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Brief Encounter With … Vanessa Kirby

Vanessa Kirby has truly taken the North West Theatre scene by storm. Octagon Theatre Artistic Director cast her in his first three productions at the popular venue and since then, she has received critical acclaim for her work there in All My Sons and Ghosts. She also won a BIZA award at the Manchester Evening News Theatre Awards last December for her work as a newcomer to the stage. We caught up with her in rehearsals for her role as Helena in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream which opens at the Octagon in February.

David Thacker, has put his own twist on the Shakespeare classic. How does it differ from the original and do you feel that the change works?

In terms of text, the play is exactly the same. It is set in Athens, but in 1968, which really works. It shows the differentiation between the strict regime of Theseus, the Duke, and a dream world relevant to the time. In the 60’s, the repressive regime included the Beatles (and even the letter Z!) being banned. The dream world is the exact opposite of this regime- it becomes the inner psyche of all the characters, where everybody has extreme emotions and their own inner sexuality. There’s freedom, there’s love, and it’s really shown in the psychedelic set! It’s like a playground, with crazy stairs and plenty of opportunities to trip up!
What do you like about Helena?
When I first auditioned for David, he offered me parts for All my Sons, Ghosts and A Midsummer Nights Dream all at the same time. When I read Helena initially I found her quite whingey, a bit desperate and I just wanted to tell her to ‘Shut up!’ and ‘Keep your dignity!’ The more I’ve been doing it, I feel that she’s so brave and strong. She’s self-aware, knowing exactly what she wants and she realises that women shouldn’t have to run after the men- she believes that they should be wooed! It’s truly amazing to play her and to declare love with such passion.
This is your third time performing at the Octagon, having made your professional debut there in October- what do you like most about the venue?
It’s in the round and it’s spacious. The intimacy of the venue is probably what I like the most.
You having already won the MEN award for 'emerging talent.' Which roles are you particularly eager to play?
There’s lots of things, but I’ve recently just been offered a part with the National, which has always been a dream! It’s a tragic play called Women Beware Women by Thomas Middleton, the writer of The Changeling. I was so nervous when I auditioned, but I’ve learned so much through David, and managed to get the part of Isabella (who strangely falls in love with her Uncle!) I finish here on the 6th March, pack up my life, and move to London, so that’s the next role I’m thinking about. My agent would quite like me to do some film as well, but I feel a lot more confident on the stage at the moment. Playing an Elf in the Hobbit would be amusing!
Reading English at the University of Exeter, what inspired you to get involved in an acting career?
It’s cliché and I’ve heard so many actors say it, but it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. I was always bossing my little cousins about and making them do plays when we were younger. I’d always be the main part, of course! I remember one Christmas I wrote down all the lines from Fawlty Towers so that we could perform it! When I was 18, I auditioned for Bristol Old Vic, got shortlisted and then didn’t get in. They told me to come back in a few years. I went travelling, and then thought I should go to uni, grow up and just be around lots of different people. When I wasn’t doing my degree, I was rehearsing, getting involved in any plays I could. It was weird when I first got paid, because I had done it so long for free. I’ve been so lucky and have the best agent in the world. I just want to make him proud and do him justice!
How are you enjoying working with the rest of the cast?
It’s a lot bigger than the casts for Ghosts and All My Sons, with loads more young people and older people too. It’s a totally different atmosphere. In the other two plays, it was like a little family, with us being together from August-December, and I was the baby of the cast. This is really energised and creative and we have loads of little, hectic rehearsals. There’s a strong sense of ensemble as well, especially through the live music, with people playing electric guitars and banging on drums! Hopefully it will all merge into a good production.
Finally, why should an audience come and watch A Midsummer Nights Dream?
In ten years, the Octagon has only seen two Shakespeare productions. It’s an inviting title and I think that’s why David chose it- people know it more and it’s extremely funny. It’s full of chasing and endless passion. I was saying to my friend before, it is like the Twilight phenomenon, where sexual desire doesn’t have to be explicit to be believed. It’s just so relevant and full of energy. David has also made sure that he has made it as accessible as possible, so that it is more interesting and understandable for the audience.

Vanessa Kirby was speaking to Rebecca Cohen.

A Midsummer Night's Dream runs at the Octagon from 4 Feb - 6 March. For more details, visit the theatre's website.