Theatre Interview: Graham Hopkins – The Lesson, Or Delighting In Discombobulation

October 20, 2022


Graham Hopkins plays the Professor in Eugène Ionesco’s gripping play, The Lesson at the Market Theatre.


Live performance: the thrill versus the nerves – where are you on that curve as a new show starts?

It’s always a bit terrifying. Nerves are essential because they indicate that you care; that what you’re doing really matters to you. But nerves can be debilitating if you don’t get on top of them. At best, the energy of nerves can be harnessed to work for you. It’s exhilarating.


How do you find a balance during rehearsals or other preparation?

Rehearsals are always challenging. Fun and energising, but fearful too. With every role, I go through a phase when I wonder if I’m going to crack it. Is it going to be a total fail or, worse, merely unexceptional competence? It is all-consuming but – like people in many professions, I guess – one has to  learn to leave the work out of one’s home life.


In a best-case scenario, what are you looking for in a role? What is the main basis for that decision – the script, the people involved, the challenge to your skills, the impact (positive or negative) it might have on your life in general, or perhaps something else?

All of the above. One doesn’t want to feel one is doing same thing as the last time. One wants to flex the muscles and test one’s skills. And the people involved are always crucial. At its best, theatre is a storytelling team sport. Occasionally, one has to deal with people who think it’s all about them and one tries to avoid working with such people. Mostly, I’ve found, theatre actors recognise that each player, no matter how small the part, has a uniquely vital role to play. Those who seek the glory or the hollow accolades of celebrity should rather avoid live theatre, in my view. They’d do better to become a social media influencer or something.


Acting is often a vocation, a thing you can’t not do. How true is that for you now? Has it changed over the years – for practical, perhaps banal reasons? And how do you, or would you like to, keep your calling front and centre in your life?

As a youth, I was shy and reserved. Timid even. I might never have acted had I not been thrust, unwillingly, into a house play at school, dressed as a policewoman, replete with gym slip and enormous boobies made of rolled rugby socks. Standing terrified in the wings, I thought I might well die that night. And as I marched on stage the hall of schoolboys roared and howled, not, as I’d feared, with derision, but with laughter and delight. And so the bug bit. I know, because a friend of his later told me so, that the responsible schoolmaster somewhat regretted having introduced me to acting; that without his influence I might have been something altogether more worthy and significant in life. But he need not have worried. I can think of no more engaging, diverse, stimulating and hugely fun way to have spent my working life and I shall continue to tread the boards as long as I am able. So…thanks Mr Robert Hofmeyr. You did me a great service.


What are the toughest expectations to deliver on – all the way from the first audition to the end of the run?

Well, apart from “getting it right” there is always the challenge, in a long run, to keep each performance fresh and original. The longest run I’ve done was in the UK – touring a musical comedy. At the end, I could have done it in my sleep, but one has to remember that every audience member has made the effort to be there and is seeing it for the first time. I have myself occasionally been disappointed by seeing tired performances of otherwise excellent, long-running plays on London’s West End. Fortunately we don’t have very long runs here.


Tell us about your current production, and what makes your character interesting to play?

The Lesson, by Eugene Ionesco, is part of the canon of The Theatre of the Absurd, a term coined by theatre critic and academic Martin Esslin to describe a particular genre of existentialist theatre that emerged in Europe in the wake of World War II. This production has been adapted by director Greg Homan, to reflect the current verities of a post-colonial South Africa. All of which sounds pretty deep and serious, but it’s actually a very funny piece, which invites the audience to laugh at the absurdity of life while exploring a labyrinth of academic discombobulation. How’s that for a sentence? Come along and have a laugh!