action, but it’s far from unfeeling. And when he tells Prior he is bruised inside, he means it. The emotions that mostly come out in tears from Louis reflect the depth of his feeling for everything- that is his failing, really, the over-feeling of everything, from anger at politics to his love for Prior to his inability to deal with his illness. All of it is consuming and overwhelming- and so he cries way too easily.
Away from Prior directly there are two scenes for Louis that are mountains for an actor to climb- the ‘Angels in America’ scene and the ‘Have you no decency’ scene. Fairly similar scenes in that they are Louis using politics and philosophy to direct and deflect personal feeling. But McArdle plays them so contrastingly we get a real insight into Louis. Angels in America which is essentially a 15-minute monologue from Louis, is cleverly constructed and directed here to be a dialogue without Belize having many lines. As noted in the comments on Nathan Stewart-Jarret he turns the monologue into a dialogue but some brilliantly timed non-verbal acting and this helps McArdle fly with that scene. It’s a speech that could be dry and offensive and frankly dull if delivered wrongly. It’s shorter in the film version, probably with good reason. But McArdle makes it one of the funniest scenes in the play. Becoming at once that friend we all have and the friend we’ve all been in full flight of rant, he embodies the comments section on a blog post or Guardian article. The skill however, in sounding like this nonsense is this minute occurring to him is an incredible thing to watch. It’s also an infuriating thing about his performance- McArdle has affected a halting-half stutter to his speech patterns as Louis, punctuating much of what he says- particularly in these long speeches with pauses, um and hesitations. So convincing is he that there were times I seriously worried he’d forgotten his lines (I’m sure this particular approach came in useful early on where there was a distinct possibility this had happened). He halts he wavers, he stops mid-thought and seems to turn around, back up or go in a different direction. It’s an utter masterclass in making the speech sound as if he’s just thought of it. Oh, and he also sounds a little like Kushner himself. Make of that what you will…
The importance of how he plays the ‘Angels in America’ scene is that he makes Louis funny, endearing and in that relatable in that moment. And that with it he conveys why Louis is like he is-indeed why he has spent 20 minutes talking about politics. And what he doesn’t talk about. Firstly, if you don’t make Louis likeable at this point as an actor you’re digging a hole for your character that it’s impossible to dig out of- the audience is already against Louis, if you bore them for 20 minutes they aren’t going to come back. McArdle has already won half that battle in that his Louis is infinitely more likeable than many, but it’s still a risk that played wrong this scene can tip people over. What works is that McArdle doesn’t rest on the words or the theories Louis says- but why he’s saying any of it to begin with. He’s saying everything that comes into his head the moment it does, to avoid talking about the one thing he can’t- Prior. And as much as these ramblings do come from the depths of Louis’ political mind somewhere, McArdle plays it as if his mind is a runaway train, talking about anything, everything else but the thing looming large at the front of his mind. Again, pulling it back to the love and depth of emotion for Prior- and that he can’t actually deal with it. If I’m offering notes/thoughts I’d say for all that he plays it too funny, too nice. There is a slightly viscous undertone to Louis’ politics- a defence mechanism at work in which being the cleverest in the room is a way to ‘win’ and when he does that it shows a different side of his vulnerability. His game of one-upmanship on Belize, which stems from a rivalry for Prior’s attention or affections, is a part of this long-winded rant, and it’s a balance of a need for ‘victory’ and a need to deflect anything and everything in the ‘real world’ by way of politics. McArdle gets that and it’s a joy to watch. 
The absolute tour-de-force of McArdle’s performance is the ‘Have you no decency’ scene. Arguably one of the best scenes written in modern drama, McArdle runs at it and rips it apart, it’s utterly exhausting to witness and Russell Tovey almost runs to catch up behind him for the entire scene. This scene embodies Kushner’s personal/political dialogue, which of course is so often distilled into Louis. It’s a masterclass in a slow burn of a scene. McArdle’s Louis is already burning with anger at Joe when he arrives, but it’s quietly contained to the point that Joe doesn’t notice, and gives Tovey a chance to continue playing the innocence of a naïve Joe. From his cool ‘You’re in’ almost a little resigned to the fact this is a fight he’s going to have- for all Louis’ bluster McArdle plays him as conflict averse and there’s a hesitance to fully unleash the rage he’s feeling that holds him back in this scene and makes the anger he builds to even more forceful. What he plays on for most of the scene is the man driven mad by what he loves- in every sense. He’s rumpled, dishevelled from two days holed up researching and plotting his confrontation. When he delivers the first ‘Have you no decency?’ it’s unmistakably the tone of a betrayed lover confronting the cheating party. He delivers is lying down, not looking in Joe’s direction, and he stays there. His feigned indifference to Joe himself, makes him almost cat-like luring his soon to be ex-lover in and placing him exactly where he wants him.
McArdle plays a lot of Louis’ insecurities up in his performance, and the manifest physically, but here he switches this almost entirely.  
