Exclusive: Lia Williams on The Match Box

Published May 10, 2013

Lia Williams tells us about the transition from actress to director as her stage directorial debut, Frank McGuinness’ one woman play The Match Box, plays at the Tricycle theatre.

This woman comes into the room. “Hiya”, she says, flinging her bag down and choosing a seat. She looks up and fixes me with a glare so direct that I am momentarily flattened. Her hooded blue-changing-to-green eyes are potent. ‘Cast me but don’t come near me’, they say. She smiles quietly and fiercely sizes me up.

Speak Lia, a loud voice in my head told me, you are the flippin’ director now. “Hello – great – good”, I said. Total flair! “So … um …”

She was Sal. She was the wolf. No doubt really, but we worked on the script for over an hour and I asked her to come back the next day and we did another two hours.

You see I quickly understood that the success of this solo performance depended not only on a rich and varied acting talent, supreme timing and a good deal of craft but, more importantly, our minds had to cohere. We had to have at least a recognition of each other’s instinct and intuition, spirit, heart, wit and a sense of the universe; a kind of spirituality. Most of all – and toughest for our breed – could we trust each other?

Trust. That, to my surprise, was my hardest judgement in my new role as director.

Watching her audition, looking at it from the other side of the camera so to speak (from myself as actor to myself as director) I saw how, as actors, we have to put our fists up much of the time because we just don’t know what is going to come at us and yet we have to remain open. Trust is hard. Certainly directors can be friend or foe to actors, sometimes strangely blocking an actor’s performance.

I reckoned that I wanted to work with someone who would travel with me so that I could springboard them into their greatest flight yet. There is Writers’ Theatre and Directors’ Theatre and I want Actors’ Theatre; that is, I want someone who transmits the writer’s story in pure and uncluttered form. I shall be an actors’ director. That means the actor has to trust me with her life. Heck.

I cast Leanne Best in The Match Box, the woman with the blue-green eyes, and we have been on a tremendously uplifting journey together.

Our research was comprehensive: speaking with therapists, grief counsellors, gathering hundreds of photos, paintings, illustrations, poems, music, looking at related cases of gang crime, scouring news footage. Gradually we began to piece together a scaffolding for Sal’s world and Frank McGuinness took a wondrous role in this piece of the journey, filling our heads with history, context and psychology, all from his brilliant poet’s mind. And we were like-minded, Leanne and I, and so we began to trust. Her epic imagination and wealth of colourful life experience – matched with my vision – enabled us to edge slowly towards Sal. It wasn’t easy; we had to make the language active and spontaneous. We had to be visceral in our story-telling. And we had to make the audience complicit in her journey. There was a crushing of scripts and gnashing of teeth, tears, struggle and laughter that hurt, confusion and fear, but one day her face changed, her heartbeat quickened and the middle of her shifted. The lift went down. She became Sal.

Go and see her. She is marvellous.

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"I wanted to work with someone who would travel with me so that I could springboard them into their greatest flight yet."