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theartsdesk Q&A: Actor Lesley Sharp | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Actor Lesley Sharp

theartsdesk Q&A: Actor Lesley Sharp

An actor's actor who sneaked up to the big time

Lesley Sharp: 'Mari and Mrs Alving might learn something from each other'Jillian Edelstein

Lesley Sharp could be thought of as an actor's actor: a talent equally at home in theatre, cinema and TV who has been impressing audiences and critics regularly for a quarter-century without quite becoming a star name.

That looks set to change in theatre terms at least with Sharp's breakout West End double - first as the blowsy, ferocious Mari in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, the Jim Cartwright play currently in revival until 30 January 2010 at the Vaudeville Theatre, followed by Mrs Alving in Ibsen's Ghosts early next year at the Duchess, in a production to be directed by Sharp's Pastor Manders in that play, the actor Iain Glen.

littlevoice_sharp_vickersSharp was born in Manchester in 1964 the younger of two daughters and was raised in Formby,  Merseyside, not a million miles from the Lancashire terrain of Little Voice, a play that re-teams her with the author of one of her earliest theatrical successes, the promenade-style Road. But whereas Cartwright's breakthrough hit was part of a series of subsidised-sector theatrical sensations for Sharp (Our Country's Good was another) the actress is only now playing the West End following a decade or more of TV renown in shows like Cranford, Afterlife, and the inimitable Bob and Rose. Often acclaimed on stage for communicating a poignant reserve, Sharp is all-stops-out brassy and ballsy as Mari - which seemed as appropriate a place as any for the conversation to start.

MATT WOLF: It's astonishing to see you playing someone like Mari who is so much on the front foot - a truly full-throttle firebrand as opposed to the withheld characters you've often played, where there is something elusive or unknowable about them: in Harper Regan, for example, or, way before that, Uncle Vanya's Sonya.

LESLEY SHARP: It's great. I mean, you know, this is a gift of a part. Jim wrote it 18 years ago when he was a young man and for him to kind of understand a woman of that age and in that struggle, I think, is remarkable. It's an amazing role for a women and, yes, it is fantastic to be able to go on stage and let it all out and to be able to do something completely different.

How do you know how far to go?

There are degrees. I always felt, and I think Terry [Johnson, the director] always encouraged me to feel, that it was about pushing the character as far as we could without turning her into a cartoon because it really is possible to do that and I never wanted to do that. With Mari, her highs are very high and her lows are very low, and her inconsistencies with parenting, her appetite that she has for alcohol, for men, and her sort of rages and then her love - I mean it's all sort of very, very extreme; there's no balance or centre in her life. I think it boils down to taste and I think perhaps for some people I've not gone far enough and  for some people I've gone too far: I kind of feel I'm at a place that fits the reality of the character.

A lot of it, presumably, is about finding and maintaining the right level of attack.

All of that, yes, particularly when we're in the business of telling a fairy tale if you like, and particularly given that the play was written in 1992 and how do you place that in 2009?  The fact is, the reality of Mari comes from a dark and a perturbed place even if there are large chunks of what Jim's written that are deliberately intended to be comic. At the same time, you've got a man like Ray Say [the agent played by Marc Warren] who turns around and desexualises Mari in the way that he does, and that's very much in the play. As Mari's light as a sexual being on the stage fades, LV's light as a sexual being and a young woman is being turned up.

It must be amazing to look out at the curtain call and see a sea of people standing night after night - which as we know isn't always the case in London.

This is going to sound like a terrible cliché, but I do think, "My God, this is what I dreamt of: my name is up above the theatre, I'm in a play acting this amazing role, and people are standing and clapping at the end." I do find it quite, you know, oh my goodness [laughs].

So you got to go to the ball, even if Mari doesn't.

[Laughs] Yes, and I think that's the great thing about the play. It's a compliment to Terry's taste and the way he's orchestrated the production that what we've attempted is to do a performance of the play which will absolutely resonate with every kind of theatregoer that comes through the door.  Anyone who comes to Little Voice because they're a serious theatregoer and they know Jim's work and want to see the play, it's absolutely there for them. If they want to come be entertained, it's there for them. If they want to come and hear Diana sing and all of that amazing stuff she does, it's also  there for them, and actually I think all groups will be surprised at how easy it is to be enchanted by all the other aspects. It's a really full evening.

