BWW Interview: Emma Fielding On A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE
Actress Emma Fielding's work ranges from Arcadia, Private Lives and The King's Speech to Terror and The School for Scandal. She's now playing Mrs Allonby in Oscar Wilde's A Woman of No Importance at the Vaudeville Theatre, currently in previews.
What was the first theatre you saw?
I remember pantos in the holidays, and Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita when I was really quite little. I loved it immediately because you're taken away somewhere completely different - the music, the story, and you're sitting in the dark with loads of other people sharing it together, which just takes your breath away.
If you're lucky enough to have access to theatre, it's like running away with the circus. You're all consenting to pretend you're not there in the service of something magical.
Was it a hard decision to give up your law degree?
That was really quite brief, and I basically cut my losses. It's not something I'm proud of - it was a fantastic opportunity, and I was an arrogant teenager who took university for granted. I could have stayed on and changed courses.
I liked the idea of law, but of course I realised what I was responding to was the performance element of it. And then studying criminal law you come across these great narratives in cases. But I could never remember the legal precedent - just the story.
Did you pursue acting straightaway?
I had a bit of a hiatus after university, doing temp jobs. I worked in the box office at the Apollo, which was wonderful because you saw the range of what stage can be: everything from Roy Chubby Brown to the Welsh National Opera or selling ice creams at an Anthrax concert. The Anthrax fans would line up very politely actually - all these massive hairy blokes!
I learned a lot about audiences: why people go, how they behave, and what you can do to make their whole experience as pleasant as possible. It may be work for you, but someone's chosen, on their night off, to pay money to come and watch something - it's a special night out for them. It's easy to lose sight of that.
What drew you to the Royal Scottish Academy?
It took me three years to get into drama school - which does give you a certain persistence! I tried London schools and got put on waiting lists; I had four recalls at Central, which was almost worse than if they'd said no straightaway. Then someone I was working with in the box office said "I'm auditioning at the Scottish Academy" - now the Royal Conservatoire. I did all my recalls there on the same day and got in.
My dad was from Scotland, so it felt like a good fit, and I had access to funding and grants. We were supported for the whole of the Edinburgh Festival, and because of the support the intake there was a much wider demographic, which I loved.
That's something that really needs to be addressed in drama now. We were from all sorts of backgrounds and we all learned from each other. Even approaching a classic text, you bring your life experience to it and you listen to the other people in the room.
What was it like working on the original production of Arcadia?
It's funny, I initially said to Harriet Walter, "I can't get this character Thomasina - she's so hard." And Harriet touched me gently on the arm and replied: "Emma, a character like that has never been written before." Of course you don't know how an audience will react when it hits the world. In my naiveté - I wasn't long out of drama school - I thought these things happened all the time.
We were in rep at the National, and it wasn't until our first break, after press night, that the reality of it hit home and it was quite overwhelming. I'm glad I hadn't realised the enormity of it before then, because you need a kind of blind courage.
I was also so grateful we got to geek out! Sam West and I met Robert May in Oxford, and he wrote an algorithm for us and patiently explained the science of it, or as much as we could grasp. Tom Stoppard is an autodidact and so curious about the world - he makes friends with all these amazing people, and granted us that access.
What's the trick to getting an ensemble piece right?
You have to trust the director, the designer, everyone around you that you're the right piece of the puzzle - once you do, it takes the pressure off you. A Woman of No Importance is Anne Reid's party, and Eve Best and Dominic Rowan's past is the driving force, so you have to work out which notes to play in this story as a whole.
I was pleasantly shocked when the call came through for this. To be at the beginning of an endeavour like Dominic Dromgoole's Wilde Season, where you're doing well-made plays in a beautiful theatre, with a brilliant cast, in the West End - it's really special.
What has your response been to the play?
