Features Q&A and Interviews Published 22 January 2014

Taking Control

This interview was recorded at the National Theatre on Saturday 12th January sitting at table near the entrance to the Olivier.
Andrew Haydon

Having talked about how annoying it is that every interview talks about Hattie coming from a “theatrical family” (her dad is Peter Hall-era NT associate director Christopher Morahan and her mum is Olivier-and-Hall-era NT ensemble actor Anna Carteret) we start with precisely that subject…

Andrew Haydon: [You coming from a] “theatrical family” thing is interesting, though…

Hattie Morahan: No, no, no, I get why it’s interesting, I guess it’s when it becomes the headline… But I don’t resent it. I feel really lucky. I’m not complaining. I just want to make that clear. It’s just sometimes you go [makes disappointed sound].

AH: I’m reading Stage Blood at the moment, the Michael Blakemore book, and that makes theatre feel very tribal, so I wonder if being born on “one side” makes, I dunno, makes you… how to put this? It’s quite interesting that you come from that particular background and then you did all that work with Katie Mitchell, which *could* *arguably* be characterised as being of a different sort of tradition maybe? I mean, do you end up feeling like you have a foot in both camps? Or is it not that tribal?

HM: I think there is an element of tribes… Or… I don’t know about “tribes”. I know what you mean. And that’s the sort of popular impression from outside, and definitely there are different schools of thinking but it feels too simplistic to say “there’s two camps…”

AH: No. I wouldn’t have said *two*…

HM: That feels like it almost happened by accident. Like, you know, I happened to audition and do a play with Katie and it blew my mind and totally changed the way I think and work and, erm…

AH: This is Iphigenia?

HM: Iphigenia, yes. And there were times when, in some of her productions, when my parents would come, and – this is the caveat: they’re immensely supportive and my parents they’ve often really loved her work and loved those productions as well – but the very constructive criticism or thoughts they might be giving me feel like different planets from what Katie’s thinking was. And there were times, when I was less experienced, when sometimes it was difficult to know how to process that in a way that. I suppose if your family aren’t in the business and they come they’re not going to start saying… They’re not going to start giving you notes – technical notes. But that’s totally fair.

AH: But it is interesting.

HM: But that’s just something one has to process and I totally respect their opinions. One just then has to make a judgement and go: “Ok, what’s useful in this moment? What’s going to change what we’re doing?” Katie has a very… She acknowledges the fact very openly in rehearsals that as soon as people start coming to see it you’re going to start hearing these different ideas. And so she encourages people to contribute them as part of the feedback during previews. And I guess she tries to instil confidence and strength in the company to say “I hear you”. “I may not follow your suggestion but…” So that’s very much something that’s openly acknowledged – there are going to be outside influences in a way that in most productions that happens, and someone’s wife, or someone’s husband, or someone’s friend will say something major and their performance will be changed, and it’s like “What’s going on?”

AH: Yeah. She said something similar about reading reviews and taking notes that related to things that could be made clearer. But not, y’know, “take all the dancing bits out”. That’s not up for grabs… Going back to what you said about it blowing your mind, can you say why?

HM: Well, at the risk of being boring about my own acting career, I hadn’t trained so I went straight in from university and was sort of leaping from pillar to post just throwing instinct and working like a hamster on a wheel, trying to… Any job I got, trying to go, “Ooh, what does this need? I need to be like *this*, I need to be like *this*” on it. But there was no system. I’m not saying that one has to have a system, but I’m quite… I like systems. I like rules and logic. Anyway. I just loved – I mean, it’s essentially just Stanislavsky, the system Katie works with, but – I just loved the structure of it. I loved the atmosphere of the room, and the fact we, you know, it was sort of like going back to school [before the interview started Hattie had mentioned she had loved her school years. “Couldn’t wait for the holidays to end” was her joking characterisation], and we’d kind of get given tasks and sent off to do different things.

