A saucy and ambitious devil is dancing in this circle: the fascination of Antonio

Tom Campion as Antonio photographed by Leon Csernohlavek

Tom Campion as Antonio photographed by Leon Csernohlavek

Tom Campion talks to Daniel Fulvio about the challenges of playing Antonio in Inky Cloak’s queer adaptation of The Duchess Of Malfi.

DF: How did you prepare for the role of Antonio?

TC: This was a bit of a difficult one: when you prepare for a role, everything comes from the script. And although this adaptation was out there and bold, not a lot of the text was changed. That said, for Antonio, everything in his world was changed. And more so than any other character – apart from, perhaps, The Duchess. In Webster’s original, Antonio is in this world for the love of a woman. But in our version, by making The Duchess a biological man who wishes to live as a woman, that turns everything for him. The Minister (the Cardinal in Webster’s original) has still got politics, Ferdinand has still got his family, but Antonio’s relationship is different because of this transgender relationship. So in terms of preparing beforehand, I found it quite hard until we got into rehearsals. Then I could see what La JohnJoseph was bringing to The Duchess and how I might respond.

You were quite hard on Antonio before we started rehearsals. Why was that?

One of my friends, Tom Bateman, played Antonio at the Old Vic opposite Eve Best in Jamie Lloyd’s 2012 production as a loving guy who’d completely fallen head over heels. But there were just a few things in the text that Antonio says that made me a bit suspicious as to his motives.

Such as?

His lack of confidence to confront people on behalf of The Duchess. For instance, hiding with Cariolo (Cariola in the original) offstage in the scene where Ferdinand threatens his sister with the dagger. Or the scene in our version where he emerges from The Duchess’s lodgings after their marriage, where he does not own up to Bosola as to where he’s been, but tries to play it off quite badly, despite it being obvious. It’s things like that, which suggest to me a complete lack of confidence. It’s almost selfishness.

Was Marlon Brando’s Stanley from A Street Car Named Desire an influence on you in preparing for the role?

The whole look and the period of when Brando was in Streetcar was something I wanted to encapsulate. I got the impression that was what you guys wanted: that big, brooding manly type! Antonio doesn’t really take any shit, especially coming from the East End. So Brando’s Stanley helped for aesthetic reasons, in terms of his physicality, and once I had that in my head I felt like that was a good base to work from.

At the beginning of our version, we added a silent scene in which you are beckoned into the Club Malfi, our underground 1950s queer world, by your friend Delio. Why was Antonio drawn to that kind of club in the first place?

I think it’s two things: curiosity, but also a desire for power. That was the other thing I was going to say about Antonio’s journey through the text: his game. This low-born man works his way up through society’s ranks to become this husband of The Duchess. So curiosity lures him to the club but also selfish gain.

The underground 1950s queer world was a space where men from very different social backgrounds could meet.

It’s almost like a way out for Antonio.

So why does he fall for The Duchess?

At the start it is for purely selfish reasons, and the curiosity of it. Then there is a moment where he finds he’s enjoying himself. He does actually end up having feelings for The Duchess. He gets a bit muddled, which is why when everything goes to shit, when Ferdinand enters the chamber, he panics and acts the way he does. When his life is threatened, as well, that is when he has a bit of a reality check, ‘I’ve got myself in too deep.’ In the scene at the train station in our version, when Bosola delivers the message that the brothers want to see him, he’s thinking, ‘God, this is not good.’

When does Antonio realise that The Duchess is not a biological woman? Is it a moment that happens on stage? Or off stage?

I think maybe he has his suspicions before but he refused to believe them, until that moment on stage when she puts the ring on his finger and he asks, ‘What are you?’ That’s when it starts to click. And then it suddenly becomes apparent, in the next few things that are said, that she was born a man. But then also that this could work too.

So that explains your jiggling leg in that scene. When the Duchess remarks that ‘You do tremble’ your feelings are overtaking over you, you’re overcome.

He gets lost in these new worlds: the underworld of this queer scene, and this fancy world in which The Duchess calls home.

One thing that was great to watch was how Antonio’s cockiness increased as the run went on. You did some interesting stuff, such as working against the line by somewhat sarcastically uttering, ‘Oh, my unworthiness.’ Also, rather than doing a traditional, cautious reading of the line ‘But for your brothers,’ you were teasing her.

I was becoming more comfortable in the journey that I made for the character. Because I always knew that to a certain extent that’s what you guys wanted with the brief of the play, but I think it came with re-run, re-run, re-run. Going through it, going through it, going through it. Still finding things throughout the play so you could make him more cocky and more arrogant. If we were doing it for longer, I’m sure I would have maxed out at some point.

What are your thoughts on Antonio’s sexuality? Is he gay, straight … or, quite possibly, neither of those things?

He’s a curious man! His relationship with The Duchess starts as curiosity. I think he is inclined to bisexuality but then he thinks that a transgender operation will happen as they were just starting to take place in the period when we set our version. That’s where he thinks it’s ultimately going. So it will be a man and woman in this relationship in the end. So, therefore, it’s okay – coming from his background.

Someone who saw the show commented on the sexual tension between you and Bosola in your confrontation with him outside The Duchess’s lodgings, with you in your underwear and him literally trying to sniff out what’s been going on, and how it made sense of Bosola’s later sexual dalliance with Julian. Was that something that you and Chris Tester (who played Bosola) did consciously?

Not consciously – but now I wish I’d played on that even more! It’s great if Antonio made Bosola, played by Chris as this really macho man, uncomfortable by flirting with him. I didn’t realise that, but it makes sense. I probably would have played that up even more: ‘Are you scarce warm, and do show your sting?’

Did you end up learning to like Antonio in the end?

Oh yeah. Especially with this brief you came up with the play. Maybe I would have wished there were more scenes towards the end of the play: the turnaround between leaving The Duchess at the train station and trying to kill The Minister in the final act, I thought that was a bit of a hard jump, actually. So I would have liked more scenes to progress that journey over, but I did like playing him a lot. Antonio is fascinating.