Causing a stir among local theatre fans, Sara Stewart (Sugar Rush, Doctor Foster, Fresh Meat) and Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, Luther), together with up-and-coming director Lisa Blair, are based in Sheffield over the coming weeks with the regional debut of their new play. Contractions, a gripping drama by Mike Bartlett, explores the insidious intrusion of management into our private lives, and pushes its effects to the extreme. Two weeks into rehearsals, we caught up with the cast and director to find out more.
Following tremendous success on London’s West End as Associate Director of American Buffalo, Lisa is enjoying her latest directorial challenge in Sheffield. This milestone marks a decided change from her first visit to the city for a students’ night out; an experience which, she recalls, was marred by being doused in Snakebite by a clumsy punter upon arrival. Since those days, Lisa’s theatrical career has taken her across the country, working on a range of shows from The Merchant of Venice to The History Boys.
Friendly, considered and down-to-earth, Lisa has stayed grounded despite her successes. “I don’t think you ever get to a point where you feel you’ve ‘made it’”, she reflects, “and I hope I never will. If you enjoy what you do, that in itself is enough. Part of the excitement of this job is looking forward to the next project and the challenges it will bring; the next play is so different from the last that you’re always concentrating on the work in hand”.
The excitement of the job is looking forward to the next project and its challenges.
Contractions is certainly a step away from the merriment of a West End musical. It throws a spotlight onto the dark underbelly of corporate culture, unleashing its dystopian potential onstage to nightmarish effect. However, despite its fantastical elements, Lisa assures me the plot is grounded in dark reality. “At the very heart of the play, there’s a lot of dark humour, and it’s through that humour that we identify with the world on stage. It starts off with the very minutiae of what a working environment can be, and then we go somewhere that’s completely surreal and epic, but we absolutely draw parallels with real life. For example, having to declare relationships at work really is in a lot of contracts. So in that sense, the play deals with a lot of issues that we’re familiar with”.
The plot sounds like an ominous glimpse into the future, and I’m fascinated to learn how this fusion of reality and surrealism can be created on stage. Reflecting on the process behind bringing the play to life, Lisa feels that “as a director, when you read a script, you can’t help but imagine the world that the language is creating. It’s a gut reaction in terms of how it makes you feel, and the images that flash up in your mind while you’re reading. For my next step, I try to pull images from everywhere and anywhere that mean something to me in relation to the play, perhaps representing the feelings it addresses”.
This strikes me as a useful method to adopt, but on her most important advice for an aspiring director, Lisa is resolute. “You have to understand the actor. Both the text and the actor are at the centre of a piece from the director’s point of view. If you can’t understand an actor’s process, you’re unable to input into their choices or help to create that vision. It’s about building a relationship”.
You can look at a text and conjure up a whole world from it.
On the subject of careers advice, I’d like to know who inspired Lisa at the outset of her own. She instantly recalls her sixth form drama teacher as a source of guidance and encouragement. “He made it clear that we needed to see a whole range of works, from opera to comedy to high drama to farce, in order to truly understand the vocabulary of theatre. He was a big influence, and he helped me to realise that you can look at a text and conjure up a whole world from it”. Fortunately, Lisa is still in touch with her teacher, and still thinks back to his advice when embarking on a new project.
Building on his influence, Lisa hopes to use her own talents to support the next generation of aspiring theatre-makers. On Saturday 9 July, she is running a workshop in Sheffield, which, she says, “will emulate a professional process which is director and actor-led. It’s a way of understanding what happens in a rehearsal room, and how you delve into a text and explore it together”. Find out more about Lisa’s workshop here.
Before moving on, I ask Lisa how she would sum up Contractions in just one word. She ponders for a moment. “Identity”. I’m suitably intrigued.
Approaching Sara’s table, I can’t help but feel a little like Fresh Meat’s Oregon encountering Sara’s formidable Professor Jean Shales – completely out of my depth. While the renowned actress is just as glamorous in real life, she is, thankfully, much less intimidating, and greets me with a warm smile and a genuine interest in student coverage of Contractions.
I’m having to learn how to not give anything away.
Far more hostile is Sara’s character in the play, The Manager, who unwaveringly enforces her company’s policies at any cost. I’m curious to find out how Sara gets into the mind of such a ruthless individual. “I think ‘ruthless’ is the perfect word, because she’s not evil, she’s professional. She works in a system that values productivity above all else, so in order to be the most effective she can be, she has to disassociate from her feelings”. For Sara, then, this marks a step away from the norm; she tells me, “as actors, we’re used to being connected to and displaying our feelings. I’m having to learn how to not give anything away, which is quite challenging”.
However, there is no question of Sara not being up to the task – her career spans a great number of successes, not least her role in Doctor Foster, a TV drama masterminded by Mike Bartlett, the writer of Contractions. On advice for someone wishing to follow in her footsteps, Sara’s reaction is instant – “Come and see the play! It’s occurred to me that this is a play that young people in particular will enjoy”. Beyond that, Sara urges young actors “not to feel like you have to change yourself to fit into a pre-existing business. Have confidence in what you have to bring, because it’s your uniqueness that makes you valuable – not attempting a weak impersonation of lots of other things that already exist”.
I’m curious as to whether Sara has personally encountered this demand to conform. “I think it was my training, actually. I arrived with a lot of piss and vinegar, and left feeling a bit less sure of myself; even though, in many ways, it was the making of me”. To negate this pressure, Sara advises a prospective actor to “play around with writing things yourself, improving things, follow your own voice. You’re a creative soul, and your creativity is the most important thing to hang on to. It can feel a bit like a business sometimes, but people are always looking for a fresh voice, fresh ideas”.
Have confidence in what you have to bring, because it’s your uniqueness that makes you valuable.
