Pip Edwards answers a few questions about taking on the iconic role of Beverly Moss in Abigail’s Party.
What attracted you to the role of Beverly?
It’s hard to remember as there are so many wonderful things about her. I think the very first thing that drew me to her was actually having seen the BBC production prior to being cast. Alison Steadman! My goodness! The moment which is etched into my memory as comedic genius is Steadman’s ‘Ive got very beautiful lips’. But obviously reading the play as an actor is very different. It’s important to create something new, not copy something which emerged from a different time and place.
I was drawn to the tragedy of her situation, and her inability to face the truth. This is very real for many people (including me). The funny and potentially monstrous thing about Beverly is that she is utterly delusional as to how to fix her problems. Here is a woman who is desperately lonely and insecure. I think she is afraid of what will happen if she ever admits what she really feels, or how deep her pain actually is. She is running from the fact that she has no purpose in life. She just spends her days in the house, alone.
But Beverly refuses to play the victim. She chases after what she thinks (on a surface level) will fix her true emotional state – gin, music, glitter, cigarettes, nice things, being admired and adored by others – all to blind herself from her feelings of hopelessness. She is an optimist, albeit an utterly delusional one.
What were your first impressions of the play and what compelled you to say ‘yes’ to the production?
My first impressions of the play were that it was very character driven. I was aware that this was a play about people who have an inability to connect. Much of the comedy seems to be from people always missing each other. I was also very aware of the comedy inherent in the dialogue. The very British way of seeming so polite, when in truth it is tearing someone down. How cruel people can be when they are desperately lonely yet unable to admit it. There’s a lot of talking, but no connecting.
I was also aware that not a lot actually happens until the final 5 pages of the script! The whole play feels like two scenes – Act One and Act Two. The play relies on the dialogue as there is so little physical action. Yet, as I am familiar with Stephen’s work, I knew his production would embrace any opportunity for physical movement (the physicality is a key difference in Stephen’s interpretation).
It also first struck me to be largely about 1977 England. The music, the booze, the chatter, the etiquette, the values, the props etc. all seem to be specific to that era. Yet under all of the 70s decor and attirements is a much deeper exploration of human interaction and conflict.
Can you tell us what you enjoy most about Mike Leigh’s writing?
I adore how each character is defined by their very distinct speech patterns. I have no doubt this comes largely from Leigh’s improvisational way of working. Not only does each character have their own values and viewpoints, but they also have their own rhythms and modes of communication. Beverly rarely says one sentence without saying someone’s name, which tells you so much about her internal life!
Can you tell us about some of the challenges of the script?
I think not having actual scenes can pose some difficulties, in that we need to make sure the play does indeed move forward. It is possible for the ‘sitting around and talking’ to get stagnant. There are also a few things in the script itself, which are sure to have a different impact on today’s audience to an audience in 1977 Britain. There are a few racist, classist and misogynistic references in the text which, though perhaps ‘of the era’, we are refusing to ‘turn a blind eye’ to.
There has been a criticism of the original production that it is a sneer at a type of people, rather than a celebration or exploration of all humanity. Mike Leigh has said that it is “not a play about them, it is a play about us”, and I think its very important that we keep it a play about us. We have endeavoured to make sure ours is a play which is absolutely relevant to Melbourne today, focussing on universal human truth.
Taking Leigh’s quite naturalistic dialogue and lack of physical action into Stephen’s word of queer theatre and the absurd can also pose some issues.
Do you think Abigail’s Party is an important story to tell? Why?
Mike Leigh talks about Abigail’s Party being a critique of The Done Thing. There is great truth in that. It is so easy for us to chase a way of life, simply out of belief. Instead of actually looking at ourselves, we devote our lives to the pursuit of things that we believe will make us happy – marriage, work, money, material objects…the list goes on! However when we achieve our goals and attain our desired ‘things’, we realise we are no happier than before. We are in fact worse off, as we no longer have that ‘thing’ to strive towards or hope for. Beverly finds the idea of actually looking at her inner state too frightening, instead choosing to look for external ‘quick fixes’.
The other brilliant thing in the script is fear of the other and the unknown. This is something that Stephen is really intent on focusing on, especially as it allows for a distinctly queer interpretation of the text.
What is unique about Stephen’s rehearsal room?
Stephen is very physical. He prefers to spend minimal time discussing the play, instead just straight to putting the play on the floor and seeing what emerges. He believes theatre should be magical and is not concerned whether things make literal sense. He embraces contradiction. He works in a very visual way. He draws out very beautiful visual images and is very gifted at making art with bodies – the composition of his actors. He is also great at making decisions, diving in and being brave. He encourages this in his actors too, which creates a wonderful environment. There is a lot of love and warmth in Stephen’s rehearsal room. He is very skilled at bringing together wonderfully generous people, who make the process a joy.
What is at the heart of Abigails Party?
People who are so involved in their own values, ideals and fantasies that they are tragically afraid to to face both their own inner truths and the unknown ‘other.’
Abigail’s Party plays at Southbank Theatre from 17 March.