It was just, I guess, just the very fact of having a systematic approach to the material that was shared within a company and shared with such humour and love for human fallibility, both in terms of the psychological investigation one’s doing of the characters, but also embracing one’s limits and flaws within a room. She dispels fear by acknowledging that the first time you get on your feet there are going to be enormous obstacles to you doing your performance, so it releases so much. I hadn’t realised until then how many nerves get the better of you in a rehearsal room when you’re “Oh, God, it’s the director. I’ve got to be really on top of it or I’ll get the sack and…” y’know. And it was just so… holistic.  That sounds really wanky, but as an experience I found it really thrilling. And to work on such an extraordinary play – Iphigenia – and the investigating and bringing to life of the whole world of the play, which was bonkers because we were in ancient Greece as people who mate with the Gods… so, y’know, the stories of the characters’ lives and the things they talk about were just so rich and so fun and so interesting and then to culminate in a production that was so exhilarating to be in and exquisitely conceived and that audiences found incredibly moving and exciting was just: mind-blowing, I guess. But I think it was mainly just a revelation of a way of working that felt really logical and and has sort of totally informed not just how I think of any acting thing now but how I understand life and other people and, amazing. Yeah.

AH: Wow.

HM: Sorry. Ramble. You have to please get the scissors out.

AH: Nope. That’s all staying in. That was excellent. Although I do worry that it’ll be like: “Having interviewed Katie Mitchell, Andrew Haydon now gets everyone else to talk about Katie Mitchell…” I had another question, unrelated to what we’ve just talked about, but: something I was struck by, talking to the Secret Theatre people, was this sense that as an actor you can’t be in control of your own career because it’s up to somebody else to say “yes, you can do this”. How in control do you feel? Is it a problem?

Hattie Morahan in Rupert Goold's production of Time and The Conways. Photo: Manual Harlen

Hattie Morahan in Rupert Goold’s production of Time and The Conways. Photo: Manual Harlen

HM: From the thing of having to toe the line politically, that’s not really a problem for me, per se, because it’s so against my nature to do anything that would piss people off, so I think that’s a personal thing. There are going to be people who will be outspoken and fearless, and rightly so in many cases, but one would hope that if their work is good enough they’ll keep getting jobs. And there are probably people who are outspoken and make people’s lives difficult without justification and sometimes they’re still getting work, and that’s a bit like… Well, that’s life. So I don’t really…

I suppose it [being an actor] influences how you are, but I can’t really separate that from who I am and how I would relate to people regardless of whether they could give me a job or not.

AH: So I’m not going to be able to paint you as an angry feminist.

HM: I’m not a very angry person, so if I’m angry it sort of gets… But, yeah, there are things I care about…

AH: But anger wouldn’t be the way you’d express it?

HM: Exactly. And then, in terms of control: you are out of control of your life, but that’s part of the deal I think. And it can be maddening. But I’m really lucky. I feel in a very happy place work-wise and I’ve been lucky to do some things I find super-rewarding and those are the times when you go “I don’t want to be anywhere else” and therefore one feels it’s not a problem that you had to audition for the job. It’s understandable. I’ve reconciled myself to that. There are times when  it’s really annoying and you can feel powerless and I know incredibly brilliant actors who are incredibly bright and get to a stage where they just go “Fuck this. I could do better things with my time.”

AH: I suppose, yeah, you’d be an odd poster-child for unemployed female actors.

HM: It’s so subjective, that’s the thing. I’ve, yeah, I do feel quite – God, what is the right word? – angry in many respects. It bothers me – this is a whole ‘nother fucking kettle of fish but – the balance of women… I do get pissed off that there seem to be more opportunities for men, which is to do with repertoires of the plays that get put on. But it’s it’s very tricky because when one is doing the work oneself, one feels as happy as a pig in shit and “this is great” and it’s very difficult to get a sense of the whole, because everyone’s trajectory is different.

AH: I don’t know off-hand the male:female ratio in A Doll’s House...

HM: It’s pretty even.

AH: In Iphigenia were you the only woman, or…?

HM: All the chorus were women. There were loads of women…

AH: I’m trying to think of something… Like, if you’re playing Ophelia or something…

HM: I understudied Ophelia in Stratford..

AH: [under-researched] Oh!

HM: My first job. But the ensemble was very mixed. It’s tricky. Take for example Othello. Did you see it? This one here? [then, to dictaphone] I’m pointing at the door of the Olivier. It’s a play with not many women. You can do massive cross-gender casting in the ensemble, which is really fantastic and brings the world of the play right up to date and it feels very alive. Which they did. But. It still doesn’t take away, for me, the fact I found it very discomforting to watch, because essentially there aren’t many – there’s Desdemona and Emilia and they’re pretty voiceless for most of it until the end. And a lot of time and space is given to this male debate – and exploration of jealousy, paranoia, friendship, all of this – but essentially it’s about objectification of women. It’s about going what are we projecting on this woman. She’s the victim, but we’re giving all this space and sympathy to Othello, and I began to feel really discomforted.