Physicality has been a key element of how McArdle’s Louis relates to other character- he’s bigger and seems physically stronger than Prior, their relative sizes add a certain dynamic to their relationship. While to Joe, while better matched in height and stature, Tovey’s Joe is clearly physically stronger. But in this scene McArdle squares up to him face on, and blocks him. It’s a confident and dominant gesture, and you believe that he’d go through with the threat of violence at that moment (is that the Glasgow in him?). But he also plays it as visibility and physically repulsed by Joe, well matched physically it also comes off as both frightening and faintly ridiculous at once. Grown men fighting but without real intent to hurt each other, there’s still a lingering sexual tension and a desire to exorcise something but not really to hurt one another. McArdle plays it- I struggle with ‘child-like’ but it is like when a toddler isn’t getting his way and resorts to physical means, Joe isn’t listening so he physically pulls him back to where he wants him to make him- or try to make him. He maneuverers him into place and then his pushes and shoves become like a wordless expression of the exasperation he’s feeling. Most importantly, there’s never any real desire to hurt Joe physically. It’s Joe’s temper that snaps first and he lands a punch with violence and it’s shocking. And whatever in the broader sense we feel about Louis’ behaviour in that moment he doesn’t deserve it, and McArdle gives us a knowing expression that says simply ‘this confirms everything I thought about you’ it’s dark and dangerous and is McArdle’s perfect punctuation to the scene.
This scene really demonstrates McArdle’s understanding of how Louis’ mind works- the parallel lines of politics and personal finally merge and he delivers it with fire and precision. All along Louis’ political and philosophical rantings act as a mask to deflect personal feelings or insecurities. McArdle has said that what Louis goes through teaches him about love, and about being a man. Louis goes through everything he goes through, does what he does both for love, and because he’s not yet sure what it means to be a man (or an adult). When he says the Kaddish for Roy he says, ‘I’m 32 years old and I’ve never been in a room with a dead body’ and although he says it flippantly (and pokes Roy’s face) this is the watershed moment for Louis, being in the room with a dead body, finding forgiveness which his immature self perhaps would stubbornly dig his heels in a rile against, something happens to Louis in that moment and that’s the ‘journey’ for him McArdle articulates so clearly. 
And what of Louis in the Epilogue?  A brilliant level of detail in his costume tells us something of where this version of Louis might be. Wearing ‘proper’ shoes for the first time for a start, and a shirt and trousers that are smart, appear newer and fit, and a smart coat, again that fits. The message seems clear that Louis has got himself together in those five years. McArdle plays him confidently in the Epilogue, with a self-assurance that is missing earlier, and ease in his skin that we previously don’t see. Some interesting body language around Belize and Prior lends itself to numerus theories of those years, and beyond. Notably the night McArdle and Stewart-Jarret started a play-fight in the background during the epilogue. But most of all there’s that quiet ease that leaves you feeling, whatever the ‘theory’ around Louis’ own life things seem peaceful, settled and he is at ease with wherever or whoever he might be.
I call this ‘James McArdle deliberately disproves my point by not dressing properly at the curtain call’ 
Having covered a lot of ground here on McArdle it feels like a barely scratching of the surface. That’s because there is simply that much going on with him. Louis is probably the most difficult and complex character in the play. McArdle gets under the skin of Louis in a way that hasn’t been done before. He’s utterly different and yet at the heart of Louis as written. He’s also an actor with an eye for the details, and there are probably hundreds of little gestures of brilliance across the performance. But he’s also an actor with an eye for the bigger picture, and this is a Louis we we see evolve and grow and even if he’s not fully realised at the end, that’s really the beauty of McArdle’s interpretation- not everyone is left fully changed so visibly. Perhaps some audiences need to see Louis as a real terrible person, to believe he does it out of selfishness or spite, perhaps that’s the only way they can reconcile the part of themselves that understands. But as an actor McArdle seems to have fully reconciled that part of him, in order to play him this sympathetically I think you have to really feel that understanding of why Louis does what he does. And in McArdle’s Louis that does all stem from his frightening somewhat overwhelming love of Prior. And the very real fear that comes with dealing with the reality of life and death for the first time that happens to come along with his love.
Much like Louis I could talk for days about McArdle’s version. I could praise and pick apart almost any gesutre. I’m dying to know how he got to that place as an actor and what he thinks of the character. He’s created something new and something so familiar and even months on I’m utterly fascinated. I’ve strayed away from making judgement of ‘ranking’ on ‘my’ actors here, but if you’re asking me (nobody is) James McArdle is the one that deserves all the awards in this ensemble. And if I continue living with this play for another 10 or 20 years I won’t see a better Louis. And as I said in my other blog, I have a lot of gratitude for what he did on stage too- on a personal note it’s rare something you know that well can move you that much, and still change you so much. Bloody James McArdle, you managed it.

Published by Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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