Can old Shakespeare still pack out the West End? David Mitchell is about to find out. This weekend, the comedian and panel show institution takes on the role of the Bard in a stage version of Upstart Crow, Ben Elton’s television sitcom about the trials and tribulations of the world’s most famous playwright. At 45, the role will be Mitchell’s West End debut. Isn’t that a daunting prospect. ‘Ask me in a few days,’ he laughs.
We meet at the Dominion Theatre, one of the largest in London, where Mitchell is busy rehearsing the play. For ten years, the Dominion housed Ben Elton’s last big West End project – the Queen-inspired musical We Will Rock You. Despite never winning over the critics, the show ran for over 12 years, becoming one of the most successful in the West End. Upstart Crow itself will play at the smaller Gielgud Theatre, but you can see why the Dominion has offered up its rehearsal space: this is the house that Ben Elton built.
Upstart Crow is, as you’d probably expect, a much less glitzy affair than We Will Rock You. On television, the show practically revels in its cheapness, using only a handful of wooden sets and opting to be filmed in front of a live studio audience (a decidedly retro format most associated with the unfashionably downmarket Mrs Brown’s Boys). It’s a format, Mitchell notes, that at least makes for an easy – and less nerve-racking – transfer to a live stage show.
Plot-wise, Upstart Crow the play picks up two years after the television series. It’s 1605 and Shakespeare finds himself in a bit of a pickle. His last two plays – Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well – have met an underwhelming response. What’s more with a new King on the throne – James I – Stratford-upon-Avon’s finest finds himself desperately need a big hit to win the favour of monarch and save the theatre from the new puritan threat.
Having played the role for four years Mitchell is fully aware of one downside to being Shakespeare: the make-up. Two nights prior to our meeting, he presented an award as Shakespeare at the National Television Awards. The preparation – wig, make-up, costume – took over an hour. For the stage show, the company is working on a streamlined process which should take about half that. That must come as somewhat of a relief? ‘Well, yes,’ he says. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, when there are matinee and evening showings, he’ll spend much of the day in costume.
What’s it like working with Ben Elton? Fantastic apparently. ‘I’ve never known a more active brain,’ says Mitchell. ‘I’m used to people whose brains are firing pretty quickly but I think Ben is just the most amazingly creative person. You can see that from his output: in twelve months, he’s published a novel, done a stand-up tour and written this play. And that’s just a normal year for him.’
High praise coming from a man who’s rather prolific himself. These days it’s easier to count the television panel shows that Mitchell isn’t involved with: from QI to The Unbelievable Truth and 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown. We discuss the biggest gig in his roster: Have I Got News For You? Hosting it has become slightly trickier, he admits, in what he describes as ‘quite humourless times’. Humourless not in terms of the source material, he clarifies, but in our declining ability to take a joke.
‘There’s a tendency for people to judge a joke purely on the grounds of whether they agree with the person telling it,’ he says. ‘The idea that we should take a step back and mock the whole situation – and that that’s a societally-useful thing to do – seems to have taken a bit of a knock. It’s grinding comedy down and it’s f**king tedious.’
Then there’s the hyper-polarisation. Crack a gag that upsets any of the main tribes – from Corbynistas to Brexiteers -and you risk a furious backlash on the internet. Does that really bother him? Sometimes. ‘It’s almost as if you know that – if you make this joke – then it’s going to rain for three days, wherever you go,’ he says. ‘You can tell yourself that it doesn’t really matter and it’s only rain, but part of you still thinks it’s better to save yourself the bother and not say it.’
We turn to his next big outing: a supporting role in Michael Winterbottom’s Greed, a biopic of a scurrilous billionaire widely believed to be based on retail mogul Phillip Green (played by a deliciously-caddish Steve Coogan). The film had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year and arrives in cinemas this month. Does he share Winterbottom’s outrage at the super rich?
‘As someone who is broadly supportive of capitalism,’ – not a typical opener for a BBC comic – ‘I find it frustrating when you see the system functioning in a way that clearly has no benefit to humanity. Take the stock market – the whole point of it is to facilitate trade and bring capital to enterprise. But then you see how it became warped into the casino banking world. And that’s not the societally beneficial thing that a stock market initially was meant to be.’
Hang on a minute, is this Mitchell speaking or his Peep Show character – Mark Corrigan, the browbeaten defender of all things establishment? ‘Well, I think capitalism is preferable to a mass redistribution of wealth,’ he explains. ‘But when it ends up with a whole company falling to bits and the bloke at the top buying super-yachts in the south of France… That’s – well, it’s hardly the f**king invisible hand that Adam Smith talks about it is it? It’s just nuts.’
It’s a topic you suspect that Mitchell – widely regarded as one of the larger intellects in British comedy – would be happy to chew over for some time. We’re deep in conversation again – about one of the stranger gigs in his back catalogue (voicing a talking dog in a public awareness film about the dangers of cocaine) – when the intercom sounds to call him back to the rehearsal. Righting the world’s wrongs will have to wait: Shakespeare beckons.
Upstart Crow plays at the Gielgud Theatre between 7 February – 25 April. Tickets can be bought here.