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Interview with actress Lesley Manville, star of Ghosts

21 January 2014 | Charlie Kenber

“any preconceived notions about the play being a bit stiff, dry and inaccessible are clearly blown away”

We caught up with Lesley Manville, who plays the lead in Ghosts, currently taking London by storm at the Trafalgar Studios following a run at the Almeida Theatre…

London Calling: First of all congratulations, the response has been incredible! How do you feel it’s going?

Lesley Manville: Extremely well: we’ve got full houses, the audiences are suitably shaken at the end and the feedback that I get – and I do quite a lot of Q&As – is that people are kind of blown away by it really, and feel that Richard Eyre’s adaptation has redefined it.

LC: How did you get involved with the project?

LM: I’ve known Richard Eyre for many decades but never worked for him. He just rang me up and said ‘look I’ve got this script and I would love you to do it.’

His adaptation is so beautifully written that any preconceived notions about the play being a bit stiff, dry and inaccessible are clearly blown away, which is wonderful.

LC: It’s quite a harrowing play. Is it exhausting to perform?

LM: Not really! I’m very much in the moment when I’m doing it, but I’m not one of those actors who takes it home with me, so once it’s done it’s done. I’m a bit tired by Saturday because we do a Thursday matinee…you end up having to do it five times in three days, which is quite tough. But I’m fine; I’m a strong old bird really!

LC: The whole play is performed in one ninety-minute show – that must be quite relentless for you and the audience…

LM: It is and I think that’s a good thing for the audience. They appreciate not having the interval: I had some people in last night and they said they felt ‘it can’t be ending yet it’s only been on for about twenty minutes!’ Suddenly an hour and a half had flown by. It does take you along with it.

LC: How did you go about preparing for the role? Was there a particular approach you took?

LM: No, I think it’s wrong to do that. I very much just had the script with me – it was in my head and working by osmosis. You can’t pre-decide things. What was wonderful about the rehearsals was that it all happened organically and came together. Richard had cast it so well that we would just rehearse scenes and because of the talent in the room it grew very naturally out of that.

I lived with the piece and read it and read it and read it and read it, but I didn’t make any preconceived notions of how I would play it, because you have to leave that to the point at which you get into rehearsal.

LC: How has it been adapting to the new space?

LM: You always have to adjust. We were anxious not to go to a big West End theatre, because we felt you would lose the intimacy and you’d end up requiring a different level of performance. The Trafalgar is a very nice space – it’s bigger than the Almeida but it’s not too big. The audience are quite raked so nobody gets a bad view. I think it has retained its intimacy which is what we wanted.

LC: How would you describe Richard Eyre’s adaptation? He’s updated it somewhat – does this make it more accessible?

LM: I think it’s imperceptible unless you really look at it. He’s just oiled it really so that is sort of sounds more like now, but we’re obviously not using very modern language. We’re in period dress and the set is period, so you don’t want the language to take it away from that.

I don’t really quite know what Richard’s done, it’s really hard to describe it! He’s made it very accessible. It’s an emotional play: Ibsen was writing about the meat and bones of the human condition, that’s why it was banned. It deals with syphilis, incest, and euthanasia. Now the resonances of all that are very present. Mostly it’s about Helen my character talking about this devastatingly terrible marriage that she endured. So you do hear people in the audience reeling from it, because they’ve probably experienced similar situations.

It does make it very accessible without taking it out of the period, and without putting it very pertinently in the twenty-first century. It’s lost nothing; it’s gained everything.

LC: You’ve done lots of television and film work as well. Presumably the process is very different – do you have a preference?

LM: I do like the mix. A lot of television you do have to get your act together on your own at home and turn up with a performance and that’s less satisfying, but it’s not always the way and sometimes even under those circumstances you can still have great directors, it’s just that there’s no money for the time to rehearse.

It’s a different challenge, and it is part of the whole picture of being an actor: sometimes you get in a great rehearsal room with great talents and you have time to explore something, other times you’ve got to maybe make not such good material work, get it together on your own and turn up with it.

I happen to think that the ultimate challenge for an actor is to be put on stage. It’s easier to make bad performances look good on film because you can edit around them and do all sorts of things. At the theatre there’s no escape – if you’re bad they’re going to see it!

LC: What have you got planned next?

LM: There are various irons in the fire, but I haven’t quite nailed down what I’m going to do yet!

Ghosts plays at the Trafalgar Studios until 22nd March. Tickets available here.

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