BWW Interview: Elliot Cowan Talks A DOLL'S HOUSE
A reimagining of Ibsen's classic by writer Tanika Gupta, the production sees Elliot Cowan return to the theatre. Taking us through his own history with the play, Elliot also shares an insight into the vitality and vision of Gupta's adaptation, set against the backdrop of British colonialism.
What are your earliest memories of theatre?
I had a really good education of theatre in school and through my parents. We lived in Colchester and we went to the Mercury a lot (there was a production of The Ghost Train that scared the bejesus out of me!)
And we'd go up to town to see the big musical every year: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Kiss Me Kate, Starlight Express.
But I think those coalesced towards a more serious grasp of things in secondary school.
What inspired you to pursue it as a career?
One that always twisted me in the guts to the point that I thought I had to something about being an actor was a production of King Lear at the RSC.
I was about 16 and I watched Robert Stephens give his King Lear. I didn't understand it much, we had the plot synopsis but I watched it with a distant kind of teen cynicism. But even watching it without understanding what was going on, I felt like "Wow!"
I still remember images from it. But it wasn't until he came on for the curtain call and he was so broken and so exhausted and so spent. I just thought, "My God, he's given his soul up". And that made me cry. I found that the most moving transformation and potentially what this whole art was about.
It was because of that that I first thought of it as a serious, proper job. Because there was so much invested in what he'd done and with such emotion and craft.
Since then, you've appeared across stage and screen. This summer you're appearing in Peaky Blinders.
Yes, that was something I did last year that's coming up.
That was wonderful, because I worked with Cil on one of my first professional, big productions in theatre in 2003. And the director of Peaky is currently Anthony Byrne whom I also knew before.
It was great to be asked to do that and be a part of such a thrilling and loved series. It makes it easier to come into a high profile series when it's with friends.
I imagine it's nice to jump between both worlds of stage and screen?
It is now. But I used to be quite binary about it, up until maybe this moment.
For the first ten years of my career, I made a quite specific goal to climb the theatrical ladder that exists in your head. Trying to perhaps reach the various rungs on it, characters or roles I wanted to play. Maccie B being one of them, Stanley Kowalski being another, Henry V. Coriolanus is one which I haven't done (yet!)
So I focused on that, which was at the expense of TV opportunities. But also not really, because I was learning my craft. Then when I started having kids, I really had to focus because I was very nervous about providing for them.
Now I think I'm a bit older, a bit more chilled and a bit more established perhaps, I suppose there is more of a mixing and melding. Honouring both income and artcome!
So talking about lists, did A Doll's House appear on that?
It's a bit like Stanley Kowalski which I encountered when I was at school. I started taking lessons for LAMDA medals when I was about 16, and I had a teacher who I'd go to every Thursday, and she'd bring these plays and parts to my attention. And Torvald was one of them.
Back then, I'd never heard of A Doll's House so I read the play and I watched Juliet Stevenson do it on a BBC film. And then I did it as an exam piece, so it was a little bit of a party piece. I've always thought back to that previous class and that one day I should go back and do this.
How did your revisiting it come about then?
Well actually, about a year ago I started trying to make that happen myself. I tried connecting with the right people to get a production together. And it wasn't quite working, so I ended up moving on to the next audition and projects.
But then this production came up and it was absolutely the time and place for me. And the way it came about was quite unexpected.
So this is a version by Tanika Gupta. She is Bengali-Indian and she has had this play in mind (or in draft) for a while now. I think it's exorcising and expressing some feelings she has about Indian history and British history and maybe her own family history, that she's brought to the characters and themes of this great masterpiece.
Tell us a bit about those themes.
Well even when I looked at it again myself about a year ago, I felt that it wouldn't be so interesting to just mount another old-fashioned interpretation of the play. Even though the gender themes are so strong and relevant, I felt that in the current atmosphere there needed to be other elements.
And lo and behold Tanika was way ahead of me!
She has skilfully set it in the same year as Ibsen's play, but put it in another country with different nationalities. So the marriage which is now between Tom and Niru, for all intents and purposes a kind of progressive, forward-thinking marriage of the time, seemingly demonstrating how well India and Britain could actually operate.
But as in the old play, where Torvald and Nora's marriage begins to crack because of secrets and inequalities due to their genders, Tom and Niru's begins to come unstuck because of racial issues too.
So all the recognisable tropes and characteristic of that marriage exist, but then there's this added nuance of how Brits treated Indian people and how there's a lack of equality there that no amount of progressive forgiveness can perhaps get past.
How does it compare or adapt the original text?
The structures are very, very similar if not identical which is a good thing, because it's a brilliantly structured play.
Plus the characters operate in very similar ways, but there are a couple of additions. There's one scene that's between Rank and Tom which is new, and there are moments new revelations occur because of the Indian setting.
And there's just an added frisson because of different groups of nationalities.
So how does the production speak to today?
Ultimately, it reminds us that we are not passed as much as we might think we are in terms of gender divisions and inequalities, as well as racial ones.
And even when you give lip service to something that's aware of racism or inclusivity, there are subtle micro-aggressions and divisions that white people may not see (and sometimes people who are not white don't see) until it's really screaming them in the face.
It's stimulating to be in the hands of such a brilliant playwright, but also exciting to know that with Tanika and Rachel O'Riordan at the helm and Lily Arnold's beautiful design, we are raising other issues that are in society still.
I'm excited by the revelations that it throws up.
And is this your first time performing at the Lyric Hammersmith?
I have been here once before a long time ago. It was one of my first lead parts in theatre. Neil Bartlett adapted a version of Camille and Daniela Nardini played Camille, I played Armand, and it was directed by David McVicar.
That was a key moment and play in my first London theatre. It was a great experience and Neil did wonderfully dynamic, brave, courageous work. I'm looking forward to being on the stage, since I remember how it felt. It's a beautiful theatre.
A Doll's House at the Lyric Hammersmith until 5 October
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks