Whispers from the Wings

Our Roaring Girls Part 1 - Lisa Dillon

August 22, 2014

The Roaring Girls - a ground breaking season at the RSC - a bumper pack of plays featuring Class A roles for the girls - so how are our Roarers doing?

Four awesome dames lead our trilogy of Jacobean gems (not actual Dames, although we have a real one joining the winter season in Eileen Atkins - but in my mind, all four deserve the title) - Lisa Dillon as our guitar wielding cutpurse in The Roaring Girl, Sharon Small as the knife wielding Alice Arden in Arden of Faversham and the delectable double act of Kirsty Bushell and Laura Elphinstone who wield all sorts of wickedness in The White Devil. I thought I'd stick my nose in on what they've all made of this Roaring Girl lark.

Lisa Dillon opened the debut show of the Season and I have watched her physically transform from a quiet elfin presence I'd never met before into - well if you haven't seen The Roaring Girl yet, book now as WE END SOONER THAN YOU THINK!

I met with her in the Four Teas Cafe in Stratford and had a few questions to ask…

Me: What made you choose Moll from the other kicking wenches on offer?

Lisa and Joan in rehearsal for The Roaring GirlLisa: The Roaring Girl was possibly the play the RSC least had me in mind for but I made an absolute bee line for it. Even though I confess to understanding only about 15 to 20% on a first read, there was something instinctively engaging that I picked up about Moll's spirit and what it could mean to a modern audience.

I was excited about a revival of a play last done in 1983 and the fact that Helen Mirren had done it then and that a whole new audience could come and claim their Roaring Girl. It's a pit of the stomach thing. There was just something about Moll and her dressing as a man. I always knew I didn't want to be a token cross-dresser with a slap on the thigh, look really sexy and clad in trousers and high boots, I really wanted to become a guy as much as I could.

I enjoy playing the outsider - there's a common pattern of me paying rejects, the loner, the anarchic rebel. Also, you always want to play something you've not done before, the whole singing on stage thing - I've played Desdemona where I sang 'The Willow Song' but that's it professionally. I've done a couple of gigs in Soho with a musician in a live band but literally my legs would shake, I couldn't get over the nerve factor, it felt so alien to sing in front of people whereas to perform is second nature.

Learning different instruments meant I spent a lot of time alone in rehearsals which wasn't much fun. My director tried to be kind and said that if Moll plays a wrong note, it wouldn't matter. Certainly with the electric guitar, the band will cover it but I'm an absolute perfectionist. I was brutally diligent in learning that double bass so there wasn't much room for nerves other than when it came to doing it live. I kept a lid on my performance at first, it was about getting it musically right technically rather than Moll doing what she wanted to do. Now I care less and have a ball.

Lisa Dillon dressed as a man in a pubTell me about the 'Lisa to Moll' transformation

Lisa: It helps as I look so different as Moll but I've done roles before when I feel I've transformed as much but I don't look that different. I think it's Moll's energy, her directness. I'm not that front-footed in life and that's one of the biggest things. She's much more weighted than I am. I imagine I'm enormous when I'm onstage as Moll.

Watching Faye (my understudy) doing the fight call in my borrowed tailcoat (Faye is uber petite), I remember saying 'I never look that small up there' and someone next to me said 'actually you're shorter than Faye'. I feel enormous on stage as Moll, so something's happened!

The voice absolutely is Moll and not me - now it's almost like I've got her on disk and you can put her in and press play and she's there, she's in.

How much did you want to pay homage to the original real life Moll?

Lisa: I do think of her and I get cross and quite angry that not enough has been done to celebrate her. The woman herself is extraordinary and far more exciting and interesting than the play even allows her to be. Two renowned playwrights of their time wrote a play about an extraordinary woman, made her the protagonist in her own right and no one knows about her.

The main fascination is that Moll is not defined by her relationship to a man. That is so rare and I'm hot on this subject. A woman who is not 'the wife of a man' or 'the girlfriend of' or 'the mother of' or 'the lawyer to'. It's not even a feminist thing - it works for men for all time and we need to strike that same balance as woman because our emotional history is not being charted in the way that men's is through film and through theatre.

Lisa Dillon dressed as manHave you felt audiences show animosity or judgement towards Moll?

Lisa: I don't think an actor should ever worry about being 'liked' as it's our job to present the character as truthfully as possible and it shouldn't matter if you're liked or not.

I wanted there to be things about Moll that weren't likeable. I very much wanted her to be aggressive, abrasive, outspoken, rude at times. The play wants to make her very moral and I didn't want to let that happen. The audience warms to her through the evening which is encouraging, they'd probably like to have a drink with her, I'm not sure they'd want to take her home! I probably feel the same about Moll myself!

What's it going to be like if future roles don't offer what Moll has? Has she spoiled you a little?

Lisa:  I thought the other day, what if this was it?! What if Moll was the last of the Roaring Girls? People misunderstand it, They think you just want to play loud, 'in your face' women. But there are Roaring Girls in housewives who survive 40 years of horrendous marriage and in the end find the meekest of voices. There is glory in that too.

It's not just about playing larger than life characters, there's got to be something in the role that an audience can use to re-evaluate themselves. People think good roles for women mean 'strong women' or 'feisty women'. I get uncomfortable around the strong feisty area. Why does a good role for an actress mean she has to play strong or feisty? I just want the same complexity of thought that applies to writing a male character as a female one.

Is it hard to shake her off at times?

Lisa: I find I'm quite provocative and outspoken when I come off stage and I have to reign it in. I've done it with people after the show and think 'god I hope I haven't upset them!' You just carry that spirit with you and of course it's not to everyone's taste, is it?! Also, there's nothing quite like a cardio dance at the end of the play to raise the adrenaline!

I have to end it there as I have a White Devil rehearsal to go to but I could talk with Lisa about this all day. I never feel more ready to perform The Roaring Girl than when it's over. On the 30 September, I don't know how I'll feel. I have a huge loyalty to this play. It's problematic in structure and period comedy is of course judged lightly next to bloodthirsty drama but putting the real life of a woman as the centrepiece, the protagonist of a play and, more importantly, allowing her to represent the 'Everyman' experience and exist in her own right rather than in relation to a man - not even Arden of Faversham or The White Devil can claim that. There could be no better play to have launched this Season. I hope The Roaring Girl is not a token gesture. And I know she will be missed.

Lisa Dillon as Moll Cutpurse

by Lizzie Hopley  |  1 comment

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Sep 1, 12:57pm
Paula Lock

Saw The Roaring Girl on Saturday (for the 3rd time!). ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT, thanks for a great night. (And, Pru style squeal of delight, I have Laxton’s letter as a memento, thanks Lizzie!)

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