Underbelly star Erroll Shand talks to Dionne Christian about his latest role.
What: The Lion in Winter
Where & when: Pumphouse Theatre, May 31-June 9
Ask Erroll Shand why he keeps being cast as the bad guy and he grins cheekily and answers: "I don't know - I mean my kids don't think I'm a bad guy."
Then he looks slightly worried as though concerned people might think he really is bad rather than the warm and funny father-of-three he comes across as during an interview on a Sunday afternoon at the Pumphouse Theatre in Takapuna.
Chances are that at ages 6, 4 and 2, Shand's children weren't allowed to watch their dad's star turn on TV3's Underbelly: Land of the Long Green Cloud where he was chilling as drug lord Terry Clark. It was a truly convincing performance.
Watching it, theatre-maker, drama teacher and actor Rob Owens knew he had found the actor he wanted to play King Henry II in James Goldman's classic play The Lion in Winter. If he could persuade Shand to join the cast, which includes Louise Wallace as Henry's estranged wife, the formidable Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, he could realise a long-held dream to stage the play.
Wallace says she'll play Eleanor, who lived to the age of 80 and was one of the most powerful women in Europe, as an intelligent and determined but vulnerable woman motivated by love for her husband. "A queen is a queen; a kick-arse woman is a kick-arse woman."
Given the strength of Eleanor, Owens says he needed an actor with stamina and a majestic presence to equal her as Henry; qualities he says Shand has. But would Shand want to do theatre and, more to the point, would his schedule - becoming increasingly busy with TV and film roles since Underbelly - allow him time?
In a happy coincidence, Owens found himself filming a TV commercial with Shand's daughter, Anais. Given the opportunity to talk directly with Shand, Owens grabbed it and, as the saying goes, the rest is literally history: The Lion in Winter is historical fiction grounded in fact.
It's 1183 and Henry II has called together his family for a Christmas reunion at his castle in Chinon, France. Three sons, all with their eye on his crown, join Henry's wife Eleanor, whom he has had imprisoned for 10 years, his comely young mistress (who's actually meant to be marrying son Richard) and their guest Philip II of France.
"I think everyone has had a bad Christmas with their family at some time or another," says Owens, "but this does take it to a whole new level."
The complex family dynamics attracted Owens to the play and though he is fascinated by the High Middle Ages, he's bringing the action into the 21st century and styling this family as an alternative to the current British royals. That way, he says, the audience can concentrate on the dialogue and family exchanges, particularly those between Henry and Eleanor, rather than the period costumes and sets.
Shand says he was intrigued by Owens' reworking of the play and, as luck would have it, had a gap in his schedule that would allow him to make a welcome return to theatre.
"It's good to get back to theatre. It tests you in different ways to film and television and it's even better to be playing such a great character. I love complex characters and Henry II is certainly that. He was driven by power, of course, and wanted to put his stamp on everything but he wanted that to endure so his name and legacy would live on. With an historical figure, there's so much you can feed into the performance."
The Lion in Winter is produced by Owens' Tadpole Productions, now the theatre company in residence at the Pumphouse. Tadpole plans to stage up to three shows a year at the North Shore venue using a mix of experienced and emerging actors.