Lesley Manville has had an astonishing few years of late, moving from Ibsen at the National (Pillars of the Community opposite Damian Lewis) to John Guare at the Old Vic (Six Degrees of Separation, playing Stockard Channing’s original role) and now back to Ibsen with his classic drama, Ghosts in Richard Eyre’s intense production at the Trafalgar. Equally well known from her work in film, most notably with the writer-director Mike Leigh, the warmly engaging actress chatted with Broadway.com about keeping the classics alive, not going Hollywood and her fervent wish to bring this most recent project to New York.
You’ve had an amazing few years, but your performance as Mrs. Alving in Ghosts seems special even by those high standards.
That’s very kind of you to say, and, you know, I do think Mrs. Alving feels like a kind of pinnacle—the culmination of a good few years of work that I’ve done in the theater and on film as well. It feels like the top of the mountain both in terms of the role and the play itself.
Commercial productions of Ibsen are pretty rare, especially ones that are selling out as yours is.
That’s very true, and I really do think we’ve broken a mold with this production, which in itself wouldn’t have been possible without doing it first at the Almeida, where the producer Sonia Friedman came to see us and now here we are. What Richard [Eyre, the play’s director and adaptor] has done is draw together a really good bunch of actors who were able to create the piece absolutely organically from the script that he had written and because of the talent in the rehearsal room, it just came very naturally to life.
Isn’t it amazing how how modern the play feels, even though it is being performed in period and was written in Scandinavia in 1881?
Yes, what Richard has done so subtly is help the audience to absolutely register that the play is talking about them even though, as you say, we have period sets and costumes and everything. There are nights when I say as Mrs. Alving that my whole married life has been a vile sham, and I can sense a gasp from the house and I know that some poor person is experiencing or has experienced a version of what I just said. All throughout, you can hear the audience tingling at certain lines that in Richard’s adaptation bring the material home.
You do seem to get an awful lot of roles where you are the mother to a dying child.
Oh God, I know! When I was doing [Mike Leigh’s play] Grief at the National Theatre, my onstage daughter was played by the real-life daughter of my best friend, Janine Duvitski, whom I watched being born, so it was very strange having her die there with me at each performance. But these have all been magnificent, complex roles so I can hardly complain.
How would you describe Mrs. Alving's dilemma in the play?
She has lived a lie her entire life—and kept the reality of her brutal marriage to her late husband quiet. She’s kept it a secret from her son, Oswald, who is on his way back to be with her from Paris, and even from the man she really loves who was the Pastor. The play can be said to take place at the point at which Mrs. Alving finds the courage to expose all of this because she has achieved a kind of liberation—until it then all takes a really bad turn.
Have you been getting audience members who think are coming to the now-closed London and Broadway musical Ghost?
[Laughs.] I don’t think so, but you never know!
Your career flies in the face of the often-cited assertion that parts for women dry up as they get older whereas yours seem only to get better.
I know, and I feel a bit guilty about that, but I think it is true that it gets harder. At the same time, I think there’s been a quiet change happening—a growing realization that there is an audience that wants to watch plays and television and films that deal with older women. So I do appreciate that the situation is difficult once you get to a certain age, but that I equally seem to be defying that!
You came to New York with Caryl Churchill’s now-classic play Top Girls some 30 years ago, and were married for a while to Gary Oldman, who became a major Hollywood star. Did you ever feel the need to base yourself in the States or make a bid for that kind of stardom?
Not really, but don’t forget that when I was in my 20s, nobody really did that. I know it kind of happened to Gary, but that was sort of an exception and that came about because he’d made Sid and Nancy and Prick Up Your Ears. Then he suddenly he got offered this film [in 1989] called Chattahoochee, which led to work in the States. It was very unusual at that time. Certainly actors in my circle didn’t have American agents and weren’t auditioning for pilot seasons—it just didn’t happen. I’m sort of glad it didn’t, really, because honestly I do think that the true test of a decent actress is how good they can be on stage.
Is part of your career resurgence due to the fact that your son with Gary is now grown?
Christ, yes! I was a single mother so there was a lot of stuff that I couldn’t do that—now that Alfie is 25—I obviously can do, so there’s a certain liberation to that. I remember particularly being asked to play Kate in The Taming of the Shrew for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford followed by a 17-week tour, and I couldn’t do it; I had a six-year-old son.
There is talk of Ghosts coming to New York. Would you be keen for that to happen?
No question about it, I would love to. I am not yet ready to walk away from this play.