BWW Interview: Priyanga Burford Talks THE WINTER'S TALE and PRESS

BWW Interview: Priyanga Burford Talks THE WINTER'S TALE and PRESS
Priyanga Burford and Oliver Ryan
in The Winter's Tale

Actress Priyanga Burford's past work includes Marcella, The Thick of It, UKIP: The First 100 Days and King Charles III.

She's currently starring in The Winter's Tale at Shakespeare's Globe, and will also soon appear in Mike Bartlett's new BBC drama Press.

The Globe must be the only theatre in which the audience and cast are not melting in the heat?

It's pretty hot! But I'm really impressed by everyone's stoicism - very British.

The Winter's Tale, if not a problem play, is a play with problems - so how do you deal with the distinct changes in tone?

That's tricky. I don't think we've "solved" it by any means - but we've tried to be really true to what the text is saying, exploring the main questions the play poses. What came out of that for me was an examination of a man who goes crazy and obliterates his family - and that feels weirdly psychologically real.

But there's also this idea about ultimate forgiveness and grace, and that there's always a way back - and that feels completely outlandish and magic! We want people to have a really good discussion on the way home, rather than us trying to solve anything or tell anyone what to think.

How do you respond to Shakespeare in the age of Brexit and Trump?

It's about being human. The wants and needs that people are looking for - mainly the need to connect - are always going to be true. The political parallels with what we're going through at the moment are there, but they're issues that have been relevant at many other times in history too. It's what makes these plays great plays - it's why we have 1,700 people coming to see them.

They're not particularly of a time. You can set something in a rural idyll called Bohemia and a 12th-century Sicilian court, but it's still about families, about old friends, about jealousies, about rage, about resolving things when trust has broken down between people. It's a cliché, but it's true - it's why Shakespeare is relevant.

How do you approach the role of Hermione?

I try to be as truthful as possible - you try to get to the person. I didn't look at the way anyone else had done it. I didn't read too much about how this is "supposed" to be done - I just looked at what was there in the text and what spoke to me about this woman and the situation she was in and the status that she had.

Shakespeare makes it very easy for the actors. For example, in the trial scene, from the way that the lines are written down, you can tell he was an actor-manager. He gives you massive clues about how it needs to be played - like how to breathe in the way he's broken up the lines. That goes a long way to suggest the state that the person is in, and then your imagination fills in the rest.

So Hermione is a strong woman who is trying to be a good person in the face of the complete surprise of this rage into which the person closest to her falls. She's trying to be rational and reasonable in the face of something so unreasonable and irrational. I was just trying to think about what a person in that situation might think like, speak like - how they would get through that.

The final scene, when Hermione's statue comes to life, is always a shock, even though we know it's coming. How do you play it in this production?

We staged it with me as a statue! I'm aware that productions have interpreted it in so many ways with such creativity. We chose to do it very simply - and I think that's true for the whole production. There's hardly anything on stage; apart from the actors, we have no real set. It's not a prop-y show, it's just us on stage, speaking the story. It's about relationships, and people seem to be loving it!

Press [on BBC One this autumn] is very much up to date - what's it all about?

It's Mike Bartlett's new TV series exploring the world of print journalism and journalists, of news and news gathering. It's a very uninterrogated world in drama.

It's not just about the way that newspapers function in a climate in which people are not buying as many newspapers, an industry in crisis since people can go to other sources for their news - they are more choosy. It's also about the lives of the journalists and the editors of the newspapers.

But it's not a "This Paper vs That Paper" idea. The two newspapers are competing for readers, though different readers, and there's no bias towards one paper being worthy and the other not.

I play the editor of a broadsheet newspaper called The Herald.

Bartlett had enormous success with King Charles III, in which the characters were based on real people. How did you avoid (or did you embrace) the fact that people have preconceived ideas about who journalists are?

I think the important word is "explore". Mike doesn't write goodies and baddies, he writes rounded people. Everyone in the show is capable of making really excellent choices and being really good leaders, noble and dignified.

Equally, in completely different situations, the same people can be terrible leaders, making awful decisions and being quite selfish. That's the joy of playing these characters - they're not based on any journalists in particular.

You've acted extensively on stage and for television - what are the similarities and differences?

For me, they are so very different. The speed at which things get done and need for stuff to be turned around is a contrast. Obviously, the immediacy of the reaction you get from an audience in a theatre is fantastic. You have to listen in a completely different way on stage compared to when you work on camera.

You have more autonomy as an actor on stage - there's just you and that's that. If things go wrong or stuff happens, you have to deal with it and carry on. Each performance on stage is transitory - once done, it's gone. Stuff you do on film is recorded and is there forever. You use different techniques in acting and get a different kind of enjoyment in the two formats. For me, they are two entirely different experiences.

The thing that nobody ever talks about is the money! It makes your life quite different as an actor...

Are any of those differences covered in drama schools?

A lot more now than when I was there. Graduates over the past two or three years are trained in camera acting - radio acting too. But acting, probably like journalism, is one of those things that you learn by doing.

What I notice on an HD screen is that people can't be flawed - it's almost not allowed - but we are. We have pores and spots, hair follicles, wrinkles and all sorts of normal stuff! There's only a certain extent to which you can obliterate them - and, frankly, I don't think that's ever desirable. There's something good about looking at a real human's face, with its imperfections and character.

Regarding acting, truthfulness and authenticity is desirable wherever you are, because that's what an audience will ultimately connect with. So while you need to employ different technical skills on stage and screen, the fundamental thing - about always telling the truth when you're acting - holds for both mediums.

It all comes from the same root, but in theatre it just needs to be amplified. You don't search for anything different - not with my acting anyway. You try to present something authentic to whatever audience you're serving.

The Winter's Tale is at Shakespeare's Globe until 14 October. Press airs on BBC One this autumn

Photo: Marc Brenner

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