The Hard Problem Actress Olivia Vinall Interview: My London Cultural Life
Star of Tom Stoppard's new play, Olivia Vinall discusses playing Hilary, an enviable career at the National Theatre, favourite London spots and formative theatre memories with Lucy Brooks
Olivia Vinall's career has the trajectory of ambitious actors' wildest dreams. Plucked out from drama school to play Juliet before she'd even graduated, she impressed an agent and the rest, well... is fast becoming theatre history: Desdemona to Adrien Lester's Othello, then Cordelia in Sam Mendes' King Lear starring opposite stage stalwart Simon Russell Beale. But now, Olivia Vinall takes centre stage as star in her own right -- in the most hyped play of 2015.
She recalls, with a sense of wonder, her first big break, as she auditioned in front of Hytner on the Olivier stage "I'd never stood on a stage that size... it was a fight or flight moment". Now, two years on, she's winning the fight. The Dorfman stage may be smaller, but as far as high profile, high pressure productions go, The Hard Problem is a giant. It's the swansong of outgoing Artistic Director Nick Hytner, bastion of British theatre, and the feverishly-anticipated latest play from playwright Tom Stoppard, the closest thing we have to a living Shakespeare whose mantelpiece boasts more awards and honours than 27 year-old Vinall has had birthdays.
Playing Hilary: The Hard Problem of creating a new character
In the Hard Problem, Vinall is freed from the inevitable weight that playing Shakespearean characters, heavy with audience preconception, impose. For the first time at the National Theatre the character is utterly her own. It was "so wonderfully liberating" she enthuses "to go ‘no-one has any ideas or preconceived notions about this character’s journey … because people with Shakespeare have that production that they love" but with The Hard Problem it was "so exciting to go, okay it’s a blank sheet of paper. I need to find her heart; I need to find her story – despite all this intellectual argument Tom’s also given her such an incredible amount of heart and that’s what drives her: this need to find out if goodness really can exist and whether, despite science’s claim to be able to explain everything… whether there is more, because we feel more".
This challenge of carving out a new character is intensified by the presence of the playwright -- and Tom Stoppard is a lion of literature, renowned for weighty intellectualism.‘Tom was there everyday, right from the word go" and he's in the audience "lot of the nights" Vinall reveals. She's been quoted as saying that this was 'like having Shakespeare in the room', but is keen to clarify that actually, she was talking about the contrast between working with a living playwright instead of doing Shakespeare, who, obviously, is not there. "So," she says "it’s wonderful to have the writer in the room because nobody knows it like he knows it … he could guide us through.". Was working with theatre royalty intimidating? He's “such a sweet, modest quiet man" she smiles "he would let Nick [Hytner] completely do his thing. But if you asked, he’d set you the right path if you needed it... it was an amazing to gift to have him there, to have a mind like that in the room."
A flash of Hilary's passion flares up in Vinall as she explains that Stoppard brought in a scientist to give the cast an academic grounding in the complex conundrum of consciousness: "it was interesting to hear someone speaking who didn’t have any kind of belief in that at all.
The scientist views the way Hilary ends the play as ‘a mistake’, like ‘she’s failed by choosing something wishy washy – ‘I could feel myself feeling strongly. It was such good fuel for the character" she laughs.
It's impossible not to ask about the pressure of performing in such a high-profile play and Vinall admits that press night was terrifying. But now, settled into the run, with mixed reviews for The Hard Problem agreeing on just one thing -- Olivia Vinall is mesmerising -- has it all sunk in? "I really genuinely didn’t think I’d ever be here" she admits "it feels less overwhelming, but I’m still pinching myself everyday".
With the hurdle of press night over, there's one last thing for Vinall fret about: The Hard Problem will be streamed live to cinemas for NT Live this April. Despite commanding the stage, she's nervous about the cameras: "the fact that it’s going out live, recorded, people can play it back… it’s permanent! What if your costume breaks? Last night the fake champagne was really fizzy and we were all choking on it" but, she adds as an afterthought, "the great thing about this part is that you don’t have time to dwell on anything that goes wrong... it’s like a train, it just goes forward."
Theatre memories and future ambitions
Surprisingly for someone who has so seamlessly slotted in with biggest names in theatre, Vinall is not from a thespian background and she regards her success with a mixture of stoicism and incredulity: "I never thought acting was something that I’d be able to do as a job, but I knew that it’s what I feel most passionate about… and it’s what I find most inspiring to watch and explore".
Performing is "just something that I’ve always done", she says, reflecting on the shows that she used to put on before bedtime as a child with her sister. But, while her sister played the princess, Vinall would be "the big fat man". Long before the gravitas of Shakespearean heroines, her first real role beyond the family sitting room was "a clown called Tricky Dickie". This "real old school clowning" still fascinates her: “I always wanted to go to the Jaques Lecoq School [Paris' iconic mime and clown school]. I just think it’s so important to keep training your body in different ways and to see what that can bring to your character..."
