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The TV and film actor returns to his theatrical roots in Saint Joan
Although Jack Davenport is well-known to theatre fans for his performance as Tony-winning director Derek Wills on the TV show Smash, the 45-year-old British actor has never been on Broadway…until now. As the Earl of Warwick in Manhattan Theatre Club's revival of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, he's carrying on his family's lauded theatrical legacy.
The only child of the late actor Nigel Davenport and performer-director Maria Aitken (who earned a Tony nomination for helming The 39 Steps), Davenport grew up in theatres with his parents, and made his professional stage debut at 18 in a Welsh production of Hamlet. While he's spent most of his career working in television and film, being in a Broadway show "is something I always wanted to do," he says. "But given that I can't sing at all, my opportunities in a Broadway sense are somewhat limited. And so when the right thing came along, I kind of had to go for it."
No singing is involved in his role as a nobleman who conspires with clergymen to bring down Joan of Arc, the 15th-century peasant girl who led the French army to victory over the English and challenged the supremacy of the Church. But Davenport's droll performance does have its near showstopping moments.
"Warwick is pretty much a nonbeliever so he's not hugely respectful of the men in robes," he says. "We live in a much more secular world now and I think it probably doesn't hurt to have a character floating about who's a bit less enamored with the priests."
Davenport's Warwick is particularly winning in a scene opposite the Bishop of Beauvais (played by Tony-winning director Walter Bobbie in a rare return to acting) in which the erstwhile enemies discuss their rationalizations for getting rid of Joan (portrayed by three-time Tony nominee Condola Rashad).
"I became sort of fascinated with this very wordy, dense scene which appeared to be about the deathless subject of feudalism versus theocracy," says Davenport. "I was intrigued as to how on earth one could make this entertaining, because it's a part of the play which doesn't really advance the plot particularly, but it absolutely underpins the entire philosophical reasons for the action. You can't really tell the story without it."
Davenport says Shaw's play, written in 1923 and last performed on Broadway 25 years ago, is surprisingly contemporary and amusing. "I found that Shaw had actually cooked up some rather good jokes about possibly the driest subject known to humanity," he says.
But Tony-winning director Daniel Sullivan also credits Davenport with making the character so engaging. "Jack is totally connected to the actors he's performing with," Sullivan explains via email. "That and great intelligence and a lively sense of humor complete the admirable picture."
Davenport says his Saint Joan experience has reminded him of how much he enjoys doing theatre, from the camaraderie of the 19 cast members to the long preview period that allowed them to hone their performances. "There are things about doing a play, which if you've done a lot of film and TV for a while, become hugely appealing -- like rehearsing," he says.
In fact, he credits the rehearsal room scenes in Smash, which was about the behind-the-scenes drama of putting together a musical, with whetting his appetite for the real thing. "The thing I most loved about it was I would sit in fake rehearsal rooms all day watching these incredibly talented young people do something that was very difficult and make it look really easy and be just astonishingly bravura in the process," he says. The same could be said about what Davenport does in Saint Joan.
Janice C. Simpson writes the blog Broadway & Me..
Top image: Jack Davenport in Saint Joan. Photos by Joan Marcus.