Kept in the dark

Laura Donnelly can be seen in Tutto Bene Mamma in The Print Room

By David Hennessy

Described as an immersive theatre experience in which the actors and audience share a world that is in complete darkness, Tutto Bene, Mamma? promises to be a very different night out at The Print Room. Based on a haunting true story of a mother and her young boy, this will be the play’s UK première after a sell-out run in Milan with a vivid new adaptation by the acclaimed playwright, April De Angelis. The Irish World caught up with Laura Donnelly, one of the play’s stars who has recently been seen in BBC’s The Fall, to ask her to shed some light on what we can expect.

“It’s a really interesting process,” the Belfast actress begins. “We’re quite literally feeling our way around. It’s not your standard rehearsal process by any means. It’s been a trip for all of us I think.

“I guess the best way to describe it would be as a domestic drama. The characters are a woman, a man and a little boy. Without giving too much away, the boy is left alone in the house for a long time and it’s looking at what happens to him in that process and how he deals with that. The idea of it is that we see how the senses pick up differently on a story when you can’t see anything and the same for us as actors, none of us can see either.

“My character is a young mother, she’s the mother of the boy, and she has had a very difficult upbringing herself and is now a single parent and very young at that. My decision on the character, and I think everyone is in agreement in the company, is that I have given birth to my son at the age of 16 so he’s eight now. We’re talking about a very young mother with a lot of responsibility and very little help around her. She’s got a lot of her own problems and it looks at the relationship between her and the boy and their dynamic and her trying to be a good parent but under very difficult circumstances.”

Laura acting in The Fall with Gerard McCarthy

Laura is familiar to London theatregoers. Last year, she acted with Dominic West and Miranda Raison in The River at The Royal Court Theatre and also in Philadelphia, Here I Come at the Donmar Warehouse. She was attracted to this project’s innovation: “I feel like we’re treading very new ground here so it adds to the nerves as much as the excitement but it was what attracted me to the production in the first place. It was just that I couldn’t figure out how it could be done and that’s always what makes me enthusiastic about any job: When I can’t really see how I’m gonna go about this but I’m excited to try.”

Laura’s screen roles include Best: His Mother’s Son, Casualty and Missing, the American thriller series with Sean Bean and Ashley Judd. How does it feel to be working in darkness that strips away most of an actor’s tools? “It’s kind of like patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time. Particularly in the dark, you can become really attuned to what’s truth and what’s not. I’ve certainly found that closing my eyes and listening to the other actors, I can really pick up when something sounds very real, so we’re trying to deliver performances that are complete on that level. But at the same time, we are feeling our way around an unfamiliar space and trying to work with props and furniture and each other in ways that don’t sound like we’re clunking around in the dark.”

The Print Room recently put on a production of Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney with a cast that included Laura’s Philadelphia, Here I Come co-star, Ruairi Conaghan and Stuart Graham who also appears in The Fall: “I saw that production of Molly Sweeney and it was wonderful and I think generally anything that has been coming out of here seems to be getting received extremely well and it seems to really try and move things forward artistically. It tries to do new things and on top of that, it’s just a really, really lovely place to work. The atmosphere here is really special and really friendly and I think that work atmosphere then translates to stage.”

The Fall concluded on BBC2 on Monday. Laura played one of Paul Spector’s victims in the Belfast set ratings success. Has she been pleased with all the feedback? “Absolutely, it’s been really superb feedback from the first episode, nothing but absolute positivity. There’s just been a real buzz about it and it got the highest viewing figures for its slot on BBC2 and has been commissioned for a second season so generally it’s just been an all-round success which is wonderful. It’s something I’m really proud to be a part of and particularly because it was based and filmed in Belfast with a largely local crew and cast so it was a really special experience at the time and now that it’s out, it’s something I’m very proud of.”

Sarah Kay, Laura’s character, is killed in a brutal attack from Jamie Dornan’s sexual predator. How did Dornan and Laura approach these violent scenes? “Well, the nature of our scenes were so intense that I think there was a natural quietness about the set. It always happens when you’re filming things that have that level of intensity or sensitivity and so we weren’t necessarily breaking in between scenes and then launching into lots of fun chats because both of us at that point want to remain relatively centred.

“There wasn’t some kind of method acting about it, we didn’t make a strict rule about staying away from each other or staying in character or anything like that. It was just a respect for the atmosphere that was on set.

“He was really, really lovely and wanted to make sure that I was okay and I know that he has said since that his priority in those scenes was to make sure the women he was dealing with were comfortable and it’s not an easy scene to shoot for anybody involved. He was very gentlemanly about the whole thing and really understanding. As much as scenes like the ones we were shooting can be in any way comfortable, they certainly were.”

For the full interview, see the June 15 print edition of The Irish World.

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