Aidan Turner on his new West End show Lemons Lemons Lemons... and returning to Poldark (or not)
Aidan Turner won’t thank me for this, but the answer to the question in your mind is yes, he really is that good looking. A rascally mix of easy laughter, Byronic hair and biceps, the 39-year-old, Dublin-born Poldark star is sprawled in a lordly divan-style chair in his dressing room at the Harold Pinter Theatre during rehearsals for Sam Steiner’s two-hander Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons.
This playful study of government control and non-communication in relationships has been a cult hit since it appeared on the fringe in 2015: now Turner and Jenna Coleman have lent their primetime pulling power to the first West End revival, directed by Josie Rourke. “It opens on a couple who have been together a couple of years when a piece of legislation is brought in that limits how much everyone in the country can say and the limit is 140 words a day,” Turner says.
From this starting point, the play zips back to their chatty first meeting (at a funeral for a cat) and early courtship, and forth to later points where they can’t, or won’t, discuss their sexual or interpersonal problems, or even the possibility of having a child, because they’ve run out of words. “There’s about 110 scenes, the show is all over the place with time, and it’s just us and our costumes so there’s nowhere to hide,” Turner says. “It’s a hard one to learn but also a lot of fun. Sam wrote it so it could be done anywhere at a moment’s notice without any set, though obviously we need one for the West End.”
Lemons is both a romcom – though Turner almost chokes on the word – and a play of ideas. The concept of a capacity-restriction on speech, obviously inspired by Twitter’s character-limit, would be impossible to enforce. But it’s a remarkably flexible metaphor. As Turner says, we’ve become used in Western democracies to blurting out our opinions online but maybe we’d be more circumspect if we had to hoard our words. Citizens of more repressive regimes already police their conversations and public statements carefully.
I say that the “hush law”, as it’s nicknamed in the play, seems to chime with the current government’s attempts to limit the right to strike or to protest. Turner nods: “Sam wrote it long before ‘partygate’ [the investigation into lockdown-busting socialising at Downing Street under Boris Johnson], but he talks about politicians turning parliament into a place to chat, a sort of cruise ship in the middle of [otherwise verbally-restricted] London.”
Coleman’s character, Bernadette, is a lawyer with working-class origins, and her profession also brokers an exemption from the hush law. Turner’s character, Oliver, is an upper-middle-class musician, and takes to the streets to protest against the disproportionate impact of the law. “Nepotism multiplies exponentially,” Turner explains. “If you are a certain class you will just be given jobs; things will just happen for you. Whereas working-class people need more words for interviews.”
How does he consider himself? “I was brought up working-class,” he says. “My dad’s just retired as an electrician and my mum’s an accountant. We lived in a working-class area and I went to a Catholic community school in Dublin. But it was never something that I thought about really.” What issue would get him out on the streets like Oliver, I ask. “What would get me protesting? I don’t know. I’m afraid of saying something that I probably shouldn’t talk about, so maybe we shouldn’t delve too much into politics.”
This is not the first or the last time in our interview that Turner’s defences go up like steel shutters. He won’t tell me what his older brother does for a living and looks visibly pained when – while talking about being locked down for a “special and quite lovely” three months with his mum during Covid - he lets slip that his parents are no longer together.
I’d gleaned from previous interviews that he mightn’t like to talk about his teenage career as a dancer, competing across Ireland, in Blackpool and as far afield as Singapore. But he brings it up himself as a possible stepping stone on his path to Dublin’s Gaiety drama school and an acting career. “I was a ballroom and Latin American dancer, which was a really unusual thing [for Dublin] and was really expensive. My parents sacrificed a lot for that to happen,” he says.
“It’s a tough profession and requires a lot physically from you. And, you know, I was good, but I wasn’t that good. So I quit at around 16, 17 and started taking classes in acting. I guess there was a thing happening somewhere that I wanted to feel creative and explore that side to me.” (No, he doesn’t sit there jealously grinding his teeth when watching Strictly. No, he doesn’t even like dancing at parties now. “The waltz and the foxtrot seldom come on,” he observes drily.)
Anyway, he started acting in ads at drama school and on graduating was cast in the Abbey Dublin’s production of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars when it moved to London for a six-week run at the Barbican. For the next four years he did theatre in Ireland, before a part in the RTE medical drama The Clinic led to his casting as a dashing Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the BBC’s Desperate Romantics in 2009. Then came the part of vampire John Mitchell in BBC3’s cultish supernatural series Being Human, followed by two years in dwarf prosthetics as Kili in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit Trilogy. Then, in 2015, came Poldark.
The lavish BBC reboot of Winston Graham’s tales of a Cornish soldier-landowner propelled him to mainstream TV stardom. “I’m very proud of Poldark and how it turned out and I made lifelong friends on that show,” he says. But he’s thoroughly sick of discussing the heart-throb status that came with the ratings, and specifically the viral photo of him with his shirt off, all scythe and six-pack, taken while an old tattoo was being touched up.
“It was 10 years ago and it was easier to be in that kind of shape,” he says, “but every article leads with it and they use that photo, and it gets boring for me after a while.” His stint as Ross Poldark covered the first seven books in Graham’s 12-novel saga. In the later volumes the character is older. As Turner approaches 40, might he be prepared to visit the role. “I think probably not. There’s your headline.”
There have been other lead roles since, in a stage revival of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Noel Coward Theatre in 2018 and as a bearded, shifty doctor in ITV’s twisty crime series The Suspect in 2022. But it’s his Poldark fame that continues to cast a spotlight on his life and it’s onerous for such a private man.
I’ve been told Turner won’t talk about his private life after some clearly confected tabloid stories appeared recently. But in 2017 he met American actress Caitlin FitzGerald; they married quietly in 2020 and in 2022 she gave birth to their son. The couple live in London and FitzGerald is currently on stage in Watch on the Rhine at the Donmar Warehouse.
Becoming a dad has “been great, but I’d rather not get into that” he says, though he does concede that he no longer gets to theatres and restaurants as much as he did. When I ask if he considers himself a Dubliner or a Londoner these days, he says: “I’m Irish and I feel Irish and I’ll always feel that way but the truth is I’m raising a family in London and this is where I live with my wife and my child, our child. We get to Ireland maybe once or twice a year if we can which is great but our life is in the UK now.”
As to the future, he has a new Amazon TV series called Fifteen-Love out this summer, in which he plays the coach of a young female tennis prodigy; and another TV project in the pipeline. Having embraced contemporary work like The Suspect and Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons – possibly a conscious attempt to distance himself from Poldark’s period trappings – he might do a classic play next on stage. Then he gets wary again, afraid he’s sounding boastful or cocksure about his career. He still suffers the classic anxieties of actors, he says.
“There’s about a month after a job where it’s great to have finished,” he says. “It’s been hard work and you want to catch up with family and friends. But after that month or so you start sweating a little bit, thinking: am I ever going to work again? For all actors, some years are better than others. When I get a job it always feels like a blessing, or like a tiny miracle has happened. And I think you should feel excited about these things. I wouldn’t like to get to a point where you expect to get offered cool things all the time.”
Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons is at the Harold Pinter Theatre to March 18; buy tickets here