This play first opened at the National's Cottesloe in June, 1992, not long after you had played the same auditorium in Uncle Vanya. Do you remember Little Voice from that time?

I do. I saw it. I had worked with Sam Mendes at Chichester, I knew Jane, I'd worked with Alison and of course I knew Jim, so there were four very strong reasons for me to see it, and I was amazed. But my sort of specific memory of it - sufficient time had passed for that not to be absolutely shiny and bright. When I sent the script and read it, I found that I'd sort of forgotten just how big a thing it was.

Of course, what's fascinating is that here you are with several decades of experience in the theatre finally making your West End debut opposite an 18-year-old in Diana Vickers who is entirely new to the same milieu.

Yes, but do you know what? I think because she went through that whole X Factor experience, from the various things Diana's spoken about, all I can gather is that it is actually an extremely pressured and demanding experience; it's not something for a lightweight, and Diana has, I think, come through that with a very sophisticated sense of self. She's incredibly grounded and sensible and disciplined: the work she does she applies herself to in a very rigorous way, and I think she's an example to a lot of kids who are going around saying they want to be famous...

...without the work

Yes, and it doesn't come without the work, and actually Diana has applied herself to rehearsal in the same way, so my experience of Diana has been that she is not someone for whom an exception has been made because she's young and inexperienced. She's actually presented herself in the rehearsal room as a colleague, and I've been really impressed and heartened by that. It's a big thing; I don't think I could have coped.

Diana is clearly broadening her profile by doing this. Was there a sense for you doing first this play and then Ghosts around the corner at the Duchess Theatre in February 2010 of wanting to raise your own profile within, if you'll forgive so crass a phrase, the marketplace?

For some people, the ability to kind of plan and make decisions like that is possible. It's not for me. It has literally happened by chance, and I suppose, you know, the way that it's fallen out is that it's presented itself as a wonderful double which I am incredibly excited by. At the same time, it's daunting not only because in terms of workload - we'll be rehearsing Mrs Alving in Ghosts while finishing the last month of this - but these chances don't come along every day so you have to take them while they are there. Iain and I had done a workshop of Ghosts together at the Young Vic around this time last year which Thelma Holt saw and decided to take it on, so that's how it all came about. She asked Iain if he would direct it - which he was quite nonplussed about - and be in it as well. Her thing about it was that Iain kind of understood the play so well that he would be the perfect person to direct it.

That must be interesting for you, since you've surely never been directed in a play by a fellow actor.

No, no. I think it wouldn't be something that I'd want to do but it is something that Iain very much wants to do, so I think that first instinct is in place, and I also think that Iain as an actor has fantastic taste. He also has a real ability to see what's going on in a rehearsal room and where certain things are or maybe aren't working so well. He can do that and he's really interested in that, so I'm really excited by it. We've worked together twice on screen, most recently in The Diary of Anne Frank, and we're neighbours in London and friends, too. Fingers crossed, we're going to be doing Macbeth together, next year or the year after.

I found the amount of discipline and concentration that's required through getting a play up and running for me did not go well with having young children

But how fascinating that here you are playing someone who puts herself forward  unapologetically at the same time that you are putting yourself forward to a mainstream theatre audience for the first time in your career. For a long time, up until The God of Hell at the Donmar in 2005, you didn't do theatre at all.

It's quite interesting for me because the first part of my career was entirely theatre-based: I worked at the Court, the National, the RSC; I did Cheek by Jowl and I did the odd bit of film - Naked with Mike Leigh, Rita, Sue and Bob Too with Alan Clarke - and then I had my first child and when, you know, my children were young, I just found the amount of discipline and concentration that's required through rehearsal and getting a play up and running for me did not go well with having young children. I just felt I couldn't cope with the mental split.

The last play I did was Mother Courage at the National in 1995, and I found it incredibly difficult: I felt I wasn't a good parent and I felt I wasn't doing my work very well, and the whole thing of working in front of a camera where really your focus and concentration has to be for spurts of time rather than a prolonged... you know, sometimes you're not needed all the time, so you get to go home. You get more down time, and it just fitted in with that whole thing of being a parent. If a baby's crying while you're on stage, you're split. Also, it's just the way things trick out, but I started to get really interesting TV roles, and my maxim has never been about the medium, it's always been about the writing, about the role. So I started working with people like Russell T Davies and to do really interesting one-off projects and it started a momentum. Without meaning to, 10 years went by and I hadn't been on stage.

