Patsy Ferran, currently playing Celia in Polly Findlay’s As You Like It at the National, is a happy bunny. Speaking to her might feel a tiny bit like interviewing a wide-eyed starlet, breathlessly grateful and excited by every opportunity – if she wasn’t so damn genuine.
She is excited and bouncy, but every word feels sincere – Ferran is just having a wonderful time: “Rehearsals have been so much fun – it’s just been bliss these past few weeks, it’s such a joyous play! By golly do I love this company. The idea that we’re spending the next five months together is so lovely. We’ve already spent six weeks together, and it’s looking like it’s going to be a joy. That word always really gross, doesn’t it? I just mean that I look forward to going into work. There’s been a lot of laughter.”
It helps that Ferran has worked with director Polly Findlay before, on the RSC Merchant of Venice and the NT’s Treasure Island, where she landed rave reviews for her turn as Jim Hawkins, both male and female at once. “I’ve worked with Polly a couple of times, I know what her language is, I know what she likes and what she means when she says certain things.”
As the cast prepares for previews, Ferran is finding that she’s having to brace herself for change: “It’s really easy to forget that previews are still a sort of editing, rehearsal process… it’s basically rehearsals with an audience. It’s amazing how you just assume that first preview is it, that this is what the show will be.
“Having worked with Polly before, I know that her mind works sooooo quickly during previews. She suddenly sees what it should be, or where a cut needs to go, or where you need to move. It’s usually a completely different show by the end of previews.
“I’m still learning to embrace that, even when you know that the change is for the better. When you have an audience, you suddenly know what the show is, what the show has to be. You can notice, ‘oh, that didn’t land’, or ‘that’s confusing’ or ‘that’s too dark, we need to lighten it up a bit’, and you just can’t know until you have an audience. Our job as actors is redundant unless there are people looking at us experiencing it. Otherwise, we’re just a bunch of crazy people in a room pretending to be other people!”
However much fun it’s been, Ferran doesn’t play down the hard work that goes into making a show. It’s easy to forget how young Ferran is, but she only graduated from RADA last summer. “I’m still learning to just play around and not worry too much about getting it ‘wrong’,” she tells me. “You just want to please, and as an actor you’re just trying to please everyone. That can be quite exhausting on the brain!”
Graciously, Ferran acknowledges that however hard the actors are working, Findlay is working harder: “We were discussing this yesterday, us actors, and saying, god it must be such a hard job to be the director! They have to have lots of spinning plates at the same time, and juggle all of them without allowing anything to smash! It’s a really admirable job, and we all respect that massively. She’s very open, she always says ‘try it and see’. It’s not a prescriptive process at all, we have a lot of freedom on stage. I still have a habit of putting my hand up, as if I’m in a classroom, and Polly always says ‘this is a democracy’.”
Having a democratic rehearsal room must be useful for a young actor, offering a safe space for experimentation. “Your job is much more fun when it’s a democracy in the rehearsal room. I like to compare acting to detective work – that’s how it feels to me – it’s partly saying these particular lines, but you have to investigate and bounce off each to discover why your character does these things or says this.
Within rehearsals, you go ‘I don’t really know what this means, but I know there’s something in this’. And then you can bounce off all the other actors, and become a detective and it’s like a mystery to solve. I love rehearsals that are like that. It’s my favourite part of the process without a doubt, just analysing and bouncing off each other. I’m not sure I’d love it as much if rehearsals were someone telling you what to do from behind a desk. I can imagine that being quite hard, even though it can work. Polly’s not like that at all – she’s always ready to debate, and I love a good debate. I love it.”
That said, Ferran never loses sight of their real job: telling a story onstage for an audience. “I do feel an extra pressure doing a classical play. A lot of the audience will have seen versions before, they’ll have a preconception of what they think the story is. You wonder, am I doing something wrong here, is this blasphemous? People love Shakespeare…”
“The thing is, you have to ask what’s the point, then, if you’re just rehashing the same old story, telling it in the same way. There has to be a reason to re-do a classic play – there’s so many ways of telling it. I wish people could just come and see a Shakespeare as if it was a new play – that would be so liberating. It’s about embracing it for what it is. Instead of wanting to get it right, it’s about learning to go onstage and go ‘I might be awful but I’ll embrace the awfulness of it… I’ll survive’.” A feeling of whatever happens, no-one’s going to die, I ask? “Yes! That’s exactly what I was trying to say.”
She’s right, of course – at the end of the day it is just some people in a room pretending to be other people. That doesn’t lessen the fear, though, especially when playing the National: “We had this conversation yesterday, going into the tech rehearsals, no longer in the safe space of rehearsals. You do feel, ‘I’ve got to nail this. I’ve got to nail it. I’ve just got to nail this’. And then you have to say ‘no’ to keep the panic and the fear from setting in. Just go onstage and embrace what could go wrong. Once you’ve got that in your head, once you feel that you could overcome something going wrong, you’re just free onstage. You can listen.
“The first day of tech, I’ve forgotten how to walk or talk. It always happens to me in the first hour or two of being onstage. The lights are on you, and you look at a table and chair, say, and have to stop and think, ‘now, which one do I sit on? Which one do I eat off?’ It’s hilarious how fear completely messes with your mind, but it does wear away as you get used to the space.”
How does she keep it together, then? “It helps that this play is hilarious. It’s ridiculous: a bunch of people are banished – you, go to the forest – a woman decides to dress up as a man, there’s some shepherds and some sheep… it’s bonkers! There’s something so light about it, but also beautiful. It’s all about love. Here’s this romantic hero, Orlando, whose head is in the clouds and is trying to play the romantic hero, and then you’ve got this woman dressed as a man, who’s now liberated to say ‘no no no, believe me, love isn’t easy, but it’s the best thing. It’s the best thing, but it is a bit of a mind f-u-c-k.”
There’s a small pause, as Ferran rather sweetly asks if she’s allowed to swear. Fuck, yes. “In that case, it’s a bit of a mind-fuck, is love.”
As You Like it runs at the National Theatre from the 26th October: more information here. It will also be broadcast live on 25 February to over 600 cinemas in the UK, and more round the world.