One Man Lord of the Rings
One homage to rule them all. Andrew Johnston speaks to the man playing 100,000 characters
This weekend, one man will play 100,000 characters on the Belfast Waterfront stage. In One Man Lord of the Rings, Canadian actor Charles Ross condenses 683 minutes of film and 1,216 pages of book into 70 minutes of performance.
Ross's acclaimed solo show features all the hobbits, orcs and Uruk-hai from JRR Tolkien's classic tale – albeit in reduced form. 'I'm not playing everyone specifically,' Ross explains. 'I only have to focus in on 45 characters or so. The novelty is you take something that's so massive and detailed and you pare it down to really nothing. So, it's almost making it "Mickey Mouse" intentionally. It's almost this great big mime show.'
As for which character gets the strongest response from fans, Ross says it varies: 'You never know who the audience is going to have more of an affection for. Sometimes it could be Treebeard, or it could be Gandalf, or it could be Legolas. I actually do a decent Legolas!'
Ross is speaking from the back seat of the BMW Sports Wagon he shares with tour manager Christine Fisichella and support act John Cooper. The trio are currently hurtling towards the ferry port en route to Northern Ireland. Touring with One Man Lord of the Rings – and his earlier show, One Man Star Wars Trilogy – has introduced Ross to a world of experiences he might not have enjoyed had he remained a jobbing actor in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
'It's the most incredible thing ever,' he says. 'It's funny that when you love something it can give you a ticket to ride – or in this case, almost a passport. I've been able to see more of the world and do more of the things that I didn't even allow myself to dream I'd get a chance to do as an actor.'
With One Man Star Wars Trilogy, Ross had only the films to work from, but with One Man Lord of the Rings, as well as Peter Jackson's Oscar-winning movie trilogy, he has the three volumes of Tolkien's book – The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. Indeed, it was the printed version that Ross fell in love with as a boy.
Whether a fan of the books, films, both or neither, Ross says there is something for everyone in One Man Lord of the Rings: 'It's kind of a weird crash course in Lord of the Rings. It would definitely help if you had at least seen the films once, but let's say you have a group of friends that are going to go out and they're trying to convince you to come out with them, then I guarantee you it will be a fun fit. It's a very frenetic, very theatrical, weird kind of show to watch. At the very worst, you'll enjoy a couple of ciders and put a smile on your face.'
Star Wars creator George Lucas personally endorsed One Man Star Wars Trilogy, after Ross paid an impromptu visit to Skywalker Ranch. The show went on to storm the Glastonbury festival and London's West End, as well as playing official Star Wars events and regional theatres across the UK and Ireland. Ross even made a private performance for Vin Diesel on the set of The Chronicles of Riddick. The ubiquity of both Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings allows Ross to take the shows almost anywhere.
'It was a personal passion that led to the discovery of that very thing. I had no concept of how big it was, how big it is – Star Wars especially. Every country you go to, every city you show up in, you realise it doesn't matter where you come from – it's everywhere. I remember being in Dubai and getting off the aeroplane and there was actually two Stormtroopers waiting there at the arrivals gate for me. I think people are attracted by the story of Frodo or Luke Skywalker, the little guy versus the big old world – a person being whisked off to adventure.'
Peter Jackson had significantly more financial support – not to mention his own digital effects studio and an army of extras – when filming The Lord of the Rings, making Ross's achievement all the more astonishing. The 35-year-old British Columbia native brings Middle-earth to life with nothing more than a pair of elbow pads and a basic music score.
Ross's passion for the project made the initial lack of cooperation from Tolkien's estate all the more frustrating. The rights-holders blocked the project for four years after its 2005 debut. 'I never really understood what the problems were,' says Ross. 'It wasn't anything to do with me per se. The powers that be were arguing amongst themselves and I kind of got caught in the crossfire. I became one of those many people that were trying to get permission to do something – like a show, like I was doing, or to make action figures or t-shirts – and they couldn't license anybody.'
The legal troubles were resolved last year, but Ross still rankles at the lost time. 'By the time the dust had settled between the clashing powers that be, I think it's safe to say that their franchise had cooled down, had dried up. That's kind of sad that they would lose that strength of their brand while they're niggling over their product. I keep waiting for The Hobbit to come out, because I think it'll probably reinject people's interest.'
Still, Ross is doing OK, with a sold-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe and rave reviews across the board. Even Gandalf himself, Sir Ian McKellen, came to see a performance, in Vancouver. 'If you liked the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you'll love Charlie Ross’s version,' McKellen gushed. 'And if you didn't, well, at least his is shorter.' The presence of the iconic British star was a magical, if slightly surreal, moment for Ross.
'It was really wonderful,' he says. 'It seemed like the whole audience knew that he was there. It definitely set the stage for being, not necessarily nervous, but just ultra-aware that I wanted to do a particularly good job that night. The show went extremely well, and afterwards, meeting him, he was just a complete gentleman. We ended up talking for about an hour, and then a couple of weeks later I ended up having lunch with him on the movie set he was working on.'
McKellen clearly took the show in the spirit it was intended, but have the fans been as understanding? 'If a person is a total purist then they may not have even gone to see the films, so they more than likely would be very sceptical about coming to see me,' says Ross. 'But if they're that intensely tied to their belief of how the show should be, or how the films should be, or how the books should be, then I can't really do anything about it anyway.'
So, with One Man Star Wars Trilogy and One Man Lord of the Rings under his belt, what is next for the DIY dynamo? One Man Godfather Trilogy? Indiana Jones? James Bond? 'I've thought about it a lot,' says Ross. 'I'm still in the market for it, let's say that. But it has to be something that I actually love, otherwise it's going to come out in the show. I don't want to mock something. I'd rather do an homage.'