Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani on a dance to the music of friendship

When whispers of a new virus began to make the news last year, the actor Adrian Lester was in Los Angeles. He immediately hurried back to London. His instinct was to get back home — but also to return to theatre.

Known to many for his charismatic television appearances — the silky-smooth conman Mickey Stone in Hustle, the tormented cop in Undercover — Lester cut his teeth in theatre, winning awards for his exquisite breakthrough performance as Rosalind in an all-male version of As You Like It. In 2013 he was a brilliant Othello at the National Theatre in London.

“I just want to get back into it,” he says. “I want to get back to my roots. It always works every muscle, and it feels like now I’m wanting to work all those muscles for when we get out of this mess.”

A year on from his return home, he is indeed in a theatre. Lester is starring opposite Danny Sapani in Hymn, a new two-hander, at London’s Almeida Theatre. The play, written by Lolita Chakrabarti, tells the story of two 50-year-old strangers — Gil and Benny — who meet at a funeral and gradually discover a bond. And it is working the muscles in more sense than one: the show involves frequent singing and dance. Lester is quite the mover (as Bobby in Company he won an Olivier award) — but lockdown has taken its toll.

Adrian Lester as Othello in the National Theatre’s 2013 production © Corbis via Getty Images

“My body is aching,” Lester says, when I talk to the two actors during a break in rehearsals. “I’ve spent the whole rehearsal process with my body feeling like it’s screaming. ‘What, you want to do that again? No, no — we haven’t done anything since March. Sit down!’”

Hymn was due to open to in-person audiences this month, but England’s latest restrictions upended that idea. So the team switched track. Lester and Sapani will now perform on stage each night with the audience watching in real time online. It’s as close as they can get to the live experience during the pandemic, says Sapani: “But we’re creating. We’re back in the house. We’re soldiering on.”

Sapani, like Lester, is at home on stage or screen. He was a smoothly political Jason in Euripides’ Medea at the National Theatre and searingly good Tshembe in Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs. He arrives at the Almeida fresh from filming Halo, an upcoming TV sci-fi based on the long-running video game series. Even so, this new film-theatre hybrid is a challenging prospect. The audience will consume it like film — but for the actors there will be no retakes.

Danny Sapani with Helen McCrory in ‘Medea’ at the National Theatre, 2014 © Alastair Muir/Shutterstock

“You want that unpredictability and spontaneity when you watch something live,” says Sapani. “So if something goes wrong, we’re just going to have to fix it in the moment.”

We are talking, as so often these days, via video call. Behind the actors I can see the curving brick wall of that intimate theatre and the darkened auditorium where the audience belongs. It’s a bittersweet sight. Sapani pans the camera around to show me the strict Covid-secure arrangements. “We both have separate chairs with D and A on the back,” he says, with evident delight. “And separate props.”

“We don’t even hand things to each other,” adds Lester (who has also recently filmed the National Theatre’s new Romeo and Juliet, due out in April). “It’s all been very carefully worked out. If I’m going to pick up something, Danny moves. So it’s like a dance, really.”

Sapani and Lester go through their paces at the Almeida Theatre © Marc Brenner

The companionable affection between the two is clear: they pick up on each other’s thoughts and have even contemplated swapping roles (“Oh my God! More lines to learn!” says Lester). And they see elements of their own personalities and friendship in the play.

“It is about love,” says Lester. “It’s about two men who are strangers at the start and they learn to answer each other’s insecurities as they go along. So Lolita is really trying to scrape away at maleness, heterosexual love between men, camaraderie — and explore the faultlines in there.

“The spark for it was because she’d worked with Danny,” he adds (Sapani and Chakrabarti worked together on Invisible Cities at the Manchester International Festival). “And then she just started thinking about two men supporting each other. I’d like to say [the spark] was because she’s married to me, but it isn’t true!”

Lester and Chakrabarti met at Rada and have been married since 1997. They last collaborated onstage with Red Velvet (2016), Chakrabarti’s award-winning play about the 19th-century African American actor Ira Aldridge (with Lester, outstanding, as Aldridge). That drama tackled head-on the prejudice that Aldridge faced. Hymn is different. When Gil encounters racism, it is woven into the broad picture of his life, defining the person responsible, rather than Gil. For Lester, that is important.

“I’m always looking at work thinking there’s so much more there — [characters] do not simply exist to answer an argument or suffer from an argument. They’re a complete person. And that’s what this work suggests, really. It’s saying it isn’t the life; it is a part of a life. And at certain times it has to be dealt with, but it isn’t everything. There’s children, there’s family, there’s responsibilities.

Lester with his wife, Lolita Chakrabarti, author of ‘Hymn’ © Alan Davidson/Shutterstock

“I don’t see my black,” he adds. “Other people are dealing with my black. I’m not dealing with it, they are. And when they deal with it in front of me, that’s when I have the problem. I’m dealing with being a husband and a father and an actor. So there is another side to the conversation and I think it’s that side that Lolita wants to look at.”

Music is key to the men’s story. The drama is prefaced by a Miles Davis quote, and Lester explains that the play moves like a piece of music: “The crescendos, the discords, the counterpoint, the inversion, the call and response — the whole thing, for Lolita, is about music.” The two men frequently burst into song — from Bill Withers to The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” — and at one point even relive their youth with the help of a karaoke set, some harem trousers and a series of rusty dance moves. (That’s where Lester’s aching limbs come in.)

“We both have to properly dance,” he says. “It’s fun, it’s just fun. We’re not supposed to be dancers — it’s not like a musical. They’re a couple of 50-year-old men. We’re not going to suddenly pretend we’re young: we are the age that we are, and it’s the truth of that that you’re seeing. And there’s so much of the play in that sense that is kind of improvised.”

“I always wanted to be the ‘triple threat’ [a performer who can act, dance and sing],” adds Sapani. “And we’re getting a chance to do that, but in a way that is completely personal. We’re creating it from within and telling the story as much from our own lives as we are of Benny and Gil. That’s a great privilege.”

Sudden eruptions into dance can be electric onstage. Think of the five sisters cutting a rug in Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa or the young lads breaking into frenzied dance in Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman. But they also speak volumes about buried emotions. In Hymn, dance links Gil and Benny to a youth they have lost. But it also reminds all of us of the sheer buzz and vitality of live theatre.

“Theatre is the lifeblood and soul of our craft,” says Sapani. “Can you imagine not ever seeing a live concert or a theatrical experience again? Whatever the circumstances, we must do everything to keep it going.”

‘Hymn’ will be livestreamed February 17-20, almeida.co.uk