So, after the weight of three such academic roles, should we expect a shift into comedy? Vinall is effusive and open-minded about future ambitions. Clown school, she muses is a dream she'll follow "if I have the guts" and beyond that "I don’t really have a path:
I'm so interested in all types and forms of theatre, especially theatre from other countries..." Growing up between London, American and Belgium has given Vinall a grounding what she calls the "European sensibility... it’s about the whole ensemble working together" she explains "to move people in all forms... I love physical comedy. I love being expressive -- people think you have to be very small to be truthful, but I think in life people feel in all different ways and there’s space for that …"
Olivia Vinall: My London Cultural Life
What was the last thing you saw that really wowed you?
I’m going to be boring and say theatre… The one that I haven’t been able to get out of my head from last year was A View From the Bridge (Young Vic, now transferred to Wyndhams Theatre). I’m actually going to try to see it again. I was so gripped from beginning to end, and on the edge of my seat and I felt every movement, every heartbeat between them. Something in the air was just different… it felt very alive and it really summed up the magic of theatre to me. It’s live and you’re in there in that moment and there’s no escape. It can feel suffocating but it can also feel totally immersive and gripping.
I’ve spent so much time on this strip of South Bank. I genuinely love it. It’s a little bit intimidating going across the river sometimes because I’m so used to this side of things. But it feels strangely comforting and homely. The view at night is really special. You can even go up onto the roof of the National and you can see all the way down the river. It’s stunning and makes me realise exactly where I am… right in the centre of London with all the amazing art and cultural life around me.
I’ve been exploring around Russell Square. There’s so much history around that part, and all the literary figures that lived there... all the blue plaques - I’d never really them noticed before. In London sometimes you can get caught up with just looking down and getting from A to B.
Which of the smaller, fringier theatres are you excited about right now?
I always find The Bush exciting. It’s producing such incredible work and always engaging. Sometimes you think – oh, Shepard’s Bush, should I go there? It’s really not that far. I love that about London that you have all these pockets. Fringe is amazing.
Favourite restaurant in London?
Well, I live in Brixton so I really love Brixton Village. Fish, Wings and Tings is a favourite… I’m lowering the tone! I like a good portion and proper food. And it’s got so much life to it as well.
Most memorable aesthetic experience?
When I was about 13 I’d just moved to Belgium and we drove to a very small town and we saw this really bizarre piece of puppetry and they took us on a backstage tour. I remember smelling the dry ice they use in the performance. Smells are so nostalgic for me, and something about that – it all felt really exciting and unknown. So whenever I come into the theatre, or am warming up backstage I get a little memory of that moment of the unknown but also fear... it seems to be dry ice that does it or that sawn wood smell.
Hidden gem no-one else knows about?
This is making me realise how much more I need to explore London! I used to be an usher at the Royal Court, and when you have two shows on a Saturday and you only have the Kings Road to be tempted by.. about half way down there’s a little alley way, which leads to a small little pub. It’s a proper old man’s pub. I can’t remember the name.
Which shows are you most excited about seeing this year in London?
There’s so much! I didn’t get to see The Nether the first time around. Stanley Townsend who’s in it was in Lear (he played Kent) so he was rehearsing the Nether in the day and performing Lear at night! Also Antigone, at the Barbican. And from the new National Theatre season I can’t wait to see The Motherf**ker in the Hat. It makes me laugh to think of the tannoy announcements. And Man and Superman as well. I’ve seen quite a lot of Simon Godwin’s work. Strange Interlude with Marianne duff was mesmerising. Also the Blur Musical. I saw the Faustus at the Royal Festival Hall that he [Damon Albarn] did. These collaborations are so exciting.
Which artistic or cultural figure do you most admire and why?
Well, in terms of performance and output I would have to say Charlie Chaplin is a huge inspiration for me: the amount that he produced but also the brilliance of his comedy mixed with completely amazing ability to have such heart in his work at the same time. I’ve always found him really inspiring.
Which actor or director would you most like to work with and why?
There’s so many! I saw Cate Blanchett in Gross und Klein at the Barbican and I’d only ever seen her on film before, where she’s stunning. Her mastery of theatre and how she conveyed all the emotions in that play – it was bonkers but amazing. I believe it was her theatre company from Sydney... that’s where it started. I think she has an amazing balance of theatre and film and collaborative work and really experimental work – and being unafraid to work with different forms of theatre. So her, or her theatre company… or Ivo Van Hove, and he’s Belgium as well.
And where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Still acting – there’s nothing like it. I have such joy coming in to perform. It’s my drive in life. I feel like that’s my thing that I’m supposed to do. So in whatever capacity that will be – just acting. It could be in a basement that no-one sees, but if I’m working with people who are passionate I’ll be happy.
The Hard Problem is at the National Theatre until 27th May, 2015.
It will be broadcast live from the Dorfman Theatre on 16 April to over 550 cinemas across the UK. For more information about N.T Live and to book, click here.