Sara has certainly been involved in many original and innovative works, and I wonder what stands out for her. Musing over the highlights, Sara reflects, “I’ve been very lucky, I’ve worked consistently with really talented, exciting, creative people, so there’s always been something for me to feel a sense of privilege about. I suppose the first ‘pinch-me’ job was filming Mrs Brown, because I was surrounded by personal heroes, like Billy Connolly, who I’d grown up loving, and Judi Dench, who everyone adores. It was also set in the highlands, which I have a soft spot for, being Scottish myself. I was still young, and there were just so many factors that all came together”.
And the most fun? Lisa chooses her role as Stella in Sugar Rush, remembering “I just loved playing Stella. She was so badly behaved, and I really admired her fight for life. Plus, we got to wipe trifle all over each other, which was good fun”.
Drawing on her rich and varied experience, Sara is candid about the differences between filming and acting for a live audience. “Theatre is more collaborative because we’re all sharing our ideas, we’re all growing this beast together. Whereas when you’re filming, they want you to come ready-made; knowing your lines, already in character. While there may be direction, it tends to be more superficial. Where you should sit, for instance, or how angry you should get. You’re not exploring the deeper themes, the deeper meanings, the deeper psychology, which is what you get into in a theatre room. And the bottom line is, by and large, the writing for theatre tends to be better. You’re dealing with a more intelligent script – a script that has something to say”.
Before I leave, I’d love to know what Sara makes of Sheffield, and she is full of praise. “I think it may be the friendliest city I’ve visited in this country. There’s such a lovely warmth to the people here. And I get called ‘duck’, which I like”.
Known to thousands as the fiery Ygritte of Game of Thrones fame, Rose Leslie is much more approachable in reality. Friendly and engaging, she is keen to “have a proper scope around Sheffield” as soon as possible. As I catch her between lunch and a scheduled call from BBC Breakfast, she describes the play as an exciting shift in her career.
“I haven’t done theatre for a very long time, but in drama school we did a lot of classical texts. From my experience, this is the most camera-esque theatre acting I’ve done, because there’s so little movement, there’s no physicality. We’re on a disc that we never penetrate, and every minor detail gets picked up, so in that way it does mesh with my experience of camera-work. It’s such an intimate space and an intimate play – it’s very intense”.
The play’s relentless 50 minutes of escalating drama is nothing if not intense, and Rose’s character, Emma, comes under immense pressure as her privacy is increasingly attacked. During her rise to fame, I’m intrigued to find out whether Rose has faced similar pressures from the public eye. “Gosh!”, she exclaims, “Can you imagine, to that extreme? It would be utterly terrible!”. Reassuringly, Rose confirms that she’s never been forced into such an extreme situation, but believes this is because “I’ve been incredibly fortunate with the jobs I’ve worked in and the people I’ve worked with. I feel lucky that I’ve had the older generations to fight for me; they’ve made me realise that it’s OK to speak up”.
I feel lucky that I’ve had the older generations to fight for me.
Although she does not share Emma’s experiences, Rose maintains a deep sense of admiration for her character. “I see her as a figure of resistance, and in my mind she still goes down fighting. When we first meet her, she gives The Manager as good as she gets. She’s ambitious and determined, and so she does push back. We understand her internal struggle, as well, because she verbalises all her frustrations. She doesn’t make it easy for The Manager”.
It’s clear that Rose is relishing the development of her character, and indeed, when I ask what’s been her most enjoyable role to date, she tells me that she’s ‘genuinely loved’ working on Contractions so far. Besides that, she has great memories of her time on Luther, which she says was “a lot of fun. I was such a huge fan of the show before so it was very cool to be part of it. I also got to shoot a gun. Being on set with Idris Elba was a lovely experience, I was like ‘How is this happening!’”.
With Downton, I was being called for something. It was extraordinary.
As well as Luther, Rose has already amassed an impressive collection of titles. Since leaving drama school, she has appeared in several films including The Last Witch Hunter, and series such as Utopia and of course, Game of Thrones. I’d like to know whether she can pinpoint a defining moment when acting became her reality. “Years and years ago”, she tells me, “I happened to be in the first season of Downton Abbey, before it became the phenomenon that it is today. At that point, I was very excited just to have a job!”. She emphasises the uncertainty that comes with the territory, remembering, “I was proud of the fact that I was then a series regular, and I had a gig for something like six months. Before that, it was hand-to-mouth, it was episodic; an appearance here, a play over there. But with Downton, it was something I was being called for – it was extraordinary”.
Recalling how she dealt with the turbulence of this journey, Rose cites the training she received at The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA) as influential. “Spending three years at drama school really helped to prepare me for the challenges of the industry. When you’re in that bubble, you’re constantly told by older students and teachers that it’s never going to be an easy path. It will be fluctuant, there will be (hopefully sporadic) moments of unemployment. The advice we received meant that none of the graduates in my year expected an easy ride. So whenever anything seemingly disastrous has happened, I’ve always overridden it with the knowledge that I should pipe down, because at least I’m actually working”.
Throughout this journey, I’m intrigued to learn which actors have inspired Rose in her choices. She jumps in decisively, “Helen McCrory. I love her work, particularly on stage. Also, one of my favourite films is Gone With The Wind, and I’d say it was Vivien Leigh who inspired me even contemplate pursuing acting as a career”. However, Rose hugely appreciates the vast range of talent across the industry. “There are so many, aren’t there, onstage and in camera-work? I think in this play, we’re all particularly proud to be part of an all-female cast, including the director. When you think of all the brilliantly talented female actors and directors out there, there’s an abundance of them”.
Contractions opens tomorrow night at The Crucible’s Studio Theatre, and will run until Saturday 16 July. For tickets and more information, click here.