After three testing roles at the National Theatre, Andrea Riseborough is now a Peter Hall protégée, says Jasper Rees
In a determination to bring down the average age of its audiences, earlier this year the National Theatre staged three new plays about the lives of contemporary London teenagers: Burn by Deborah Gearing, Chatroom by Enda Walsh and Citizenship by Mark Ravenhill. From a talented young ensemble, the most compelling set of performances came from an actress called Andrea Riseborough. As a nice middle-class geek in specs, a traumatised victim of a nameless physical violation and a hilariously chavvy schoolgirl, she contrived in each fresh guise to make herself unrecognisable.
Riseborough may have left Rada only last summer, but she already has the palpable air of an actress who can turn her hand to just about anything. “That’s the kind of actress that I want to be,” she says. Surprisingly, she speaks in a tangy Geordie accent, which deepens an already notable resemblance to the translucent pallor and grey-blue eyes of Gina McKee. “I think that I have the good fortune to be attractive enough to play pretty parts,” she adds, “ and to have a plain enough face for it to be very malleable and play very unattractive parts as well.”
The next test of her mettle is slightly more challenging. While still rehearsing her three roles in BCC, as the trilogy of plays was known to its cast, she went along to an audition for another pair of parts. This time they were two of the great classical roles for an actress: Isabella in Measure for Measure and the title role in Strindberg’s Miss Julie, both of which form part of the Peter Hall season at the Theatre Royal Bath this summer. Hall, who not long ago was casting his daughter Rebecca as a Shakespearian heroine, evidently believes he is onto something. “I could only prepare Julie because I had too much work on. And then Peter said, ‘Okay, now Measure.’ The casting director hadn’t prepared him for the fact that I hadn’t prepared anything. I got offered the parts the next day, and I laughed out loud.”
Rehearsals began while she was performing BCC, so for a time five different characters swilled around in her head, all in one day. The two new parts are not only a far cry from gawky teenagers and chavs, but also from each other.
No character in Shakespeare is less stimulated by the thought of sex than Isabella, while in Strindberg’s revolutionarily modern portrait of class mobility in turn-of-the-century Sweden, the landowner’s daughter succumbs to the animal magnetism of her father’s butler. Of course, Riseborough completely disagrees.
“I think they are both as innocent as each other, actually. They are both virgins. Miss Julie is ripe, Isabella isn’t. Or she is, but completely unconsciously. The strength of her sexuality goes into a womanly and very pure strength that she gives to God as a zealot. Miss Julie tries to retain her honour, yet is unable to fight against her own leaking sexuality, if you will. They definitely have similarities.”
One afternoon, I watch Rachel O’Riordan directing Riseborough in rehearsal. These are only preparatory sketches, but it’s absorbing to observe Riseborough at work. Perhaps it’s the nature of Miss Julie’s postcoital, pre-mortal hysteria, but she appears to be one of those actresses who can find an attitude, an emotion, at the drop of a hat. It’s as if she is rummaging through a dressing-up box, slipping in and out of costumes. She mentions a note she was given by Frank McGuinness, who has written this new translation.
“He said the other day that Julie has all the courage of a man to be able to kill herself, and all of the strength of a woman to be able to be the victim. At the time, that was such a fantastic concept.”
Despite the brevity of her career, Riseborough seems utterly unfazed to be working with McGuinness and Hall. When I suggest that Linda, the gruff, damaged loner she played in Burn, was cut from the same cloth as Jane Horrocks’s in Life Is Sweet, she initially asks who directed the film. When I tell her it was Mike Leigh, she says: “I was just saying to Mike the other day that Linda reminded me of Katrin Cartlidge from Career Girls.”
The confidence must stem from the fact that Riseborough has been acting in front of paying audiences since the age of nine, when she had a part in the People’s Theatre, the Newcastle home of the RSC. The experience seems to have decided her future. “I think I wanted to go to Rada since I was nine. But since then I’ve fallen out of and back in love with it.” She was a bookish child. “I did have friends, but I was very much, ‘ Let’s sit in my room and read Martin Chuzzlewit while everyone else goes out and plays.’ I can’t really remember not liking Shakespeare. Which is funny, because my mum is a secretary and a beautician and my dad is a used- car salesman — although my mum now has an MA in Shakespearian and Jacobean studies from the Open University.”
Rather than study English or art, which were her other options, she left home and had three years off before caving in and going to drama school. In those three years, she “shredded duck in a Chinese restaurant, made greetings cards, choreographed contemporary dance, worked in an Italian cafe with 12 Sardinians, who were all brothers and sisters”. But she also worked as a professional actress in Newcastle and got her Equity card. So, theoretically, she didn’t need to train.
But she admits that “to stay up in Newcastle for my whole life and work there wasn’t satisfying for me”.
At Rada, they quickly unearthed her penchant for playing young girls and old men. These weren’t necessarily the eye-catching roles for visiting agents and directors. “I thank God for my naivety. I wasn’t aware of the nature of the business. Because I have none of the apprehensions, I didn’t think, ‘Right, when I come out of Rada, I’ve got to get work.’ I was playing an 87-year-old Greek woman at the end of my second year. I didn’t think, ‘Are there agents in the audience? I’m actually really attractive.’”
If that was a trick she played on herself, it worked instantly. Last autumn, she was cast as Charlotte, the lead in A Brief History of Helen of Troy at the Soho Theatre. Mark Schultz’s play told, in Riseborough’s words, of “a 15-year-old girl who was a compulsive liar, whose mother had just died, had a face full of acne — model’s own at the time — who talks at about a hundred miles an hour”. She won a lot of admirers among the critics and served notice of that ability to disappear without trace into the role.
In the light of which, I ask her which actresses she grew up admiring, expecting her to mention gritty character players like Imelda Staunton or Julie Walters. It’s a bit of a bombshell when she nominates Peter Sellers. “I grew up watching all his movies,” she says. The main difference between her and Sellers, apart from gender, age, celebrity, is that she is comfortable in her own skin. “Like everyone, I have self-doubt. But yes, I am confident and I’m very, very happy because I love doing a job that reflects life.”
But perhaps it all makes sense. She happily drops into Charlotte’s warp-speed Valley Girl burble, and on request will do the lovely Chantal, the gobby chav she played in Citizenship. Getting that voice involved “walking round in chinoiserie at about eleven o’clock at night in Peckham, worrying about getting my head kicked in. I followed people on buses, and I remember thinking: people are not going to believe this is real in the National Theatre. They don’t usually get characters like that in. They might think it’s some kind of parody or character. Whereas, actually, Chantal was quite subtle.”
Measure for Measure is previewing at Theatre Royal Bath