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A Woman's Act

With International Women’s Day on the horizon, it’s apt that the Rose Theatre is putting on two productions that have women at their very core – Silver Lining, a new comedy written by Sandi Toksvig (click here for our interview with Sandi Toksvig), and My Brilliant Friend, starring Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack.

My Brilliant Friend is a modern family saga chronicling the lives of friends, Elena (known as Lenu) and Lila, following them from their childhoods in Naples, through love affairs, careers and family struggles. For actress Niamh the chance to work with director Melly Still and the draft scripts by playwright April De Angelis were more than enough to convince her to take the part of Lenu.

“The two plays highlight the relationship between these two women from when they are about ten into their sixties,” says Niamh, “and I thought it was a fascinating subject. It’s a really interesting depiction of female friendship and its complexities.”

The production is a two-part dramatisation of Elena Ferrante’s celebrated Neapolitan quartet of novels formed of two plays and audiences will be able to see both parts in one day, or on separate days. But I wonder how much of a challenge it will be for the actors?

“It is a challenge,” says Niamh. “But it’s all the reasons I love being in the theatre, it’s a very collaborative thing to do. The fact that you’re revealing a very long journey of a whole life – there’s something about that that makes the company very bonded. It will require everybody to commit totally and offer up two months of their lives completely to this project, and I think it will be exciting and I hope rewarding. For an audience, there’s a commitment in coming to see two plays and I think the audiences are really buying in to going on an adventure with you.”

Niamh is also relishing the prospect of working with celebrated stage actress Catherine McCormack (also well known for her roles in Braveheart and 28 Weeks Later). “Weirdly we did a version of another book of Portrait of a Lady, which Peter Hall directed ten years ago at the Rose. That’s the last time I saw Catherine. I loved working with her and I’m looking forward to working with her again.”

“I can’t wait to work with Niamh again,” says Catherine. “Apart from loving her as an actor, she is just one of the best human beings I have come across and I remember laughing a lot with her too.”

The question of who is the ‘brilliant friend’ in the title is something that the play also explores. N iamh says: “Catherine’s character Lila describes my character Lenu as her brilliant friend, but in fact she is the brilliant friend and Lenu is constantly trying to emulate and is inspired by this friend of hers who doesn’t actually leave Naples but is a huge influence, too much of an influence, on her life. They’re twins of a sort and it’s almost like they can’t let each other breathe”.

“What I found interesting about Lila is her duality,” says Catherine. “One moment she is the bravest of the brave, throwing caution to the wind and acting out of instinct; the next, she is gripped by a fragility and inner terror that threatens to destroy her. One moment she is self-sufficient and independent; the next, incredibly needy for her best friend”. “She does her best to cope with life, and protect those closest to her, by shape-shifting and adopting new identities, but it takes a great toll on her mental health. I’m halfway through reading the novels and I can’t help wondering what would have happened to her if she had of been able to use the brilliant mind she had been born with. It seems to me, potentially, she may have flown.”

More generally, Niamh is optimistic about the number of roles and opportunities for women in the arts. “I think things are improving. There are some fantastic female directors coming up and female writers, I think it is getting better and better, but there still aren’t enough parts for women of all ages. And another brilliant thing about this play is that because the characters range in age from eight to early sixties, a woman of my age is getting to have the chance to play a big part. It’s great that the Rose is pushing the boat out on a project like this, it’s brilliant.”

For Niamh and Catherine who both live locally in south west London the chance to play at the Rose again is very welcome. “What’s happening at the Rose is very exciting,” says Niamh. “They’ve built an audience, which is growing all the time and they’ve built an identity. And because I live relatively local it will be a really jammy job for me.”

“As I live close to Kingston, my commute will only be ten minutes long,” says Catherine. “Not being a great morning person that should give me another hour in bed before rehearsals… although I’ll probably get an email now saying they’ve moved the rehearsals to Hackney. Swings and roundabouts!”

Runs from Saturday 25 February to Sunday 2 April.
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Catherine McCormack (left) and Niamh Cusack (right)