Features Q&A and Interviews Published 15 February 2013

Playing the Other

Our most dynamic of leading ladies Kathryn Hunter was born in New York and brought up in the UK. She trained at the University of Bristol and at RADA where is now an associate. As an actor she won an Olivier Award for her role in Complicité's The Visit and was the first woman to play King Lear professionally. She has directed at the Globe and is a former associate of the RSC, and has worked with figures as diverse as Peter Brook, Howard Barker, Max Stafford-Clark and Katie Mitchell.
Daniel B. Yates

In Film Quarterly’s review of All or Nothing the critic writes that, Cécile “at first seems to have wandered in from a different film … But unexpectedly, Leigh [sic] makes a seamless leap in tone, and despite their class and cultural differences, the two characters begin to bond genuinely over talk about their respective families.”  Now your current role as Elka in Leyla Nazli’s Mare Rider at Arcola similarly perhaps seems to come in from a different play: arriving a hard-drinking, bareback horse-riding figure of Turkish myth at a hospital bedside in Hackney where a mother has just given birth. Here the other is embodied in quite a different way?

Yes and somebody was asking me the other day, how am I supposed to cope as an actor with this strange mythical being which I’ve never heard of – who is apparently very well known in Turkish culture but here is completely unknown? So I suppose on a good night you just go “oh right I see the woman’s having a nightmare from her past” and then you begin to engage with the relationship.

I think at the end of the day whatever the story, whatever you’re playing in terms of a character who’s an outside or a stranger mythical or otherwise, it’s the ongoing relationship which is of interest, do you know what I mean? So I had to ask our playwright who’s Turkish who grew up with the myth of Elka, and in Dalston we met with a local Turkish psychiatrist who treats people with Elka Syndrome. Who have what we would call post-natal depression, but the patients come in and say Elka has made me hostile towards my baby, or made me lose my baby. So the fascination there of a culture or tradition that still exists, even in our modern world, but there are social mechanisms to deal with those psychological moments, of giving birth or indeed giving birth to a still-born child, moments of trauma and finding a way to process that. Where Western tradition would diagnose depression and prescribe drugs, this myth would talk of Elka. What Leyla has done in addition to that she’s said that this mythological figures sometimes have a witch-like status, they start as real people – non-conformists get called witches – so she has her own story, that there is something of setting that straight. So she says I’m not a witch, I became a witch because of other people’s attitudes.

So how do you go about in your performance moving between myth and woman, and not exoticising or reifying that?

I saw Jonathan Pryce play in an Edward Albee play The Goat or Who is Sylvia where he played a man who is in love with a goat, and you go “whaa?”. But he did it so convincingly, he just took that premise for real. This man is in love with a goat, and he finds her utterly beautiful and finds it unbearable as she suffers or to be parted from her, and he just accepted that premise, and it was extraordinary. So if you see the reason the play has been written, in Leyla’s case its to do with freedom, she’s asking are we more free as women today than we were a hundred years ago, in terms of being to choose when we have children, does that freedom of choice actually constitute freedom when end up having miscarriages and still-births because you’re leaving it later and later. So number one you go; this is a valid question as a play, and then she proposes a mythological creature. So my task is not to find out everything about this creature. And then as you say not do it in some vacuum, some place of emotional evillness, but find its full roundedness. I’m reminded of Silence of the Lambs, what made Hopkins unforgettable was that he wasn’t a kind of caricature evil person, he had humour he had a kind of strange twinkle, and Clarice falls in love with a monster.

You have roots in the Mediterranean basin, born to Greek parents in New York moving over when you 18 months you continued to speak Greek with your mother and have talked about clicking when you hear Greek music. Are any of those roots, or perhaps “routes”, useful to you in a role like Elka?

Oh definitely. She’s Turkish but I think for all their differences and historical hostilities of course, the cultures have a lot in common. So I tried to absorb as much as I could from Mehmet and Leyla, but access my Greek roots as well. The character Elka is born in a village in the mountains, there is that mentality of in Greece as well, that you’re married-off a certain age, that’s the lot of many women as well, to serve their menfolk and very much be there for the children and the keepers of the house, and not much else; and what Elka creates is the freedom from that. I was brought up in a culture of arranged marriages as well, narrowly escaped that fate because I had a mother who was quite non-conformist. I have cousins my age who are all married off, so I can connect with that culture constraint and the need to break through that, the yearning for a given kind of freedom.

A theatre in fashionable Dalston, the Arcola’s programming reflects its embedding in global diasporic London which seems to be something to seriously celebrate. It’s very different from somewhere like The Almeida, say.

No disrespect intended but I think the Almeida has garnered an audience which is a bit more elite; it didn’t use to be but I think it has become that. I don’t go there every night so maybe I’m wrong, but it feels that the Arcola has more cultural connections than the Almeida.

And you have a good relationship with Mehmet Ergun and and Leyla Nazli the artistic directors at the Arcola?

Yes I’m full of admiration for what they’ve done, their move into the new building was an act of tremendous determination in the atmosphere of funding cuts. One of the administrators here had the brainchild of an eco-friendly theatre building, and now other theatres are following suit – creating lavatories that run on certain systems, conserving energy using novel storage heating – tremendous ideas and they have certainly been forerunners in that. And then the programming is quite fearless as well, in terms of the span of it and the repertory angle, and I firmly believe the mainstream boards should be looking much more closely at our smaller homes.

Seeing you with your husband Marcello Magni in Gilles Aufray’s Tell Them That I am Young and Beautiful at the Arcola in 2011 changed a lot in the way I saw theatre, the manner it worked with physical and spatial resonances to conjure so much from so little, which, perhaps due to the intimate space, allowed me to “get it” much more than say, what I’ve seen of Peter Brook’s work – both you and Marcello have worked with Brook before.

Both Marcello and I believe that [conjuring], but with Marcello being a founder member of Complicite he has that so deeply rooted in his theatre bones, and he’d come from working very intensively with Peter for a couple of months as an actor in Fragments, and then he did the movements for Magic Flute observing Peter asking opera singers to drop any kind of pretensions of grand opera and actually talk to one another through the music and tell the story… And of course there’s room for all sorts of theatre, Robert Le Page has just opened with a huge extravanganza, but in some way Peter’s ahead of the game in terms of eschewing technology and going: “what’s the bottom line; it’s the human being isn’t it?” That’s not to say that it’s not wonderful to see visual beauty and extraordinary visual moments. But I think what Peter’s saying that the bottom line, at the end of the day is the human being, and putting more emphasis than ever on that in that. It feels like a kind of reminder, he’d never preach Peter, but a kind of sense that if we had nothing else, if all the lights failed, and that’s what we’re looking at human beings and their relationships, and that’s what we need to attend to, and we get a bit lost sometimes in the text and appearance.

Mare Rider continues at the Arcola until tomorrow.

My Perfect Mind, a A Told by an Idiot, Young Vic and Drum Theatre Plymouth co-production, is booking now.

Image by: Geraint Lewis.


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Daniel B. Yates

Educated by the state, at LSE and Goldsmiths, Daniel co-founded Exeunt in late 2010. The Guardian has characterised his work as “breaking with critical tradition” while his writing on live culture &c has appeared in TimeOut London, i-D Magazine, Vice Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives and works in London E8, and is pleasant.

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