Ghosts' Lesley Manville: 'You can hear pins drop every night'

As she gives what many are calling the performance of her career in Richard Eyre’s acclaimed production of Ibsen’s ”Ghosts”, which has transferred to Trafalgar Studios following a run at the Almeida, Lesley Manville talks humour, pain and becoming a Disney doll

Lesley Manville as Mrs Alving with Jack Lowden as Oswald
Lesley Manville as Mrs Alving with Jack Lowden as Oswald
© Alastair Muir

Your performance in Ghosts is so intense – does it tire you out?

I'm all right, actually. I think I've got quite a strong constitution. I'm quite tired on Saturday nights because we have a Thursday matinee. I'd prefer it to be a Wednesday because then it doesn't make the end of the week so long. This way you end up doing it five times in three days which is quite tough going.

Talk us through your approach to Mrs Alving

I didn't come to it with any preconceived ideas, mainly because I didn't really know the play. So when Richard [Eyre] sent me the script I was bowled over because I could see how modern and present his version felt, without him resorting to extremely modern language. I believe from people who have seen the play before that she's not often played with any humour or sexuality. But in Richard's version that is all there. She's a liberated woman, and I know she's had an awful life and she's having a very sorrowful time, but at the beginning of the play when you see her, her son is home from Paris. She hasn't seen him for two years, and she's happy that he's home. So life's good and as the play develops she and the pastor have big conversations about stuff that they've never actually dealt with. She feels quite liberated. She wants to be intimate with him. I just think because someone's had a repressed life, or even people with great sadness in their life currently or great depressions, it doesn't always mean that they're sour. We're all capable of laughter even through terrible pain.

You've got a great supporting cast, notably Jack Lowden who's a real rising star

He's only 23 but he's an extraordinarily mature, humble and talented young man. I can't imagine bringing that final scene to life without somebody as good as him. He wasn't daunted in the rehearsal room for one minute that he was so young and relatively inexperienced. He just threw himself into it and we discovered how to play that very organically. Stuff that he came up with naturally is still in the scene now. He's absolutely wonderful. I can't praise him enough.

How are you finding playing opposite a new Pastor Manders?

It made me slightly re-examine what I was doing because of course you can't just play it the same way you did with somebody else. Will Keen who played it originally gave a different performance, and I was relating, responding to that performance. So I think we all found it quite interesting and no bad thing that after playing something for two-and-a-half months we had to slightly re-examine an element of the production. Adam [Kotz] is very different to Will and brings out lots of things that weren't there before. They're two different actors, and they both do very brilliant interpretations.

Is there a different atmosphere in Trafalgar Studios compared to the Almeida?

No, there isn't. In terms of the audience you feel that they are just as 'in it'. You can hear pins drop every night. You can hear the audience go silent, and even if somebody's got a cough they seem to manage to supress it during the important moments, bless them. I don't feel any intimacy is compromised. It's like they're in the drawing room with you. The Almeida is such a lovely space to play but some of the sightlines were not great. That isn't a problem at Trafalgar.

Was doing Mike Leigh's Grief at the National good preparation for this role?

Of course there are similarities. In Grief I had a dying daughter, or a daughter who committed suicide. But then I'd also done All About My Mother at the Old Vic, where I had a dying son. It's becoming a bit of a theme. But how I am in Ghosts is a culmination of decades of experience. I don't play Mrs Alving well because I had previously played a mother with a dying daughter. If people think I do her well it's because of all those years of experience at the Royal Court, or the wonderful directors and playwrights I've worked with. It's not just about the one piece; it's about the catalogue.

People are saying this is the performance of your career. Do you agree?

I do share those feelings. It has just come together in an extraordinary way and it does feel a bit like a pinnacle. But that is to do with so many other things, particularly the brilliant Richard Eyre – not just his directing, but also the adaptation. And the phenomenal cast I do it with. It wouldn't perhaps be quite such a pinnacle if all those other ingredients weren't in place.

Tell us about your upcoming Disney project, Maleficent

It's a massive epic Disney film based on Sleeping Beauty starring Angelina Jolie in the title role. Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and myself play the three pixies. They are hilarious. It was just the most happy, happy time. Some of the time in the film we're life-sized, but for the rest of it we're little ditty pixies. It was done by motion capture, so we spent three weeks of filming flying around Pinewood studios, with the Cirque du Soleil people strapping us in and tumbling us in the air. It was just fantastic. It's going to come out this Summer and there's going to be a doll of me that you'll be able to buy at the Disney shop! It's amazing that Imelda and I go from epic Mike Leigh plays and films to being pixie Disney dolls!

Recently there's been a call for more gender-blind casting of Shakespeare. Any roles you have your eye on?

I've never felt I'd love to play Hamlet or Macbeth or anything like that. I don't have any stridently strong views about it. If a woman wants to play Hamlet I'd love to see it, and I have nothing against it at all. But I don't particularly want to do that myself. That being said, I do want to do more Shakespeare. I've had a wonderfully varied career but Shakespeare has always been a bit of an omission. So maybe Cleopatra or Lady Macbeth.

Come on our hosted WhatsOnStage Outing to Ghosts on 22 January 2014 and get your top-price ticket, a FREE poster and access to our EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A with Lesley Manville and the cast – all for £32.50 (normally £49.50 for ticket alone).