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Actress Lisa Dillon's numerous stage credits include King John at Rose Theatre, Kingston, Hapgood at Hampstead Theatre, Design for Living at the Old Vic, The Knot of the Heart at the Almeida, and The Taming of the Shrew for the RSC. She's now back with the RSC playing Rosaline and Beatrice in Love's Labour's Lost and Much Ado About Nothing respectively. The acclaimed double bill, set either side of the First World War, begins previews at Theatre Royal Haymarket on 9 December.

Edward Bennett and Lisa Dillon
in Love's Labour's Lost

What was your first theatre experience?

I was cast in my primary school production as Mr Toad, and something extraordinary happened. I was possessed - all these adults looked aghast at this child transforming into this huge character. That's something very intuitive; it wasn't taught. Then I did drama club, LAMDA exams all through school, but nobody ever said "You should do this as a career" - I thought, to do that, you had to have lots of money or a famous family. So I went to university, but after seven months I knew it wasn't for me, so I decided to give drama school a go.

What did you learn from your time at RADA?

The first year was nine hours' acting a week and all technique - no text. John Beschizza was the most extraordinary teacher; I'll think of him until the day I die. That's the bedrock of my acting.

What was your first professional job?

Cambridge Spies for the BBC - I actually auditioned on the day of my RADA graduation. I got to fly out to Barcelona and play Toby Stephens' wife, so that was a great first gig.

Did you make a decision to focus more on stage than screen?

Sometimes I've turned telly down because a role on stage has interested me more. It's always about the writing and the role - I never want to be bored. Theatre has my heart. And I've been lucky there that people have been quite imaginative with my casting, so I was Gilda in Design for Living at the Old Vic, rather a glamorous Noel Coward piece, while rehearsing to play this damaged heroin addict in a fantastic play David Eldridge wrote for me - that was a really extreme contrast. I hate the term "strong women", but I love playing well-written, psychologically complex women.

Lisa Dillon, Leah Whittaker, Paige Carter and
Rebecca Collingwood in Love's Labour's Lost

Do you have a preference of revivals versus new work?

New writing is really exciting. Revivals can be as well, but you have to ask "Why are we telling this story now, and what can I bring to the role that's not invention for invention's sake?" If you can answer those, reviving a great work is a wonderful experience.

How big a challenge is it prepping two Shakespeare plays at once?

The technical and preview period was like nothing I've ever known, trying to get them simultaneously mounted. But in terms of the parts, I haven't had any crossover with lines. And I didn't imagine it, but one character really does inform the other. Love's Labour's Lost is more youthful and optimistic, more naïve - that first love - and then Much Ado is all about that history between them. It's romance at different stages of life, and how your relationship to love and disappointment changes.

The audience goes on the journey as much as we do. When we did our first double day in Chichester, we wondered if anyone would stay on for the second play, and about 600 did. It's such a great feeling when they clock that we're Beatrice and Benedick, having just seen us in Love's Labour's Lost. There's a familiarity already that makes it very special.

Do you enjoy that rep company element?

It is quite unusual now, but I love these really stellar company productions - they're not starry, rather they're as strong as each individual person in the show. If you just focus on star-casting, it becomes a vicious cycle, because then audiences pay to see names rather than for the work and the whole company. The story is bigger than all of us, particularly in Shakespeare.

How do you balance the tone of these productions?

Love's Labour's Lost is giddy and joyful, and then takes a very sharp turn at the end and we go somewhere quite bleak. Much Ado is a real roller coaster of high comedy switching to this very profound, heartbreaking scene after Hero's disastrous wedding. That exchange between Beatrice and Benedick is one of the finest scenes in terms of the language and the veracity of it - it feels so modern that you can't believe it was written 400 years ago. Then it's wonderful to end in a way that sends the audience out with joy in their hearts.

Lisa Dillon and Edward Bennett
in Much Ado About Nothing

How does the Great War framing contribute?

The world we occupy is very powerful and resonant - that last Edwardian summer, the golden days, and then all those young men leaving. Much Ado is set four years later, when everyone's changed - those left behind as much as those who went away. We often talk about men's experiences of war, but it was tough on women, who took on those new roles and then, when the men returned, that sense of purpose was taken away and they were made redundant again.

Right now, the role of men has never been so confused, and here we have a battle of the sexes, and people performing in a certain way because it's what society expects. Shakespeare's so clever: it's funny and warm, and then there's this kernel of truth you take away with you.

What's it like being in the West End at Christmas?

It's wonderful - you step outside and there's Leicester Square and all the lights. It's a real treat. My mum and dad have seen the production twice, but I'm sure they'll be along again, and it's great to be in town where friends can pop in too. The Haymarket is one of the most beautiful theatres, and it feels like a perfect fit - we've got a Christmas tree and all sorts of lovely festive elements. I'm thrilled that the RSC are doing work like this and bringing it to London. These pieces are really company-driven, and they thoroughly reflect the RSC's ethos.

Any dream future roles?

I've never really hankered after a role - I've been lucky that the right roles seem to come up at the right time for where I am in my life. And sometimes the most exciting parts are the ones you don't plan for - like I didn't know King John, but playing Constance for Trevor Nunn was incredible. The language was exquisite, and it had this depth of grief that made you think about Shakespeare losing a son in infancy. So I shall see what comes my way next!

I thought about your fantastic performance in Hapgood recently...

...when we lost the wonderful Howard Davies? Yes, that was such a special experience. I'd always wanted to do a Tom Stoppard play, and those two men have made such exceptional contributions to British theatre. Howard really was a director of the highest calibre.

Finally, any advice for budding actresses?

Trust your instincts, and where possible, don't choose work just because it's work, but because of the way it makes you feel.

Love's Labour's Lost and Much Ado About Nothing are at the Theatre Royal Haymarket 9 December-18 March, 2017

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

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