Irish actresses Michelle Fairley and Genevieve O’Reilly talk to David Hennessy about Splendour, the play by Abi Morgan (Brick Lane, The Iron Lady, Shame) opening at Josie Rourke’s Donmar Warehouse this week, which features four women and their different viewpoints of the collapse of a dictatorship.
To discuss a play set in an opulent drawing room during the fall of an oppressive dictatorship, the Irish World met two of the four lead actresses, Michelle Fairley, from Coleraine, and Dublin-born Genevieve O’Reilly. Being a relentlessly rainy Friday, it was perhaps apt the conversation was about a play set principally in one room as a rebellion rages outside.
Splendour is all about a crumbling dictatorship. Genevieve plays a Western photojournalist called Kathryn who waits for the soon-to-be deposed dictator, as she is there to take his portrait.
The dictator’s wife Micheline, played by veteran Irish actress and star of stage Sinead Cusack, 67, Micheline’s best friend Genevieve (Michelle’s character) and Hackney actress Zawe Ashton’s interpreter, Gilma, wait with her but the dictator is already late, very late.
On the day the revolution comes to the streets all four women harbour secrets and suspicions. All four are in danger in a play that allows a glimpse into the minds of four very different women as their world is upturned.
“It echoes what we saw at the end of the 80s or early 90s in Eastern Europe,” says Genevieve, 38, whose recent TV credits include Episodes and The Honourable Woman. “This is a fictional country so it’s not any specific piece of history but it’s drawing on the historical characters.”
Michelle, 52, known to Game of Thrones fans as Lady Stark, says: “As the play progresses, the layers of the characters come off as well so you start to realise the dynamics between them, what has caused that person to be like that, why that person’s like that, Kathryn’s job is a photographer going around the world, Gilma the translator.”
Genevieve adds: “Through the evening, you peel an onion.”
Michelle continues: “It’s a pressure cooker really because everybody’s pretending that what is going on outside is not going on and that whole evening is spent waiting for the dictator to arrive to get his photograph taken and eventually as it gets darker and the sounds get closer, the tension ramps up.
“It works on so many levels. Even though it’s in the moment and it’s exciting, there a pieces of poetic lyricism in there. It’s modern, it’s contemporary and it’s four women. When I read it, I was like, ‘why have I never seen this play before?’
“It’s probably simply because it’s four women. If it was four men, it would be done constantly. It’s fantastic and they’re all strong characters and they all change and meld and you can see their brains working, they’re intelligent women, they’ve made choices about how to be or how to act simply for their own survival.”
The play jumps forward and back in time, both reflecting on the memory of that night in the drawing room and returning there from various perspectives.
Although their characters have very different starting points with Kathryn very much an outsider and Genevieve holding an insider’s view, do the characters reach some kind of mutual understanding? “Our two characters start in such different places and they have a deep history together which is unveiled throughout the course of the play,” begins Genevieve.
Michelle continues: “It’s that thing of taking the time, the fact that they’re in this room, it’s the chinks of light that characters are allowed to absorb of other people change their thinking of us so you’re not just a dictator’s wife’s friend, you’re not just a widow.”
Genevieve comes in again: “You’re not just a woman. You’re a deeply felt character, woman with rivers running through you like we all are and I do think that we all reach understandings of each other through the course of the evening with the pressure of the night’s events and the inevitability of cultural collapse.”
This is a trait of the interview with both actresses finishing each other’s sentences or points, very much on the same wavelength. Their enthusiasm for the play is very much in evidence.
It’s fair to say that neither Genevieve’s or Michelle’s characters approve of the dictator. Does that mean both have morals that have to be ignored or suppressed in order to do their job or be a good friend? “Those are the questions that we will be presenting to the audience,” says Genevieve.
Michelle says: “They are addressed in the play. A lot of it is how you live your life the way you have had to live it because of your environment as well, the person you have become in order to survive. In order to see your path of survivial, these are the choices you have to make.”
Genevieve adds: “Those questions are asked of each one on the stage. Because I’m a western journalist, I don’t speak the language of the dictator’s wife or her friend so we need an interpreter. That provides complications as well because it’s quite a powerful position to be in.”
Michelle asks: “What’s her agenda?”
