Adoring Colin Morgan

(2018) Evening Standard

May 23, 2018 • Written by Jessie Thompson

Colin Morgan: 'There's a real war against mediocrity right now'

It’s 2007 and Colin Morgan is waiting for the bus back to Glasgow, having just performed in his final-year drama school showcase in London. He gets a phone call: it’s a casting director asking him to pick up a script from her office.

“I was like: ‘Actually, my bus is leaving’. She said: ‘I’ll meet you on the street’. She literally came along, I looked for this woman with a script, she handed it to me, I took it and ran,” he tells me. (And he still made the bus on time.)

The script was Vernon God Little, the director Rufus Norris, and it was to become Northern Irish actor Morgan’s widely lauded professional theatre debut. Now 32, Morgan — best known for playing the title role in the BBC series Merlin — is about to appear for the first time at the National Theatre, now run by Norris.

He’ll star in a major revival of Brian Friel’s Translations, a deceptively gentle title for a play that’s essentially about an act of cultural violence. Set in the 19th century, a group of English Royal Engineers turn up in rural Donegal and start renaming everything with anglicised names. Morgan plays Owen, the son of a local schoolmaster who returns to the village after six years in Dublin and acts as a go-between for the English and Irish.

It’s a timely revival, Morgan thinks, because the way we communicate with each other is changing. Memes and emojis are opening up or destroying expression, depending on how you look at it. “The English language coming to Ireland at that time was like a new technology. You adapt to survive or you stay true to your roots and maybe risk extinction. I feel there’s that pressure today: if you’re not part of it, you’re missing out,” he suggests.

Morgan grew up in Armagh before moving to Glasgow when he was 18 — “There are no acting schools in Northern Ireland, so if you want to go you have to leave” — and tells me he probably wouldn’t be living in London if it weren’t for his work.

Is telling Irish stories important to him? “I’m always working to bring characters close to home.” He warns me that a film he’s attached to about the Easter Rising is having “a difficult journey”, but getting films made in general is a battle. “Some of the best scripts I’ve ever read aren’t getting made.”

Morgan is reticent when I ask him about his childhood in Armagh, an area hit hard by the Troubles (“politics is part and parcel of growing up in Northern Ireland”). He’s a reluctant interviewee in general — at points I feel like I’m forcing him to endure a traumatic dental ordeal — but when his guard occasionally drops it’s obvious he’s someone who feels things deeply.

He lights up when we talk about trips to Ireland — “It’s good, isn’t it?” he says, his voice full of pride — and when I mention my own love of Irish literature I get the impression that he could talk about it for hours. (Seamus Heaney is his favourite poet “of all time”.) When we discuss his total absence from social media and I tell him being on Twitter is like putting your head in a bin, he looks at me with as much sympathy as if I’d just told him I had a serious illness.

He’s less keen when I ask him if, given his modest background (his dad’s a painter and his mum’s a nurse), he wants to get involved in ongoing debates about acting and class. “I view my job as acting. So I don’t sit too comfortably with being put in the position of opinionated activist,” he says, slightly squirming.

The Olivier stage, where Translations will be performed, has weathered a string of flops recently but Morgan seems blissfully unaware of this. Anne-Marie Duff, who has starred in two critically slated productions there in the past 12 months, recently came into rehearsals to give the cast some practical advice. “Acting is a kind of spontaneous, mythical thing,” he says, “but when you put it on a stage you have to employ technical awareness and stagecraft.”

Performing at the National is a big tick on Morgan’s list — but what else? “Aw, what’s not on my list?” he grins. “I wanna be on every stage!” He’s also looking to write and direct his own work in future, and he has “things pending”.

His career is notable for its consistent quality. After making a name for himself in Merlin he’s starred in The Fall and Humans on the small screen. Stage adventures have included the UK premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Gloria and a revival of Jez Butterworth’s Mojo, and he stars as Lord Alfred Douglas in Rupert Everett’s big-screen Oscar Wilde biopic, The Happy Prince, released next month.

What’s the knack? Good advice, it turns out — his agent has had to talk him out of many projects. “I have to say I’m not a good at seeing the wood for the trees. I only see what I could do with a part, and whether I would be excited about that,” he admits.

He’s not sure what’s next, but his hunger for great work is palpable. “People are taking risks. I think there’s a real war against mediocrity right now,” he says. “Our director Ian Rickson said the other day, ‘What we’re doing is good — but we’re aiming for the sublime’. I went: ‘Yeah, we are’. I think that’s a good motto for life.”

Translations is at the National Theatre, SE1 ( until August 11