It is something of a boom time for the emergence of young British actresses. Recent years have seen the likes of Hayley Atwell, Andrea Riseborough and Felicity Jones make their mark on both stage and screen, writes Matthew Amer.
Last summer saw Michelle Dockery add her name to the growing list of rising stars, taking the lead in Pygmalion on the stage of the Old Vic, a venue which has hosted so many theatrical greats over the years. Her director was the archetypal finder of future stars, Peter Hall.
If Pygmalion was her breakthrough role, her apprenticeship came during 14 months spent at the National Theatre performing lesser roles in four productions; His Dark Materials, The UN Inspector, Henry IV Pts I and II, and Pillars Of The Community. That she is now returning to the South Bank venue to take the lead in Burnt By The Sun is palpably a source of much pleasure for the 27-year-old from Essex.
“Being back here really feels wonderful,” she tells me when we meet at the National Theatre as the cast comes to the end of rehearsals. “It is like coming home. I started here and I learned so much in those 14 months, it was like an extension of my training.”
Dockery is wrapped up warm on this chilly late-winter’s day. She, like many of the Burnt By The Sun cast, is fighting off a cold and has a scarf wrapped tightly round her neck to protect her throat. Yet the sniffles don’t seem to have gotten her down; she is cheery and upbeat, enthusiastic and, in her own words, raring to get “out of the rehearsal room and into the dressing room”.
She puts this down to the direction of Howard Davies, who, she explains, has worked at such a speed that the cast are just fine tuning and polishing to ensure the tense drama, set in the Russia of 1936, is as good as it can be.
“The only time I get to dance I have to dance crap!”
Somewhat ridiculously for an actress barely beginning her career, the quality of directors that Dockery has already worked with is staggering, including, as it does; Hall, National Theatre Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner, Marianne Elliott, David Farr, Anna Mackmin and now Davies.
Under the guidance of Hytner, Farr and Elliott, she progressed through the National’s ranks, pushing her boundaries and testing the theatrical waters. It was an experience for which she is hugely grateful. “I think so often you can come out of drama school and get thrown in the deep end. I honestly wasn’t ready to do something huge. Some actors do, and they can deal with it, but at the time I don’t think I would have been able to. So I had this brilliant training that set me on my way.”
Certainly the role of Maroussia in Burnt By The Sun would have been a challenge for a fledgling performer. The young wife of a hero of the Russian Revolution, her idyllic life is ruptured by the return of a former lover. “There’s so many changes for her in the play,” Dockery explains, “there’s so much information in the space of one day. She’s being thrown from one place to another in the space of just one day. She’s being ripped apart by all this information. It’s quite irratic; I found that quite challenging. It’s a wonderful part.”
Spiralling emotions and a back-stabbing love triangle aside, but Dockery faces other, more subtle challenges within Peter Flannery’s adaptation of the Oscar-winning Russian-language film.
Growing up, she trained at the Finch Stage School where, in addition to cultivating her dramatic talents, she learned how to tap dance. Maroussia, by contrast, is not a talented dancer and when she is taught from scratch, has to look suitably shabby. Stripping the polish from the performance has proved tricky. “There’s a child in me going ‘I can really do this. I’m trained!’” Dockery laughs. “I can imagine my Mum in the audience turning to the person next to her saying ‘She can actually really dance; I sent her to stage school for 10 years.’ All those lessons and the only time I get to dance I have to dance crap!”
“I knew very young, very early on that that was what I wanted to do”
It was as a youngster that Dockery discovered her talent, making her stage debut, as so many do, in panto, playing Tommy the Cat in Dick Whittington as an eager nine-year-old. “I knew very young, very early on that that was what I wanted to do,” she tells me. “I wasn’t an academic. I hated maths and science at school. I couldn’t concentrate. The only thing I was interested in was English and Drama really… and Music, although I was never quite disciplined enough to really go for it with music. I knew it was the arts that I wanted to do.”
For a time she considered pursuing ballet professionally, before a drama teacher nurtured her acting talent and encouraged her to apply for the National Youth Theatre. Her experience with the NYT convinced her that drama school should be her next step.
Graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama led to a small part in TV drama Fingersmith before she embarked on her 14 month apprenticeship at the National Theatre.
Dockery describes her first television lead in a similar vein to her time at the National. Playing the granddaughter of death in the TV adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s The Hogfather saw her immersed in filming for two and a half months The shoot gave her the chance to spend time getting to grips with the intricacies of working on camera, and particularly on green screen, “or blue screen, whatever colour it is now. It’s probably pink, isn’t it?” she laughs.
She will also soon be seen in the extremely different Red Riding films to be screened on Channel 4. The adaptation of David Peace’s novels about police corruption over the course of a decade had, says Dockery, “a buzz about it. I’m not in them a great deal, but it just felt great to get [a part] in that.”
“This is it until I can’t walk any more”
In fact, had Burnt By The Sun not been offered to Dockery, she could have been making more of an impact on screens both big and small. The transfer of Pygmalion to the Old Vic marked the end of two years of stage work with Peter Hall, which also included a production of Uncle Vanya. While she still struggles to believe that she was playing Eliza Doolittle at the Old Vic when only 26, she felt it was time to put some effort into expanding her career in front of cameras. “But this came up, and when I read it I just really wanted to do it,” she smiles.
Her sniffles have not yet worn her down, and she is as warm and affable as the weather outside is cold and harsh. There is a sense of ease about Dockery which may be in her nature or may grow from her confidence about the play. There is a trust, she says, within the cast. They all believe in each other and in Davies’s direction. “I think we all know that we’re on to something good,” she says, before panicking that this pre-press night confession might jinx the production.
For Dockery, the role has illuminated part of her character that she often keeps hidden in the darkness. This, it seems, goes to the heart of why she chose this career: “That’s why I love acting, because you tap into parts of yourself that you wouldn’t necessarily need to in real life. I find that really quite liberating, that you can tap into sides of yourself that can surprise you, actually. I’m quite surprised at how out of control I can be on stage, because actually I find I like to be in control in life. It’s quite freeing really.”
How much an actor is ever in control of their career is questionable, but, if her list of directorial allies is anything to go by, she has not done a bad job so far. While there are no projects lined up to follow Burnt By The Sun when we speak, it can’t be long before someone comes knocking on the door of such a promising young talent. But Dockery, with the wisdom of a more mature performer, has not let the leading roles under Hall and at the National go to her head. “I just want a really varied career,” she says, “and just to keep going really.” Having come to the art so young, acting is all that she knows and all that she wants to do. “This is it,” she smiles, “until I can’t walk any more or until I start forgetting my lines.” Still in her 20s, this could be the start of a very long and much lauded career.