David Hennessy speaks to actresses Michelle Fairley and Genevieve O’Reilly about Splendour, the Abi Morgan play coming to the Donmar Warehouse 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 with two of the four lead actresses Michelle Fairley from Coleraine and Dublin-born Genevieve O’Reilly. Being a miserable Friday with some relentless rain, it is perhaps apt for talking about a play set principally in one room although a rebellion rages outside.
Splendour by Abi Morgan centres around a crumbling dictatorship. Genevieve plays a Western photojournalist called Kathryn who waits for the soon-to-be deposed dictator, there to take his portrait.
The dictator’s wife Micheline, played by Sinead Cusacsk, Micheline’s best friend Genevieve (Michelle’s character) and 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 turns.
“It echoes what we saw at the end of the 80’s or early 90’s in Eastern Europe,” says Genevieve whose 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, 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.”
Genevieve adds: “Through the evening, you peel an onion.”
Michelle continues: “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.
“These two women who really have so little in common, these two women who start the evening in very different places emotionally, intellectually, historically, culturally, they reach a mutual understanding,” 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.”
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 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.”
Abi Morgan is known for screenplays like The Iron Lady and Shame as well as much TV. This play has not been done 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.
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.
Josie Rourke has been artistic director of the Donmar since 2012, following in the footsteps of Sam Mendes and Michael Grandage. In that time, she has directed Conor McPherson’s The Weir and seen McPherson’s The Night Alive premiere at the 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.”
Michelle, whose stage credits include Dancing at Lughnasa at the Old Vic and originating the role of Valerie in The Weir, was offered the 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 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.
Splendour runs July 30- September 26 at the Donmar Warehouse (http://www.donmarwarehouse.com/)