Until the Shepard, which presumably had the added benefit in terms of pressures on your time of being short.

Yes! It was Kathy Burke, who is a friend of mine, who said, "C'mon, how about doing it again?" and it was a brilliant thing because I didn't quite know what would happen. I thought, God, I might just do this and it might be over for me actually. I was frightened by it because there were various people - Helen McCrory and Iain and Ben Daniels and Andy Lincoln, as well - who were saying, "The thing is always to go back to the theatre, keep going back," and I was like, "No, no, it's fine," but of course when I did go back it was wonderful. And, as you suggest, an hour long. [Laughs]

harperregan_kevin_cumminsThen, of course, Harper Regan (picture left by Kevin Cummins) got sent to me, and I knew Simon's work and I'd wanted to work with Marianne [Elliott] for a long time, so that combination was kind of unbelievable, again without ever dreaming it would happen because I had been asked whether I was interested in doing it a year before we started rehearsals. I had said, yes, yes, I would love to, and in the meantime, while I was waiting to do a play about a woman coming to terms with her father dying, my father died - before I started rehearsals. I think if I'm honest I was probably in a state of shock when I started rehearsals. In retrospect, it was an incredibly cathartic experience doing that play.

Doctor theatre.

Yes. And, you know, that play awoke a real appetite in me for that. I thought, actually, yes, I'm of an age now where I absolutely want to take on the focus and discipline that comes with being at the centre of a play, so to then be offered Mari and Mrs Alving  was kind of, Yes, that is what I want to do.

You raise the topic which has to be there for every actor of how you sustain a career and build a profile, and I'm curious with regard to Uncle Vanya, because there you were with Ian McKellen and Antony Sher and Janet McTeer: pretty major names. Were you sort of thinking, "What sort of career is there for me? How is my career going to go?"

In some ways actually I was incredibly naive. One of the things that happens as you get older is you start to realise that when real life comes in - the things that other people take for granted like having children, getting a mortgage, being able to plan a summer holiday - that's sort of not part of the infrastructure if you like and when you're in your twenties and young and free and single, the idea of a long-term career doesn't even occur to you. Then, as you get older, you start to see that people get tired of not being able to plan their life; they get worn down by that insecurity. You suddenly think, it's not just me that's starving in a garret potentially, it's my children. It gives you pause for thought, and there's a drop-out rate, particularly among women. So I think the issue about how one keeps going has come later and it's about being a woman and being older, as well. Vanya was blissfully before all that.

In a way, it only seems to get better for women on stage, even if that doesn't seem to be the case on screen.

Now, there are those great roles like Arkadina, like Alving, like Ranevskaya, like Beatrice...

Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Hello, yes, hello [laughs]. All of those are suddenly looming as far as my thinking, "Yes, I absolutely want to have a go at them." So it's about saying I want to be at the centre of a story rather than be an appendage: the wife, the mother, the teacher, the social worker. There are those great parts around, but it's difficult because they aren't commonplace. The other big factor that happens when you have a family, and I don't want to be coy about this, is money: you can't pay a mortgage by doing play after play at the Bush and the Court and the Menier Chocolate Factory; you can't. What one always hopes to achieve in life is balance, so if you're lucky enough to get a role that feeds you artistically on TV, hopefully you'll be able to swing out and do your role at the Royal Court, but the timing of these things doesn't always work out. Finances have to become a necessity and a reason sometimes for why you're doing things; you can't be naive about that.

But fascinatingly, in a theatre culture where people tend to pass the great roles to one another in a sort of perpetual relay race, you've distinguished yourself in so much distinguished new work, from Our Country's Good and Road onwards.

Well, what happens is that people start to see you in a particular way, and maybe when I was working at the Royal Court I was perceived as someone who did new writing, and I worked with Max Stafford-Clark and Simon Curtis, both of whom are men with immaculate taste in terms of writing, and I became very seduced by the notion of having a writer present in the rehearsal room: it's wonderful to work with the source of your material. It becomes very satisfying to check out whether or not they're hearing what it is they wanted to hear, and you do feel as if you're in a real collaboration, so it was one of those things that it was one play after another after another after another and they were new, and of course Road was the apogee of that.

Have you ever in fact done a Shakespeare play?

