Interview: Dominic Rye on playing the Mad Hatter at Derby Theatre

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Dominic Rye loves the buzz of live theatre and is enjoying thrilling audiences as The Mad Hatter in Derby Theatre’s current production of Alice In Wonderland.

“It’s absolutely magic,” he says. “You find what you love in each play and moving from one great moment to the next is like Tarzan swinging through the trees. For me, it’s that exciting.”

Derby Theatre is presenting a new adaptation by Mike Kenny of Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland this Christmas – with favourite characters like the Cheshire Cat, Mock Turtle and Dormouse all present and correct. But Dominic believes there is no better character to play than the Mad Hatter.“I was at Leicester University ten years ago and in my first year we did Alice in Wonderland there with the uni theatre group and I played the Mad March Hare. So in a decade I have moved up one city in the Midlands and one part in the billing,” he laughs.

“The Mad Hatter is a truly iconic part. I was in Oxford where they have this Alice in Wonderland shop and there is all this imagery around from the story and it’s generally Alice and this mad man in a hat.”

The phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ pre-dates Lewis Carroll. It came into common usage in the Victorian era because of mercury poisoning suffered by workers manufacturing felt hats, who often ended up with neurological damage and could appear to be ‘mad’ as a result.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in 1865 and Carroll was probably inspired by the phrase to create the Hatter but never described him as ‘mad’ - although the Cheshire Cat at one point does.

Dominic believes that getting the right balance between eccentricity and humanity will be the key in bringing the Hatter to life.

He says: “The script gives you the clues as to how ‘mad’ he is. The whole concept of madness is very interesting. I think with the Hatter, he simply doesn’t do anything that is expected. He has his own code – he’s very polite and expects everyone around him to be polite but it’s his unpredictability that makes him so intriguing and I’m sure there will be plenty of humour involved.”

Dominic has seen the 2010 Tim Burton film in which Johnny Depp pays The Mad Hatter.

He says: “There is a bit of pathos in there for the Mad Hatter and I think you have to make him seem human if that is to work. I think that’s the challenge when playing him – he has to be eccentric but also human enough so that you have feelings for him.

“Our show is especially written for Derby Theatre so what The Mad Hatter goes through will be different. I think when I look at a part rather than thinking about how it has been played by other people I look at the script and ask myself ‘What is their intention? – What is the audience turning up that day expected to get from the play?’ That’s my acting training and that’s my starting point. That’s the crucial building blocks for creating the role.”

When Derby Theatre was looking for actor-musicians for the production, Dominic knew he had the right skill-set for the show but didn’t necessarily see himself as the Mad Hatter.

“I thought this was the show for me as I have a lot of instruments on my CV. I got the call for the group audition and had fun with the script and some other exercises and a week or so later I was told I had the job.

“Derby Theatre is a really well-respected regional theatre producing quality work in house and I wanted to be part of that. To get the role of the Mad Hatter as well is a bonus as that is something that is going to be rather fun.

“I saw the animated Disney version as a child but hadn’t read the book until I was cast in the show back at university. It’s an absolutely potty world and you are left pondering what the morals are or is it just a dip into the realms of wild fantasy? It’s the freedom of thinking anything can happen and maybe you just have to put aside what you think and go with it.

“In all the great children’s stories the parents die or disappear early on and the kids are left in a big scary world to fend for themselves. Here we have a child who goes alone into this magical world and makes her own adventure and that’s what captures the imagination of other children.”

Dominic played the accordion in his audition but has a host of instruments on his CV including the piano, guitar, ukulele, banjo, Appalachian dulcimer and the Great Highland bagpipes.

“I’m not expecting much call for the bagpipes in this show,” he laughs. “I know the Mad Hatter’s eccentric but I don’t think he’s also a mad piper!

“I can play lots of folk instruments so maybe I can play a little tune at the tea party but I’ll be really interested to see how the musical side of the show develops.

“There is a lot of musical talent and styles on board so it will be interesting to see what comes out the other end.

“The most exciting day of any production for me is when you turn up on day one and the designer presents the little model box of how things will look on stage and all the hard work really starts. That’s when the show will start to take life.”

Dominic was a late starter in theatre but, having made the big leap, has never looked back.

He says: “I’m originally from Warwickshire so Stratford was always very close – my mum took me to lots of Shakespeare plays and it was the funny ones that always struck me. It was the guy who got the laughs that I wanted to be. I remember watching Much Ado About Nothing and Benedick at one point just raising an eyebrow and the whole house erupting with laughter and I thought, ‘I want to be able to do that’.”

Instead Dominic pursued a more academic route at university and it wasn’t until he was playing piano for pin money at a stage school in Leicester that he decided to chase his dream.

“The girls there, at 18, without fear would go to London and audition for all the big dancing schools and I saw them following their ambitions and not being afraid at all and it inspired

me - and at 23 I thought that if they could do it I shouldn’t be afraid.

“Now all my previous lives seem to make sense - such as studying languages which helps with Shakespeare, and all the instruments I can play means I get auditioned for more types of job. So in a roundabout way I came to what I want my life and career to be.”

Alice In Wonderland is at Derby Theatre until January 7. Call the box office for ticket availability on 01332 593939.

Photo of Dominic Rye as the Mad Hatter by Robert Day