Toby Stephens Returns to the New York Stage to Investigate the Media In ‘Corruption’

Stephens talks about playing Tom Watson, the member of Parliament who pursued the investigation of the UK phone hacking scandal. “We’re still living in the aftermath of all the stuff that came out," he says.

Toby Stephens as Tom Watson in Corruption at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. T Charles Erickson

“I love doing what I do on stage,” declares Toby Stephens, more joyfully than boastfully. Call it a (very) early calling. The gifted offspring of genuine theatrical royalty (Sir Robert Stephens and Dame Maggie Smith), he plies the family trade with distinction on two continents. He can’t help it. 

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When Broadway first saw Stephens, he was drawing double duty in the 1999 revival of Jean Anouilh’s Ring Round the Moon, playing patrician twins who turn into romantic rivals. A quarter of a century later he has finally returned to New York in Corruption, where he is one of just two actors in a company of 13 who does not play multiple roles. 

Stephens portrays Tom Watson, a British Parliament member who helped squeeze a death rattle out of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World for hacking the phones of thousands of celebrities. Playwright J.T. Rogers adapted Watson and journalist Martin Hickman’s 2012 book Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and The Corruption of Britain into Corruption, currently getting a world-premiere staging from Bartlett Sher at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, the site of the duo’s previous Tony winner, 2016’s Oslo

Sanjit De Silva as Martin Hickman and Toby Stephens as Tom Watson, the authors of Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain, in Corruption at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. T Charles Erickson

In the 25 years between his New York stage sojourns Stephens has been busy doing his thing “in an industry that’s becoming more and more precarious,” he tells Observer. That’s meant keeping “a variety going,” trading movie roles like the Bond villain Gustav Graves in Die Another Day with a turn as Hamlet with the Royal Shakespeare Company. “I still try to balance theater with making money. That’s what it comes down to—finding that balance.”

What was the lure that brought Stephens back to New York? “A number of things,” he begins. “Firstly, I worked with Bart and J.T. on Oslo in London and enjoyed the experience. Secondly, Corruption is a new piece. Really interesting new writing is quite rare these days. Lots of revivals are done, but I really want to work on something new.” And then there’s focus of Corruption: the media, privacy, and truth itself. “It’s an important subject because we’re still living in the aftermath of all the stuff that came out. It’s still on-going.”

It’s not been an easy play to bring off. “There’s a point in rehearsals and previews where you suddenly feel like ‘Oh, I’m in control of this. It’s not in control of me,’” he says. “What I hate is when you aren’t quite in control of the material. It’s just beyond your fingertips.” The challenge of Corruption was its complexity. “The play is freighted with information, and you have to get that across and make it all seem naturalistic and real. You must leave the audience believing this narrative.” 

Adding to the complexity, the show changed throughout previews, a process Stephens calls “terrifying,” though, “that’s how J.T. and Bart work,” he adds. Some of the changes were subtle, others were major. “By the time we reached the first night, it was a very different piece than what we started with. The skeleton was there, but the way we told the story was different. They tightened it up, cut things, rearranged things, even put new scenes in.” Still, there was enough time to work with the material that by opening night Stephens had found the control he was looking for. “I had fun because I knew it was cemented and this would be the piece we’re doing.”

How deeply did Stephens delve into the character of the man he was playing? “Not very,” the actor admits. “I know of him because I’m aware politically in the U.K. I read the newspaper and follow current affairs. I’ve watched him through the years. In terms of research, I believe the play is the play. That’s my main touchstone. I have to trust J.T. has done thorough research, which he has.” 

Tom Watson, Toby Stephens, playwright J.T. Rogers, and director Bartlett Sher on opening of Corruption. Tricia Baron

In fact, Stephens opted not to read the book the play is based on. “I find doing loads of research—beyond what the material is— isn’t helpful. All that does is confuse and muddy what you’re doing,” he says. “My business is to do the play I’m given and make my character dramatic and nuanced enough for audiences to deal with.” 

So for Stephens, the research is the script, though he does admit one addition to get Watson’s accent right. “He’s got an accent that’s quite broad when he’s talking as himself, but when he’s in Parliament or talking officially, it’s slightly subtler,” he says. To nail that, he watched “a lot of videos—but up to a point. I don’t want to do an impersonation.”

Tom Watson was a surprise guest at Corruption’s opening. “Thank God, I didn’t know that he was present,” Stephens sighs. “Afterwards, Tom said, ‘If this play was done in London, it would be a lightning rod.’ I think he’s right about that. It’s still very fresh in people’s memory. There’s still legal action against newspapers for hacking.” Though Watson had read the play before seeing it, Stephens thinks he was slightly stunned by the whole thing. “Actually seeing it, seeing somebody else playing you, is a completely different thing. You’ve got someone who has lived the real story, and you’re doing a simplified version of that. But I think that he was very, very impressed by the show. ”

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Toby Stephens Returns to the New York Stage to Investigate the Media In ‘Corruption’