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Interview with actress Emma West

28 November 2013 | Mary Howell

A new production at the Arcola Theatre delves in the love, loss and demise of the fiery haired inspiration behind so many great Pre-Raphaelite works of art. London Calling talks to leading lady Emma West to find out more...

London Calling: How’s does it feel to be a 19th century supermodel?

Emma West: It’s one of those interesting circumstances where I don’t think she had any inkling at the time that that’s what she would become. If she was looking down today, she would be completely gobsmacked at what a legend she is.

LC: What sets Lizzie aside from the other Pre-Raphaelite lovers and models?

EW: She was literate. When she first encountered this group of artists, they talked about painting a scene from a Shakespeare play, for example, and she knew what they were talking about. She read the play and understood the characters they were talking about. That was just gobsmacking.

Because it was taboo for a woman to be alone, potentially getting dressed and undressed, in a man’s studio, models would be family members or prostitutes. She was completely out of the ordinary. I imagine that must’ve been quite exciting for the artists, because she knew what they were talking about. She actually cared about what they were doing.

LC: Do her struggles make the play quite relevant today?

EW: For me what’s been really interesting is the idea of, can women have it all? It’s still relevant to day, it’s a constant debate. Does it still have to be career versus family, or can you have both? If you are doing both, is one of them compromised? Certainly at the time, it was unheard of for a woman to so doggedly pursue a career that was so ‘unsuitable’ for her, to the detriment of marrying and having a family.

LC: Director Lotte Wakeham is also Associated Director of Matilda. Has she bought a bit of west end glamour to the production, or is it more of a serious affair?

EW: What is lovely about this play, and about what Lotte brings, is yes, on paper, it is quite a serious, tragic story, but that’s absolutely not what we’re doing for the entire duration of the play. There is humour to be found, believe it or not. We’re trying to communicate that there would’ve been really fun times as well as the slightly tragic way that it ended.

LC: When did you discover that you were the spit of Lizzie?

EW: I saw a Millais painting of Ophelia in the Tate when I was about 13, and I remember being completely freaked out because that painting in particular does look very similar. I was completely fascinated by it because she was essentially dying in a stream. There was something incredibly eerie about it. Strangely enough, it didn’t occur to me at the time that a real person would’ve posed for it. It was only years later that I started learning about Lizzie and everything she’d gone through to make that picture happen.

LC: Other than reading, is there anything that you’ve done to get closer to Lizzie?

EW: I’ve seen as much of her work as possible. Read as much of her work as possible.

LC: Are there any pieces on display in London?

EW: Very usefully, the Tate did a massive Pre-Raphaelite exhibition. There are some of her sketches in The Ashmolean in Oxford that you can go and handle. I went to Highgate Cemetery to her grave, which is a beautiful place. There’s lots of fascinating people buried there.

LC: How was that?

EW: It was at the very start of everything, so I think it would be a very different experience to going now. It somehow felt like the right and respectful thing to do. If you’re trying to embody someone, you always hope that you’re doing them justice.

Even though Lizzie herself never went there, I did recently go to Hogsmill River, which is the stream Millais painted. I’ve stood in that stream for a photo shoot, which was quite fun. I think anything that you can do to make these people more tangible is a good thing; any shared experiences. Everyone in the play who’s playing an artist has been encouraged by Lotte to sketch each other whenever we can. To be scrutinised by someone is quite an odd and interesting experience.

I’ve done as much as I could, but a lot of places Lizzie worked and lived just don’t exist anymore. The hat shop she worked in which is now the Vue Cinema in Leicester square.

LC: For people who aren’t perhaps familiar with the Pre-Raphaelites or Lizzie, what are some of the main themes running though the play?

EW: Oh gosh, what isn’t there!? It’s a Cinderella story, she came from nothing and against extraordinary odds made something of herself; triumph over adversity in a sense. It’s a tragedy, but it’s not going to be a whole evening of ‘oh my god this is so sad’. It’s a female story, the story of an extraordinary woman, and it’s a love story. It’s got everything! 

Lizzie Siddal runs until the 21st December at The Arcola Theatre. Click here for tickets and more information.

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