Not professionally, no, and I'm desperate to [laughs]. I've never done an Ibsen before this one [Ghosts], and I've done the one Chekhov but I did do Chekhov and Shakespeare and Ibsen at drama school but, no, not professionally. And it's really important that you look at those texts: they're long-standing texts for a reason. They are remarkable plays.

But I always think what's fascinating about new plays is that you don't know if they will work. We know Uncle Vanya works, that Ghosts works. With a new play, one can't necessarily tell.

It's fascinating: the classic story about that is in retrospect Our Country's Good was enormously successful but you know Ron Cook, whenever we meet up we always, always turn to remembering the rehearsals where people were crying, Timberlake [Wertenbaker] was ripping up scenes, rewriting scenes, changing things till the very last minute, and we had no idea about the way it was going to be received, Of course, now it's on GCSE and A-level syllabuses. So, there you go.

The other big factor that happens when you have a family is money: you can't pay a mortgage by doing play after play at the Bush and the Court and the Menier Chocolate Factory

You did Road, of course, on TV with Jane Horrocks, so when you got this play, were you tempted to talk to her or Alison about what the Little Voice experience had been like for them?

I do want to talk to Jane - to all of them about it, actually, but I did think it was one of those things where it was probably best to commit to our production and to what that was going to be rather than have a conversation about what they went through. At the end of the day it's the difference of a Rubik's Cube worth of ingredients that we've got on the go.

What do you do to safeguard your voice? I'd have thought you'd be mainlining herbal tea.

[Laughs] Yeah, it's a big ask, technically, the play, because Jim has written, "Mari screaming out, Mari screaming out," so my voice has taken a bit of a battering. I'm rather perturbed by that because I'm actually quite fastidious about using my voice in a disciplined way and I'm a bit cross about the fact that actually it's a little bit husky. Hopefully what will happen - because we have had a very intense preview period - is that now we're about to go into a period where we're just doing the play so it will get rested properly and I'm steaming it and gargling with this amazing stuff called Sanderson's Throat Specific, which has been around for years. It's fantastic.

Actually, whatever huskiness you're referring to sounds great: it's perfect for Mari.

Yes, she should be a bit nicotine-stained [laughs], but I'm  going to  have to get it back up to those refined, cut-glass tones for Mrs A.

Did you have your accent sort of tweaked at drama school?

Well, I think it's always a great thing if you can pick it  up and drop it - if you can put a bit of an RP on where it's needed while retaining a bit of your own identity. But I think the other thing, too, is that I've lived in London longer than I lived up north and I think having such a melting pot of a culture in any case is that no one really sounds like anyone comes from anywhere any more, do they? Over the years, my accent comes and goes, but I think if I'm with the northerners I start to sound more like I used to.

Lesley_Sharp-colourLooking back, do you think that acting was inevitable for you? (picture right by Jillian Edelstein)

It wasn't inevitable as far as my family; it wasn't a theatrical household in any sense either in terms of anyone being interested in it or being taken a lot as a child and having my interests sparked. My mother was ill a lot when I was a kid, and I think it was something I kind of retreated to: you know, the world of imagination and fantasy. I remember asking when I was about eight if I could join the local amateur dramatics group only to be told you couldn't join until you were about 14.

That's a long wait.

I know, awful. But join it I did, and that's what set me off. I didn't actually go to the theatre very much; I just very badly wanted to act. Funnily enough, there was drama going on at school, and it was always like the pretty and popular ones that did drama there, and I was always the depressive and shy type that had confidence issues.

Were you a sort of LV?

Yeah, but not as pretty. I was more of a lump, really; I was, I was: one of those rather ungainly, lost, unlikely people, and I didn't have very much confidence. I can remember coming up to London for my first-ever audition to go to drama school, and I was so excited but nervewracked about being in London and the whole idea of being in London that I was a gibbering wreck. I didn't get into drama school the first time I auditioned.

Where was that?

Guildhall both times. The first time they didn't even give me a recall, and I did all of them: RADA, the Bristol Old Vic, and I didn't get in anywhere but I did get a recall and then got put on the reserve list for Bristol. I think everyone was going, "Oh, she wants to do it very badly but she can't," and probably they felt just a bit sorry for me, and my dad, because he was a chief collector of taxes for the Inland Revenue, was kind of very, very worried.