Not to discredit Rory and Adrian, because they were giving absolutely extraordinary performances. But there’s something quite discomforting about, on the Olivier stage, a play where you keep having space given to these guys saying, “I’m so tortured! What am I going to do? I feel so betrayed! Bla bla bla bla” And I’m like: the person you’re talking about doesn’t even get a fucking look in. And for me it didn’t quite do enough to explore the female voicelessness as A Thing. She was just voiceless. It didn’t comment on it. I may be misremembering. Therefore it was very uncomfortable and quite angry-making to watch. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe you’re meant to sit there during Othello thinking this is a nasty, nasty play, which is making me feel very uncomfortable. But Emilia’s rage at the end was so full of fire and venom and thank God for that. I almost leapt out of my seat and applauded. But it does feel dangerous to have that play on this stage, a massive arena, and the voiceless women, that was just part of the world of the play uncommented upon.

In a way that Three Kingdoms… I wasn’t troubled by that at all. Because they were so cleverly saying, “Let’s look at a situation in which women are voiceless and in which the men are having their way and exploiting them”. And yet they were skewering that somehow. This is subjective, but it’s just the experience of sitting there – it could have been just what I was feeling on the night we saw Othello – but the problem with – not necessarily a problem, but – as you say, we started with Ophelia but those classical plays, I feel need to be skewered, not just presented. They need to be commented upon.

AH: But then I think that’s true of all productions.

HM: I think what the Othello was doing, it was just showing us the story – beautifully acted and immaculately conceived – and probably leaving us to make up our own minds. But the death scene was fucking horrific and went on for a really long time. Maybe that redeems it, maybe you go: “Jesus. We’ve been watching this thing and here we are seeing this woman being murdered”. I dunno. I didn’t quite know where to put myself. I was all “Just let her speak!”

AH: But that’s a great question, isn’t it? How much we now trust Shakespeare to be thinking “the right thing”. Or how much we go: “Oh, God, he’s from the 1600s, he’s just going to be like a racist old man and it’s going to be terrible.” But also this weird thing that we want our playwrights to be nice.

HM: Even-handed… Or nice, yes.

AH: Or not even even-handed. We seem to want them to be *right*. We want them to be David Hare. We want them to have this kind of real…

HM: Or, exposing all sides equally, maybe? Something like Doll’s House: from the inside it felt like all the characters were given the same forensic treatment and they’re all flawed, they’re all vulnerable, they’re all… it asks questions. It doesn’t try to give you answers. I’m not well-versed enough in Shakespeare, but it feels like there’s such an understanding, or compassion, or love for humanity behind it, but I guess he’s operating within the conventions of the time, isn’t he? So you’re only going to have a few boy players in a company…

AH: You don’t get the feeling that even any tiny amount of voicelessness isn’t being acknowledged in Carrie’s production of A Doll’s House. There are bits where nothing’s being said, and there’s just walking around. But it’s like walking around *from your point of view*, from Nora’s point of view. So we’re with Nora, rather than being with Torvald.

HM: Well, I guess Ibsen chooses to foreground Nora’s experience. She’s only off-stage for one scene. So it’s a kind of study in – what’s the noun for being trapped?

AH: Entrappedness?

HM: A study in entrappedness! Yes! The walking around was a virtue of the set and that kind of spreading of the geography and that sense of wherever she goes… I know lots of people who, I remember having a conversation with lots of people who said it’s like every time you want to escape you’re back round again. It’s like a sort of trick; horrid nightmare, kind of circus labyrinth or something. So I keep finding myself back in the room. People keep arriving. So she’s never allowed a moment by herself. But I guess for me that’s just following through the logic of the writing.

This is a long interview, so we’ve spread it across teo pages. It gets a bit meta from here on in. 


Andrew Haydon

Andrew Haydon was a freelance theatre critic (FT, Guardian, Time Out, etc.). He was also the editor of the CultureWars theatre section between 2000-2010, where he discovered exciting new theatre thinkers, including Andy Field, Matt Trueman and Miriam Gillinson. Then he went to Berlin for a while. Now he seems to be back for a bit. His blog here: http://postcardsgods.blogspot.co.uk/