Lisa Dwan: 'Narratives of nasty women spread with few facts attached'

The Irish actor on reimagining Antigone, what she learned from Billie Whitelaw, and starring in Jed Mercurio’s new crime drama

Lisa Dwan, 43, is an Irish actor particularly celebrated for her performances of Samuel Beckett’s work. She is shortly to appear in two BBC shows: as Ismene in Pale Sister, a retelling of Sophocles’s Antigone by Colm Tóibín, and as Tori Matthews, a trauma consultant, in the exhilarating new Jed Mercurio thriller series Bloodlands. This summer, she also stars in a 60th anniversary production of Beckett’s Happy Days, directed by Trevor Nunn.

How did Pale Sister come about?
The essence of why we’re talking today is Samuel Beckett. Being introduced to his landscape in my 20s was extraordinary – it transformed me. Beckett once said there was no need for a story, that life alone is enough. His characters aren’t characters per se – they’re like creatures, pieces of the universe. I’m blond and blue-eyed, yet through Beckett I was, all of a sudden, told that my body was not important nor were my ideas of myself. Difficulties only arose when going back to normal productions: the tantalising tightrope between playing a virtuous wife and a sexy whore [in Pinter’s The Lover], or Anna Karenina on a death march from the word go [at the Abbey theatre in Dublin] or the girlfriend who goes from nought to shrill in a nanosecond [in Conor McPherson’s Shining City].

Why was that difficult?
Directors would ask: what are you doing with all those voices? And I’d say: “I have all these voices and identities in me.” This seemed to displease them and my co-stars a great deal. I’d wonder: God, am I all out of shape? And I’d ask other women: do you think misogyny is getting worse? I got my answer in 2016 when Hillary Clinton was running and Dublin taxi drivers would say about her: “Ah – you can’t trust her.” Narratives of nasty women spread and penetrate with few facts attached. The Greeks were first to realise the importance of silencing women. Antigone was a fiery upstart – a potential threat to society. I knew that rather than joining another hashtag, I wanted to go deeper.

And how did Colm Tóibín come into that picture?
Colm had come to see me in Beckett’s No’s Knife and said he’d like to write me a play. I turned to him and said: I need an Antigone. The amazing David Madigan at Columbia University then created a course for us to teach there, during which we brought in every Greek expert. Colm and I would often be like Punch and Judy… he once crawled under the table in the classroom!

Pale Sister, like many Beckett plays, is about defiance… are you defiant?
Sometimes defiance is being at your most vulnerable. I try in performance to contain emotions with rigorous technique, yet to be fearless and raw.

Lisa Dwan in No’s Knife by Samuel Beckett at the Old Vic.
Lisa Dwan in No’s Knife by Samuel Beckett at the Old Vic. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

You grew up in Athlone, a town in the centre of Ireland. What was your childhood like?
My mother was a nurse and my father an amateur actor – a great comedian – who gave me my love of the boards. I trained as a ballet dancer and, at 12, got chosen to dance with Nureyev. I was so young, I didn’t know who he was. On the way to the audition, all I was interested in was McDonald’s in the great metropolis of Dublin. Yet I remember Nureyev vividly: I’d never seen any male so beautiful prior to that. His long green leather trenchcoat and green beret… he had this very sexy scar. He’d sit next to me in the wings tut-tutting and shouting at American dancers for throwing their legs out of alignment in favour of spectacle. Ballet became my great passion, and I got a scholarship to ballet school in England at 14.

You’ve mentioned you were bullied.
I was badly bullied before I left Ireland. I was an odd kid, in a country school, wanting to become an actress. It made me lonely – and I’m so damned grateful for that.

Why grateful for loneliness?
Because the prison of being conventional was not available to me. It was lonely but nourishing. I was never going to belong… I’ve since long given up the desire to fit in.

In Happy Days, Winnie – up to her neck in sand – endures with the help of toothbrush, revolver and parasol – what are your own must-have props?
Winnie has her “classics” to see her through. I have reams of poetry committed to memory. I also play the cello – as a beginner – which I find deeply soothing. And I’m always writing, so a pen and paper would be my big thing. I just wish I could do away with my various devices – our phones rob us of other riches.

You were mentored by the renowned Beckett actress Billie Whitelaw – what did she teach you?
She taught me more about integrity than anyone. She taught me that truth has a kind of sound. It’s not that Beckett did not like actors acting, but he wanted the real thing, not fool’s gold.

Watch a trailer for Bloodlands.

You’ve described women’s roles as psycho, bitch and bimbo – is your character in Bloodlands any of those?
Writer Chris Brandon and producer Jed Mercurio’s female characters are always brilliantly fleshed out and have some moral quandary going on… Tori, like Antigone, is on a knife-edge between keeping the peace and fighting for justice.

What has lockdown been for you?
The gods were smiling on me at the beginning of lockdown: I met a very special person and fell in love. I’ve been in a wonderful love bubble… I’ve been making copious amounts of soda bread (recipe on demand)! I get out early for my daily constitutional on Hampstead Heath when the parakeets are at their liveliest. I’m a big entertainer and like to invite people round for a big Irish stew. I miss that and seeing, hugging and holding my friends. And I miss live theatre greatly…

What matters most to you?
“Unto thine own self be true.” It isn’t easy, but I try to find that compass.

How often have Beckett’s words “I can’t go on. I’ll go on” felt relevant?
At least once a day… usually first thing.

Bloodlands starts tonight on BBC One, Pale Sister is on BBC Four next month


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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