Genevieve continues: “Who is she and what is her history? How is she in this room? That is unveiled as well throughout the evening. Abi doesn’t give any character a free ride, she asks questions of all the characters and each of them has to get their hands dirty.
“The character of the Genevieve is the dictator’s wife’s best friend so you can imagine how intricate and difficult that relationship would be in Eastern Europe of the time or in any dictatorship, how you navigate that friendship. Michelle has a very emotional performance to give.”
Michelle says: “Everybody does. It’s the story that they are telling from their own point of view. Kathryn talks about what she sees and how she copes with what she sees in her capacity as a war photographer, what she could cope with, I couldn’t cope with. And you can imagine from what Abi has created, these are not nice dictators, they come with all the baggage.”
Genevieve laughs: “Are there nice dictators? I’m not sure there are.”
Michelle says: “You know what I mean. Whatever you know about a dictator, multiply it.”
Genevieve adds: “You see well rounded women, you see difficult, complicated women under pressure but you see friendships and love and moments of light.”
Abi Morgan is known for screenplays for The Iron Lady and Shame as as much her TV writing, such as The Hour. This play has not been performed since it premiered in 2000, and has never been seen in London. Michelle has acted in her work before with a role in TV’s The Invisible Woman.
Morgan’s association made the play attractive from the start but Genevieve who has starred at the National Theatre, The Old Vic and Dublin’s The Gate, says: “She writes brilliant women. I think we’re getting more interesting women now. Hopefully it continues.
“I think the more people see it, the more people enjoy it, the more people talk about it, the more people write it. People want to see it.”
The issue of more reflective female parts on stage, television and cinema is one that has voiced increasingly in recent years. Michelle says: “Society changes and writing should reflect society. Women are increasingly pushing and pushing and pushing for respect, equality and equal pay and there are amazing women talents, women writers out there and it’s just getting them on. Apart from the classics, you want contemporary roles as well. You don’t always want to be running around in a corset, do you know what I mean?”
“I know what you mean,” says Genevieve.
Salford-born, Cambridge-educated Josie Rourke, 39, has been artistic director of the Donmar since 2012 (she is a former artistic director of The Bush Theatre in west London and was a protege of her predecessor at the Donmar, Sam Mendes), following in the footsteps of Mendes and Michael Grandage. In that time, she has directed Conor McPherson’s The Weir and premiered McPherson’s The Night Alive at her London venue.
Michelle goes on: “This is an important piece, this is the Donmar doing a season where they’re putting lots of strong women in roles in plays and that has to be acknowledged, that has to be done well, it can’t fail. Josie is a woman running this brilliant theatre and her tenure is to get women writers in, women actors, get new plays going and make sure that they represent society.
“I just couldn’t believe that I’ve never come across it (Splendour) before.”
Genevieve says: “And hopefully we can do it justice.”
Michelle, whose stage credits include Dancing at Lughnasa at the Old Vic and originating the role of Valerie in The Weir, was offered her Game of Thrones role after being seen in Othello at the Donmar Warehouse in 2008. Michelle continues: “Rob (Hastie)’s direction of it as well is so layered, the analogy of tectonic plates has been used in the rehearsal and when they shift.”
Genevieve adds: “There’s a seismic energy.”
Michelle says: “Absolutely, then there’s a tsunami waiting to happen. It’s about building that pressure to the point of collapse, it’s a very challenging play. It’s incredibly challenging for actors and I just hope the audience go with the ride because it’s a lot to take in, we establish a lot very quickly but if they go with it, they’ll go on a wonderful trip.”
Genevieve says: “The play is very different to any play really that either of us have done before, it’s memory so it rewinds, resets, bits of earlier in the evening are plucked and recharged into a scene while they weren’t there before. It is not a linear play by any stretch, it is quite circular.”
Michelle says: “We like calling it a beast. We’re trying to tame the beast.”
“And sometimes the scorpion flicks its tail,” says Genevieve.
Michelle says: “Even at the end of it, I know I’ll be coming away going, ‘sh*t, that’s what that was about.”
Genevieve agrees: “I know. It often happens that I finish a show and then I wake up three months later going, ‘Ah, that’s how I should have done that‘.
“It’s always growing, it’s always changing and that’s what live theatre is. I don’t like to use that word organic but it is a living, breathing piece. That’s why theatre is exciting still.”
- Splendour runs from 30 July to 26 September