I'm constantly surprised by it. I had preconceptions of Wilde, as many people do, but it's very rich, very thoughtful, as well as wonderfully clever and witty. My character, Mrs Allonby, she's fantastic to play - she really gives as good as she gets, sparring with Lord Illingworth. Wilde creates brilliant, proto-feminist parts. He writes women with affection and grace - they're flawed and contradictory.
And you have that brilliant monologue about what makes an ideal man
I've been trying to get that in my head, and make it sound like I'm making it up on the spot, which is tough! You forget that in Wilde these people don't necessarily think they're being hilarious - they just talk. It's almost like Shakespeare in that sense.
How has Dominic Dromgoole approached the work?
From day one he's tackled it in a really astute way. There are times it feels Chekhovian. Wilde was the great man of this new theatrical realism. When he was acclaimed in the Fifties and Sixties it was very poised, but Dominic was interested in going back to first principles. Wilde actually saw Hedda Gabler, so it's interesting to put it in that context.
It's seemingly contradictory, but not if you think of these as drawing room comedies where it's actually quite naturalistic, just with this performative social layer from the house parties - and then the real world comes crashing in. Wilde's puncturing the worldview of the idle rich. He had affection for that world, but he knew its hypocrisies.
What's it like playing it at the Vaudeville?
It's fascinating, because of course this is the type of theatre the plays were written for - the traditional proscenium arch. The Vaudeville's been completely refurbished, so it's maintaining that tradition but with more comfort. Some of these West End theatres are rather fur coat and no knickers - wonderful grandeur, but then backstage it's Victorian plumbing and sharing dressing rooms with wildlife!
You've done a variety of work recently - what attracts you to a project?
The last three things I did because I was scared of them. With Madame Bovary at Liverpool, Peepolykus are known for devising work, whereas I've done more 'straight' plays, so that was finding a new theatrical language. Placing clowning and tragedy together worked brilliant - they highlight each other - and doing it with just the four of us was a great challenge.
Then Terror at Lyric Hammersmith, when I first read it I thought "I don't know if this is a play" - it seemed untheatrical. But of course the investment from the audience, because they know they have to vote on an outcome, it made them listen and engage in a different way.
Are there particular roles you'd still love to tackle?
It's an endless list. Lots of classical roles: Chekhov, Strindberg, Shakespeare - perhaps something like Paulina. But I tend to keep that wish list in my head and just stay open to the next thing.
What I loved about my training is it was all about transformation. I feel like it's still more acceptable for male performers, rather than female, to completely transform physically - which is frustrating, because I played a 50-year-old man at drama school! It should just be about getting under someone's skin.
Are there fewer opportunities for actresses later in life?
Things are slowly shifting, though certainly you hear lots of actresses over 40 saying there's less work. More female writers and directors makes all the difference. It's slow progress, but I'd love to still be doing this when I'm 80. The scare stories about cross-casting do annoy me - there's plenty for everyone, so you're not doing someone down.
There's more awareness now certainly, and you have people like Jeremy Herrin, Michelle Terry, Erica Whyman working incredibly hard. Seeing an RSC season with all female directors is wonderful. Someone like Paule Constable is a world leader and she's worked tirelessly to achieve that. But I do think quotas are needed to change the middle ground. No one will be employed just because they're female, but it'll shift the culture and help great female talent to come through.
Do you see a difference with young women entering the profession now?
I love that they don't question their right to be there. It took me a good few years before I told people what I did for a living. Now, 19-year-old women are writing a play, and acting, and saying "I'm also a musician", and there are no barriers to their ambition. I find that really moving.
It also feels less tribal - they're happy to go from Wilde to devised work, nothing's mutually exclusive, which I'm embracing now. We're all performers at the end of the day.
Finally, how do you hope audiences respond to A Woman of No Importance?
I hope it blasts away any preconceptions of Wilde. It will move, entertain, surprise, and it'll be a good night out. There's something really truthful about it. I'm also thrilled that there are £20 seats for every performance, so it's theatre open to everybody.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner, Richard Mildenhall, Jonathan Keenan