Tristan Sturrock on playing Blue Beard: 'It’s the role that’s affected me more than any other'

As Emma Rice’s acclaimed touring production of Blue Beard arrives in Edinburgh, the show’s star Tristan Sturrock tells Mark Fisher about his struggles with the role

Emma Rice is a director famed for the exuberant theatricality she brings to her work. Whether it was with her first company, Kneehigh, or her new one, Wise Children, she has breathed fresh life into classics including The Red Shoes, Rebecca, Brief Encounter and Wuthering Heights.

Always keen to engage directly with her audiences, she uses whatever techniques she has at her disposal – be that song, dance or puppetry – to keep things entertaining.

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But what happens when the story turns dark? The company’s latest show, gathering rave reviews as it tours around the country, is inspired by Barbe Bleue or Blue Beard, the French folk tale about a rich man with an unhealthy habit of locking his wives in a chamber before murdering them.

Yes, in theory, you could treat it as a gothic fairy story, something to be laughed off like a cheesy horror movie, but in the era of #MeToo, there is only so much misogynistic serial killing audiences will tolerate.

That is why actor Tristan Sturrock has found the role unusually vexing. “I struggled early doors with it,” says the father of three. “When you’re dealing every day with grotesque behaviours, it does stick. Even when you’re semi-joking about stuff to try and help you get through the day, it sticks. It took me the whole rehearsal period to go, ‘OK, how do I hang that Blue Beard coat up at the end of the day?’ It’s the role that’s affected me more than any other.”

It is not that he didn’t know what he was letting himself in for. A native of Cornwall, Sturrock first acted with Kneehigh in 1994, when Rice had also just joined the acting company. Moving increasingly towards direction, Rice went on to cast him in acclaimed productions including Tristan And Yseult (as Tristan), Brief Encounter (as Dr Alec Harvey) and Rebecca (as Maxim De Winter).

When it came to Blue Beard, Sturrock took part in a two-week research and development workshop before Rice went away to work on the script. There was also a second workshop before rehearsals began. It is a way of working that roots the production in the flesh-and-blood world of the theatre and gives the actors a more-than-average creative role.

Blue Beard PIC: Steve TannerBlue Beard PIC: Steve Tanner
Blue Beard PIC: Steve Tanner

“The beauty of working with Emma is you have an ownership,” he says. “She’ll say, ‘Make me an offer’ at a certain point in a scene. Just yesterday I was thinking that in a dance – it was to do with a gesture that I remembered from a silly impro way back. Things stick, mutate and arrive in the final piece along with an awful lot of stuff that is just chucked in the bin. The only way she knows to work is, ‘Are we going to play together?’ It’s like being in a playground. You have that shared twinkle and you can make-believe together. It means you can also go to the very dark places together.”

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To make the gruesome tale a little more palatable, the production presents Blue Beard as a suave magician – the type who likes to saw women in two – and makes plentiful pop-culture references. One critic called it Blue Beard: The Cabaret. With songs by Stu Barker, there is plenty of showbiz razzamatazz before things turn sinister.

“We play him as a failed magician,” says Sturrock. “You have the finesse of the showman and then it descends into domestic violence. He cons the audience in the same way he cons the women. What’s great about the show is it has great highs of theatricality and humour and then it twists and goes to the places that it should when you’re talking about this sort of thing.”

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Learning magic tricks is easier said than done. In 2004, Sturrock fell off a wall and broke his neck. Paralysed, he spent three months in hospital and took weeks to learn how to walk again. He told the story of his recovery in Mayday, Mayday, a one-man show that played on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012 to much acclaim, including a four-star review in The Scotsman. Now, 20 years on, he is fortunate not to have to think about it – except, that is, when it comes to manual dexterity.

“I don’t have feeling in my hands,” he says. “I always forget because I’m so used to it, but then you get a certain prop that’s really delicate. You navigate around it by thinking yourself into it and using muscle memory. You have to imagine picking the object up and it normally works. Through repetition, you get it. It’s more about reassuring other people: ‘Don’t worry! I won’t really throw the knives!’”

As well as telling the traditional story of the murderous husband, this Blue Beard adds a framing device about a brother searching for his sister. It suggests not all men are bad, even if the play is clearly set in a world of domestic violence and coercion.

“With all the Andrew Tates and toxic masculinity, I thought it was really important to say monsters are made, otherwise it’s pantomime,” says Sturrock. “But the focus is from the female perspective. You have Lucky, Trouble and Treasure, the mother, sister and the bride of Blue Beard. You discover a lot about where they come from and you get a very full sense of who they are. You invest in them and you are on board with them before you even meet Blue Beard.”

Blue Beard, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, 12-30 March,

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