How Douglas Hodge shaped Willy Wonka for the stage

Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka

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As he brings Willy Wonka to life on stage in the new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory musical, actor Douglas Hodge reveals the influences behind his portrayal of one of Roald Dahl's most intriguing characters.

In his dressing room at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Douglas Hodge is flicking through a giant scrapbook.

On each page, a famous face: Charlie Chaplin... Salvador Dali... Fred Astaire... David Bowie... Mick Jagger... Prince... Michael Jackson.

There's even Thom Yorke from Radiohead.

"It's the way he dances," explains Hodge. "He's so tiny and bird-like."

As soon as he knew he had got the role of Willy Wonka, Hodge began collecting pictures of people who might inspire him.

As he turns the pages, he pauses at a 1980s photo of David Bowie from his Let's Dance period.

"Bowie has been in my mind as someone who disappeared from the public for a long time and then emerged. A strange exotic creature - he seems to inherit a tradition of enigma and exclusiveness."

From another page stares French writer Marcel Proust.

Proust? "He was allergic to almost everything he touched and he hardly ever went out of his home."

Hodge closes the scrapbook, and adds: "They are spurs really, and then you have to forget them all."

Production manager Patrick Molony gives a behind the scenes tour

The Charlie and the Chocolate Factory musical, based on Roald Dahl's book and directed by Sam Mendes, officially opens on Tuesday night after a month of previews.

The show is one of the most eagerly anticipated in the West End this year, and comes hot on the heels of another musical Dahl adaptation, Matilda, which scooped awards galore and transferred to Broadway.

It is Mendes' first project since directing Skyfall, the most successful James Bond film of all time.

Start Quote

I said to someone the other day, I think I look too much like Johnny Depp. Which is not something I thought I would have a reason to say in my life - ever!”

End Quote Douglas Hodge

"There are so many departments on this show like music, choreography, design and costume - you need someone who's made those big movies to oversee all these collaborations," says Hodge.

The 53-year-old actor says the single biggest joy has been working with Mendes on "making something from the ground up".

The huge technical requirements of the show have meant a fair amount of what Hodge describes as "fiddling and finessing" during the preview period.

The first scheduled performances in May were delayed due to problems with the delivery of a piece of stage equipment.

"When you're making anything brand new you have to factor that in," says Hodge.

"Essentially what's happened since the first preview is the Great Glass Elevator has come into the production and I now have a vanishing trick. It's a terribly technical thing, but we wanted to get the story on stage and then keep working on the other things."

When Hodge's casting was announced last autumn he was playing another larger-than-life figure, Cyrano de Bergerac, on Broadway.

 Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka with Jack Costello as Charlie and cast members. Photo by Helen Maybanks Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka with Jack Costello as Charlie

His next job was perfect preparation for Willy Wonka: reading the audio books of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and its sequel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.

Hodge never read the books as a child. "I was talking to my mum about it," he laughs. "She thought they were too scary. I actually read his darker things, the Tales of the Unexpected, when I was an adult.

Who is Willy Wonka?

David Rudd, of the University of Bolton, discusses some of the many theories about Dahl's character.

"Many theorists have noted how masculinity is associated with hardness, separateness, whereas the female is seen as softer and more fluid.

In these terms, Willy Wonka controls his factory but always keeps a distance. His own form of transport, the glass elevator, is geometric, solid, angular, and completely unlike the more organic forms elsewhere in the building.

In this reading, of course, WW gets a son (and heir) without any intervention of females, with all three generations of men in the elevator.

Wonka also sits in the tradition of the carnival-esque, trickster figure.

The children go into a magic space and learn some quite traditional values and come back renewed.

Roald Dahl is often played up as this very subversive writer, but the actual ideological messages are incredibly reactionary: children should know their place.

In the book it is the children who like watching TV and eating who come a cropper.

Charlie is the meek and mild child - and it's the meek who shall inherit the earth."

"But it wasn't really part of childhood at all in the way that it was of Sam's or most of the people in the cast. They've grown up on it."

How easily did he distance himself from the big-screen versions of Willy Wonka played by Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp?

"It's a skill that you develop as soon as you become a Shakespearean actor. All my career I've stepped into Hamlet or Romeo or Coriolanus or Titus Andronicus.

"I think the Gene Wilder performance is quite brilliant, but it is filmic. It's a sort of transcendental, druggy laid-back thing that you can't do in a 2,500-seat theatre in a musical."

Hodge begins to laugh. "I said to someone the other day, I think I look too much like Johnny Depp. Which is not something I thought I would have a reason to say in my life - ever!"

Hodge describes his take on Wonka as "quintessentially English".

"He's a brilliant, almost autistic, genius inventor: reclusive, separate and an innocent child. He relates far better to children than he does to adults."

We get onto the subject of Jimmy Savile. Had there been discussions about how to play the role of Willy Wonka in the post-Savile era?

"I don't think that element exists at all in this story," says Hodge. "There's a lack of sexuality about the whole Willy Wonka world which is to do with sweets and toys and imagination and innocence. It would be a real shame if that did impinge on it.

"It's something you have to consider but hopefully it's all honest and true. You instinctively know what's appropriate."

Douglas Hodge (left) and Sam Mendes Director Sam Mendes (right) with Douglas Hodge in rehearsals

Douglas Hodge's career has embraced stage, TV and film work as well as directing and composing.

Nominated for an Olivier Award four times, he won in 2009 for his role in La Cage Aux Folles. A year later he won the Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for the same role.

On the big screen, the actor has starred alongside Reese Witherspoon in Vanity Fair and Russell Crowe in Robin Hood.

Later this year he will be seen as Paul Burrell in the Diana, Princess of Wales biopic starring Naomi Watts.

He has completed work on his own musical, Meantime, a love story set in Heathrow Airport. "I'll worry about that when we get this juggernaut on the road, but I'd love it to come to life," he says.

The gates of the Wonka factory. Photo by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg Sweet dreams: The gates of the Wonka factory

For the moment, Hodge has other matters to attend to - such as learning to roller skate for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

"It's nearly killed me. But we haven't put the roller skating in the show yet.

"We just had this idea half way through - and off I went for roller skating lessons every morning.

"I can show you the bruises. But it may be that it's not right. It may be just gilding the lily."

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is in previews and opens at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on 25 June.

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