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Olivia Grant on The Picture

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Philip Wilson will adapt and direct Jacobean dramatist Philip Massinger’s rarely performed tragi-comedy, The Picture at Salisbury Playhouse, in what is believed to be its first full staging in over 100 years. In his new version, the story has been transposed to the mid nineteenth Century at the time of the birth of photography.

Mathias, a young knight of Bohemia, goes off to war, taking with him an enchanted image of his wife Sophia which – his friend Julio Baptista assures him – will indicate her constancy. If she is challenged in love in his absence, the picture will yellow; if she succumbs, it will blacken. Meanwhile at the royal court, word of Mathias’s victory at war reaches the Queen, who vows to seduce the young knight and challenge her rival in love, Sophia.

With echoes of Twelfth Night and a “Rosalind-like” heroine, The Picture is a spectacular play written in the years just after the death of Shakespeare.

Young and talented actress Olivia Grant, who is best known as Lady Adelaide Midwinter in BBC’s Lark Rise to Candleford plays Sophia:-

So how are rehearsals going? “It's going really well. We're in the last stretch now, and we've got two weeks before we open. The text and the verse is quite wordy, but beautifully written, so it’s taken time to learn but we have been able to play with it. Now that process has kind of occurred, I’m almost more excited about the next phase of rehearsals. We’re now kind of more able to talk it like its coming from us.

“Massinger is quite unusual in his character, and in his writing. (The Picture) is a great play for women - there are two really strong female characters, in Sophia (the part I play) and the Queen. I felt very much in the midst of it last week. It has been a great process and a lovely cast to work with. I haven’t worked with Philip (Wilson) or any of this cast before, so it is something completely new for me. Philip is so enthused with the play, and it is very much his baby, and it is great working with people who are so passionate about it.”

Tell me about the play, and your role in it? My character, Sophia, and my husband Mathias, are a passionate couple, deeply in the love, but he is convinced that it cannot last. This makes Sophia unhappy as she doesn’t see why it won’t last, or share her husband’s insecurity. He goes off to war, leaving me miserable at home. He is so worried that I will cheat on him while he is away that he takes away with him this magical picture of me that changes colour if I am ever unfaithful to him! So, he goes off and fights in the war, and does terribly well. He is presented at court as a great warrior, and of course the Queen takes a fancy to him.

“Frustrated that he talks only about how great I am, and insisting that he could never be persuaded to want more than his wife, the Queen sets up a double plot. She sets out not only to seduce the great warrior, but dispatches two sexy courtiers off to seduce me. Basically, these two strands operate all the way through the play until the end scene. These courtiers try to convince me that my husband is sleeping with everyone at court, and because of their advances, the enchanted picture changes colour, persuading Matthias of my infidelity, and so to consider the advances of the Queen.

“It’s a complex plot, but I think it works really well. Despite some of the language used, it’s a very modern tale actually. Sophia’s quite punchy, and the Queen is quite punchy as well so, the women in it are very strong, which is unusual in a period piece.”

Has the show been updated for a modern audience? “We are doing it pretty much as it was written. The text is using modern English spelling of course, but we have tried not to lose the original meaning. It is sometimes difficult to translate period comedy for a modern audience who won’t necessarily understand every word, or recognise every comedic situation. But I find that, as in Shakespeare, so long as the comic intention is there in the performance, people will laugh, and hopefully be moved too. When I watch a foreign language film I can be moved by the intensity in the characters voices even though I don’t know the language – hopefully the same will be true for people coming to see us.”

How are you enjoying Salisbury? “I am based in Salisbury during the week, and it’s great. London is only an hour and 20 minutes away so I travel back at the weekend, but increasingly over the next six weeks I will be based here. I am loving it, it is a great city. Of course I’m spending most of my time working, but I’ve found my favourite café spot - and I’m really big into tea. Fisherton Mill is very close to here which is lovely. I’m going to drag all my friends down here when the play gets going.”

You trained as a ballet dance and studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama - do you still plan to develop those areas in your career? “I trained as a ballet dancer when I was young, but there was a point at about 11 where I had to choose whether to take that path full on or follow an academic route. I was doing acting and singing lessons in parallel, and I was really training to be an opera singer. But, I didn’t really like the choir stuff, and found voice training by myself quite lonely, whereas the plays I was doing at Oxford were really an extension to my social life, so acting won hands down. Although I do still practise a little I don’t miss the singing hugely and, like being an actor, it can be a very precarious career anyway, so am focusing on my acting work.”

What have been your career highlights so far? “I’ve done many different and extra-ordinary things and every one has been great in its own right - I’ve just come back from South Africa where I have been filming for Women in Love, and I had never been there before - it was insane! Personal Affairs we did in Glasgow, with some great comic actors, and I loved doing Lark Rise. It was the thing I was on for the longest time, as I came back to it last year, in series 3. I still feel very close to the people on that show; and keep in touch with them all.

“Every experience is kind of amazing in its own way. Every job takes you out of your life, and you get great opportunities to play somewhere new with a totally new group of people, and you bond quite quickly.

“I’ve done quite a lot of period pieces, but they have all been different; Hermione, who I played in Women in Love, was very flamboyant, and very much laughed at by the other characters. I’d never actually played that kind of person before so it was quite interesting. Lady Adelaide was very restrained and composed, and Grace (in Personal Affairs) was completely mad. I suppose all the characters you play are versions of yourself, and it’s nice to be able to use those and explore other sides of yourself.”

Whats coming up next for you? “I am doing a piece based on some testimonials of children for a charity production after this, and need to start working on that very soon. With The Picture, that’s more than enough for the next 6 or 7 weeks, which are going to be stressful enough. After that, we’ll see what happens next.”


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