By Andrea Chambers
November 16, 1981 12:00 PM

At $100 per, tickets to the stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby are the most expensive in Broadway history, but that price seems small compared to the one paid by Roger Rees in the title role. The demands of the grueling, 2,000-page script and eight-and-a-half-hour show—in which he hauls props, climbs ladders and is almost constantly onstage (“Even Shakespeare gives you a scene off,” he groans)—have forced Rees, 36, to become the stage’s most artful lodger. Before each performance, the lanky Englishman sneaks about the set, tucking throat lozenges into cracks and crevices of the scenery. “I pop them during the show,” Rees explains. “It helps me get through.”

So does the monkish, athlete-in-training regimen the quiet-spoken bachelor has adopted for the play’s 13-week run. While living in a small Manhattan hotel room, Rees has renounced cigarettes, hard liquor and most socializing. Before each performance he limbers up with yoga and dance exercises. During intermissions he eats sparingly of yogurt and cottage cheese. Most important, while onstage he forgets about the play’s long time span. “The way for Roger Rees to go mad is to think about eight and a half hours,” he says. “The only way to play it is like a game of tennis. You concentrate and keep your eye on the ball.”

Rees’ love match with Dickens has cost him 14 of his former 175 pounds, countless bruises and eight pairs of worn-out trousers. He concludes each show with aching wrists from his labors, a stiff neck from tension and a day’s growth of beard. Back in his dressing room, which he shares with a fly he has dubbed the ghost of John Barrymore (he provides it an occasional sip of sherry), Rees’ legs literally buckle under him. “Sometimes I think I’ll go off and be a milkman or a greengrocer, some easy job,” he says wistfully.

In fact, Rees, who has won raves on Broadway, justly regards the Nickleby role as the pinnacle of his 14 years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, which first mounted the production in London last year. “I was moving into my acting middle age,” he says. “I usually played comic lovers or losers—weak, ineffectual men.” The righteous Nicholas (whom Rees considers “a bit of a prig”) is his first role as a romantic hero. “I’m a goodie now,” Rees gloats. “I went out and bought a white cowboy hat.”

The teeming London underbelly inhabited by the wide-eyed Nickleby and the play’s 150 or so other characters was also the world of Rees’ youth. “My neighborhood in South London was very Dickensian,” he remembers. “The children played on the coal lorries, and a cart came around selling cockles and winkles.” At vacation time Rees’ parents, a London policeman and a shop assistant, would temporarily pawn the family clock to take Roger and his younger brother on the milk train to visit their grandmother, a lady’s maid, in the countryside.

As a young man, “fat and shy,” un-athletic and scholastically inept, Rees luckily showed a talent for art. Accepted at London’s prestigious Slade School, he sold toys at Harrods department store to pay for art supplies. By 21 he was designing stage sets. Intrigued by the acting craft, he also performed with local theater groups, and after five tries was hired by director Trevor Nunn at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

At first Rees was given bit parts. “I held spears, falcons and dogs,” he reports. “In Julius Caesar I was a soldier who got killed very early in the battle of Philippi. I used to go to sleep under my shield.” Offstage Rees happily gambled his wages on poker and downed pints of Guinness and “fell in love many times. I blossomed,” he smiles.

By Nickleby’s last performance Jan. 3, Rees predicts, “My hair will turn white, my arches will fall and the fly will die and have a proper burial.” Nonetheless, he is game for another go on Broadway. “I’d love to be in Sugar Babies,” he hints broadly, “or do a Western with Meryl Streep, Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman—and get to wear my white cowboy hat.”