When Tom Burke was cast to star in the BBC series Strike – based on JK Rowling’s crime novels – his profile shot up beyond the expectations of those who knew him from other TV roles and an extensive career in the theatre. There’s a new Strike in preparation but for now Burke’s back on stage in Don Carlos – and this time he’s producing too.
Burke has starred in three series of the TV drama about Cormoran Strike, the former British military policeman injured in Afghanistan who becomes a private investigator in London.
Writing as Robert Galbraith, Rowling published the fourth Strike novel two months ago. It’s called Lethal White but Burke admits he hasn’t read it and has no idea what happens.
“It’s not that I don’t want to,” he says. “But my head has been full of Friedrich Schiller (the playwright of Don Carlos) and we’ve been touring the play with a cast of 13. When you tour you even start to calculate how few pairs of socks you can get away with – so taking a big hardback book would be a problem.”
Burke is 37 and acting is in his blood: his parents David Burke and Anna Calder-Marshall have enjoyed long careers and his godfather was Alan Rickman. He says an actor’s career is often about grabbing chances.
“I love doing Strike for the BBC and I saw their success might allow me to try something adventurous on stage. If you get to the point where you have some wiggle room in your career, have a wiggle.”
Burke chose to set up a mini-tour of Don Carlos, Schiller’s 1787 tragedy of passion and dark political intrigue in the Spanish court.
“It was a play I’d discussed years ago with (Israeli director) Gadi Roll and I was delighted when Paul Jepson said yes to doing it at the Northcott theatre in Exeter and then we added Southampton and now the Rose, Kingston. If you do Schiller in central London your audience might know it already – but if you’re outside London you’re probably asking people to try something new.
“But I’m convinced people want new theatrical experiences and Don Carlos is the perfect play to do in 2018. It has a breadth of political pessimism on the one hand and idealism on the other.
“It has a lot to say about duplicity and we knew audiences would want to see something about idealism. Don Carlos is the new hope for a people yearning for a leader to speak for them.”
Burke and Roll have set up a company as a vehicle for their ambitions called Ara, meaning altar. “But Gadi and I knew we were going in the deep end doing a play so steeply about politics.
“Creating a touring show of this size has been an incredibly big struggle – for instance we only had a four-week rehearsal for a big play. In that time Gadi pulled it all together but after the first part of the tour you head to another theatre which will have other requirements so it’s hard work. I enjoy regional theatre but it’s not that we only want to do stuff outside London – probably it will vary project by project.”
Burke has a clear-eyed view of the financial realities of presenting serious plays outside a few specific cities.
“A lot of regional theatres depend on the money they make from the Christmas panto and getting stand-up comedians in. I don’t think public money should just be poured into plays if the public doesn’t want those plays. But it’s a complex debate because where does that process begin and those tastes begin? There’s too little money in this country going into arts education and into lots of other services.”
Filming for Lethal White is pencilled in for late 2019 and Burke looks forward to getting back to playing Strike. “Maybe this is there in many great characters but I think key to him is that deep inside he’s on the run. In some ways he can be a centred, grounded individual but then you realise he’s had an incredibly strange and darkly exotic childhood. All that ‘man’s man’ side to him may be an insulation for some very raw nerve – that’s what stirred my curiosity.”
Viewers may be hoping finally things will stir too between Strike and his former secretary – now business partner – Robin Ellacott, played by Holliday Granger.
Burke has no inside track on what may eventually happen. “I suppose it will have to develop in one direction or the other – but the author is so gifted with the slow burn of relationships without ever losing their intensity. When Holly and I have been filming we’ve found a real nuance there.
“Sometimes when you’re doing TV you’re aware there are voices behind the scenes saying these characters definitely need to share a kiss by the end of episode two. But maybe they never will. As an actor and maybe as a viewer you just want it to play out moment by moment and see where that gets you.”
Don Carlos is at the Rose theatre, Kingston until 17 November.