Don rises to challenge in play

It can’t always be easy for an actor tackling a well-known role to dispel memories of another performer’s success in the part.

In playing Hoke, the chauffeur in the production of Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy this week at Derby Theatre, actor Don Warrington is following in the footsteps of Morgan Freeman, who played the role on Broadway and then reprised it for the Oscar-winning screen version.

Don, however, is relaxed about any comparisons, and will be playing the role from today until Saturday.

“Of course, one has a memory of Morgan Freeman’s performance,” he says. “Great as it was, I’m not Morgan Freeman and I can only bring what I have to offer to the character.”

“I don’t think that one can ever reach definite conclusions about characters you play,” Don argues. “I experience the character in a subjective way and it’s a fluid business. One can change one’s mind. But there is also a lasting truth in the text which you try to find in the character, just as the author intended.”

Don hasn’t appeared on stage for several years, which was one reason why he was tempted by the suggestion that he play Hoke in this production.

“It seemed to me to be a pretty good offer and I hadn’t been on stage for a while. In a way, theatre is more consuming than screen - consuming rather than demanding. With stagework, you rehearse and as a result of this process, you come to certain decisions. But working on film often seems to me to be a series of rehearsals with no particular conclusion.”

Don is careful to stress that Driving Miss Daisy is a three-hander and that there are three-way relationships binding the characters.

“I’d say that they all need each other. Boolie needs Hoke to solve the problem of his mother, Hoke needs Boolie to provide employment and Miss Daisy needs assistance whether she wants it or not. Like all relationships, the one between Miss

Daisy and Hoke has its own dynamic but during the course of the play the two of them grow closer.”

The play spans a quarter of a century in the lives of the characters, from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, and quietly evolving in the background, American society is changing, a development that is given greater prominence in the course of Driving Miss Daisy.

“The play takes place at certain moments in American history but it doesn’t deal directly with these events, such as the growth of the Civil Rights movement,” explains Don. “But we see through the characters how attitudes are changing and in a way this enables Hoke to reveal more of his feelings.

“It’s interesting to have the themes of both racism and anti-Semitism in the play. You wonder which has a higher position in the hierarchy of redneck Southern prejudice – the Jews or the blacks.

“You don’t learn much about Hoke’s personal life, although you hear about a daughter and grandchildren but the nature of the play is that white people don’t know much about their black counterparts.”

In recent years, Don has been seen on television, often in non-acting roles. He was both a twinkle-toed contestant on Strictly Come Dancing and a grumbler on Grumpy Old Men. But, rather to his bewilderment, the public still associate him with the classic 1970s sitcom Rising Damp, in which he starred with the formidable line-up of Frances de la Tour, Richard Beckinsale and Leonard Rossiter.

“It was my first job after drama school and it was what it was. It’s not something which I think about much of the time. The other cast members were all very nice and I always felt part of the team. Leonard was as demanding of himself as he was of everybody else and if he held you in high regard, that it was fine.”

During the run of the show, black actors were largely absent from the television screen and seldom if ever cast in something as popular as Rising Damp. Did Don feel at all isolated or in any way a representative of all black performers?

“I always tried not to be any kind of standard-bearer,” he insists. “That sort of pressure is very hard to cope with. Of course, I had to make choices about the sort of roles I played but I’d say that I never took parts that were shameful or that ever degraded black people. These days, it’s better. There is more visibility for black actors. The world was very different then.”

Don is philosophical about the inevitable ebb and flow of an actor’s career. How would he sum up the story so far?

“Do I feel that I’ve done well? Or at least OK?” says Don rhetorically. “It depends on which day you ask me. I’ve no idea why the ‘phone rings on certain days and stays silent on others. On a good day, I think that everything’s fine. On a bad day, I wonder if I should have gone for something else. But what’s done is done and I’m still here, after all.”