Interview: Samuel Barnett, “You can’t beat the thrill of a live audience”

Samuel Barnett rose to fame as Posner in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys at the National Theatre and on Broadway, racking up Olivier and Tony Award nominations in the process.

Even before he came to the attention of the international theatre community, Barnett had already marked himself out with his performance as Pantalaimon in the National’s adaption of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, alongside future History Boys Dominic Cooper and Russell Tovey.

Since then, he has returned to the National in Women Beware Women and The Beaux’ Stratagem, reunited with Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner in Allelujah! at the Bridge Theatre, and added another Tony Award nomination to his list of credits for his performance as Viola in Twelfth Night. He’s also starred in the title role of BBC America’s television series Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, opposite Elijah Wood.

Now, he’s doing something different. The surprise discovery of a family history of magic and illusion leading to the creation of his new one-man show MEDIUM which plays at Riverside Studios for three nights from 9 December. We talked to him about the surprise discovery and keeping secrets.

Q&A with Samuel Barnett

Hi Samuel, thanks for taking the time to talk to us as you prepare for your new one-man show, MEDIUM. How different does it feel to be preparing for an evening of ‘illusion and reflection’ compared to preparing for something like a Shakespearean role?

Honestly, the biggest difference is having to be myself on stage. It feels a lot more vulnerable. It’s potentially much more exposing.

Did it come as a surprise to you that you were descended from a long line of mentalists, conjurers, illusionists and magicians or, given your own successes on stage, had you always felt there was something there in your family history?

It’s a huge surprise and completely unexpected, I found it a bit weird I didn’t know anything about them, but it’s a real thrill to have discovered it. It’s really cool, but also really interested to find out about these men I’m related to and the kind of people they were beyond magic. It’s sort of like my own personal Who Do You Think You Are?

You spent lockdown studying your family’s routines – did you find them challenging or did the ability come to you naturally?

It was incredibly challenging; I am very much not a natural at this.

Without giving away any of the secrets, how much can you tell us about the show?

Even my closest friends don’t know anything about the show… so…

Has your vision for MEDIUM changed since beginning rehearsals?

Yes, it’s always changing. There’s actually two versions, sometimes three – depending on the audience reaction, the show could change.

When did the idea of a one-man show first come to you?

Nobody was really working during Covid, and I found it really difficult to stay creatively stimulated. When I discovered so much about my family history, it just made so much sense.

Can we expect further explorations of your illusionist side?

No. I think this show is a one off. I don’t really think I could do it again. It’s been incredibly draining.

You’ve already had a prolific career across theatre, television and film – and have now added a strand to that. How much do you change your approach to each of them and do you have a preference?

I’d hate to choose, I love them all so much, but you can’t beat the thrill of a live audience.

You were last on stage in Alan Bennett’s Allelujah! at the Bridge Theatre – do you have any plans for your next theatrical role?

Yes, there is something in the pipeline, but I’m not allowed to say anything! Sorry.

How would you describe MEDIUM to someone considering buying a ticket for the show?

I never like watching the trailers for films, because they inevitably spoil all the surprises. This is a show full of surprises. I wouldn’t want to tell them anything more than that. Just come see it.

MEDIUM is at Riverside Studios from 9 December to 11 December with tickets on sale now.