I'm not surprised. Presumably, he would have seen many an actor's books!

God, yes! He didn't want me to go anywhere near it. But I mean, thank you, he was so supportive and by the time I was auditioning, actually, my mother had died of cancer [when Sharp was 15] so it was me and him. I said, "Right, I didn't get in to drama school," so I came to London to work for a year, which was the best thing, actually, in retrospect that could have happened, really, just  to get a job and to come to the big city.

What did you do when you got to London?

I  worked at the V&A Museum for the Department of Education and Science, and I was a complete disaster because I got the lowest grade it was possible to get in maths but I was put in charge of working out pensions and overtime for the warders - this was in the day when you didn't have computers and all that and it was quite mathematically based.

It sounds like quite a responsible job.

Well, I was supervised, but it was like one of those awful scenarios where I would take my work to the supervisor and they would just go, "No, you can't pay someone £300,000 a year when actually it's £6,000 a year."

They must have loved you!

[Laughs] It was either that or on payday you would hear these footsteps thudding as they ran up to the personnel office waving their pay-cheques saying, "Why haven't I  been paid my overtime?" because I'd missed it. I mean, it was chaos. And so I was very nicely asked to consider whether or not the Department of Education and Science was for me and I decided that it wasn't, and I got a really  charming letter from my boss when I left saying, you know, "Good luck with the acting, I really hope it works for you," and then he had underlined and put exclamation marks beside, "Be careful!"  [Laughs] So that was my foray into the world of civil servanthood. It was not for me. But then, thank you, God, I got into Guildhall the second time.

I was adopted, and I think it's an odd thing, a mark upon you. Maybe it's part of the reason why I do what I do

What was the gap between the two auditions?

A year and, you know, I think looking back I was very hard on myself at the time. I had suffered a major bereavement, and before that, my mom had also suffered from depression all her life. It was not an easy childhood, and I did not have an easy adolescence. I was awkward and, I think, a little depressed myself, so that year in London was where I kind of grew up, where I stood on my own two feet and became really, really certain about what it was that I wanted to do, what I needed to do. I sort of had a bit of an education.

So Guildhall must have felt as if you'd come home.

It was just brilliant. Some people were always going, "Oh God, you know, we've got to learn this, I can't go out at night," and actually I just used to go home and do the reading, do the learning; I wasn't very good at the dancing and wasn't very good at the singing - I was rubbish at tap and all of that - but all the acting side was great.

I would assume, as someone who has spoken before of her adoption, that you found in drama school - not to mention acting itself - a very real sense of community, of belonging.

Yes, I was adopted at six weeks, and I think it's an odd thing, a mark upon you. And I also think that for me - not for everybody - but for me that it gave me issues of where I belonged and who I belonged to and what the meaning of that was. And I think maybe that is part of the reason why I do what I do because it is part of a need to feel that I belong somewhere that's mine. You try to belong to every job that you do, every character that you do: there's something on the go there that's to do with that kind of psychological scar, I suppose.

Did you always know you were adopted?

Always. And I think there's a really interesting story to be told about it because I think there's a misrepresentation. One assumes that there's a kind of happy-ever-after element to it which doesn't exist. I think it's far more complicated and interesting a journey if you are the parents who are adopting and if you are an adoptee - the fit of the child and the parent, you know, that whole thing, I think, is fascinating. So when it came to having children of my own, that was a huge thing for me, actually.

How interesting, then, that you're doing these two plays...

...About mothers! Yes, Mrs Alving talks of Captain Alving who sends Oswald away when he is very young, so there is that need - that terrible, terrible scar - that she carries, and that distance between them that she is always trying to mend somehow. That's the genius - the genius - of Ibsen that he was able to completely nail that whole psychological truth and schism long before, you know, psychoanalysis became our byword. In the hands of a lesser writer what he writes about and the height of what he writes about is melodrama, but in his hands they become these extraordinary kind of psychological truths. So, yeah, these two women.

How do you think Mari and Mrs Alving would get on?

Well, they might both learn something from each other, mightn't they? I wouldn't want to be in the same room but I'd love to watch the video footage. I'd like to see Mrs Alving dance with the Jackson Five - in her corset.

Read Veronica Lee's review of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice here

My God, this is what I dreamt of: my name is up above the theatre, I'm in a play acting this amazing role, and people are standing and clapping at the end

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