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Nancy Carroll

Published 17 April 2008

Nancy Carroll is starring alongside Charlotte Rampling and Antony Calf in Martin Crimp’s acclaimed new version of Marivaux’s The False Servant at the National Theatre. Laura North met her to find out about Brief Encounters, marriage and how to be a man.

This is the first time that Nancy Carroll has been a man. She’s been told to try before because she’s “very tall”, but until now her inner man has been kept down to size. She stars in The False Servant at the National’s Cottesloe Theatre as the Chevalier, a woman who disguises herself as a man in order to discover what her intended husband is really like. The 18th century play by Pierre Marivaux has been translated by Martin Crimp and updated to a 1930s setting. At five feet nine inches, and dressed in some snappy suits, she certainly looks the part.

But there’s more to being a man than just looking like one. Jack Murphy, in charge of movement, and Patsy Rodenburg, the voice coach, showed Carroll how to behave like a man. “There are certain fundamental rules about the way men stand and talk and sit: it’s mostly to do with the weight of the feet. A woman sits back on her heels – it’s defensive. Men sit forward on their heels and are, well, not aggressive, but they fill their personal space. Of course this is a huge generalisation, totally out of a text book.” Carroll uses these fundamental rules to guide her performance. “Men are much harder to interrupt than women because they expect to finish: for me it was about the energy of following a thought through and holding that energy until the end of the line. Vocally, women apologise for themselves. A woman will generally say, ‘yes… yes’, soothing and caressing that person into feeling good about talking to them. If a man wants to talk or listen, he just does it.” I realise that I’ve just said ‘yes’ to everything she’s said, so I shut up manfully and listen to the rest. “Men are sexually aggressive. I include men that I know who are all gentle and lovely, but when they want sex, they want sex. When they want to make themselves heard, they make themselves heard.”

"If a man wants to talk or listen, he just does it."

There was a danger of making the Chevalier too manly, however. Carroll admits: “we did go too far at certain points. For example I tried lowering my voice and it just sounded ridiculous.” I ask her to demonstrate and it doesn’t sound quite right, a bit like an impression of Margaret Thatcher. “It sounds like a joke. The audience would be so aware that you’re trying to be a man that they’d stop listening to what’s being said. Our decision was to hint at something and present certain ways of being a man. There’s absolutely no point trying to be a convincing man: from the outset the audience know she’s a woman dressed as a man, and if the characters believe the mask then the audience should do too.” Carroll uses the male mask to partially hide her true sex. The Chevalier remains highly aware of her femininity; when challenged to a duel she attempts to prove her mettle and remarks coolly “I see blood on a regular basis. It’s not something I personally have a problem with.” The dialogue between her femininity and masculinity creates a far subtler portrait of a woman pretending to be a man than going at it full pelt with trousers, moustache and a booming voice.

But the male mask begins to take over: Carroll wanted to make the Chevalier “a more convincing man that she is a woman by the end of the play. She suddenly realises the power and freedom in her disguise” and this drives the plot forward: “I’m enjoying this too much to just suddenly stop”. The Chevalier becomes such a convincing man that the Countess, a proud and unyielding woman played by Charlotte Rampling, falls head over heels for her. Carroll makes full use of the fundamental rules she described earlier – leaning forward, filling personal space, being uninterruptible – to become sexually aggressive, forcing herself on top of the Countess as she cowers helplessly on a chaise longue. And with this physical and verbal control comes cruelty: “Her self-respect’s fading – let’s demolish it.” Why is she so cruel to the Countess? “It’s the school of thought that Mariavaux came from: any character that becomes too emotional and lets their guard down gets killed off or punished. The Countess lets her guard down and allows herself to be tricked: as a result she’s punished. The ones that get away with it are slicker, harder and more rational.” But the Chevalier really enjoys taking the Countess down. “Then maybe that’s a male thing. She is educated into the ways of being a man and in the end she’s more of a man than every other man on that stage – she out-mans the men.”

“I’m enjoying this too much to just suddenly stop”

In fact, the Chevalier almost out-mans Carroll. The male characteristics, so well absorbed and then demonstrated on stage, were hard to shake off. “You do start to get a bit worried. I don’t know if I’m still doing it, but I felt like I was walking like a man, and sounding like one.” After the press night performance, she appeared in the Cottesloe foyer in a floaty pink dress with a flower tucked into her hair, a stark contrast to the sharp suits and tuxedos she was wearing on stage. Was this a deliberate attempt to de-masculinise herself? “Oh yes! Lots of pink. I have to otherwise I go a bit bonkers. When we were rehearsing and previewing, I wore something very very girly at every opportunity. Just because you want to feel like you’re still a girl.” It seemed that her husband had the same notion. “He wrote in my press night card in big red letters ‘REMEMBER YOU’RE A GIRL!’ ” Fortunately, Carroll lives down on the coast, giving her masculine muscles a chance to relax. “The train ride down to Brighton is just about long enough to make that change!”

Last time she was on stage, she was very definitely a girl and her husband was right there with her. They appeared together in a Noel Coward double bill at the Liverpool Playhouse in March this year. In The Astonished Heart, Carroll played Leonora, a woman dressed in “these amazing slinky red 1930s dresses” who seduces a married psychiatrist, in this case her husband Jo Stone-Fewings. A review in The Independent said “she’s born to the role of temptress” which triggers a big laugh from Carroll. “I think that’s hilarious. I think that anyone who knows me would laugh out loud. It’s very nice that they think that. If people think that I’m born into the role of temptress then that’s great, I’m not going to complain!” The other play in the double bill, Still Life, was pure romance: it was the prototype for the classic David Lean movie Brief Encounter. “It’s all set in a train station at a table, which was quite romantic as there was no touching and you’re sitting apart from each other. In the other play we were playing illicit lovers but there was much more physicality and snogging on stage. To have both of those in one night was wonderful.”

"We were playing illicit lovers but there was much more physicality and snogging on stage"

Working with her husband in such romantically charged roles did not prove difficult. “It was fantastic, really lovely. We have a huge respect for each other in the workplace. It didn’t feel abnormal at all.” In fact, they first met at work: on a television documentary called In Search of Shakespeare, presented by historian Michael Wood. “We were part of a RSC company that went on tour for a week and a half to all the places that Shakespeare took his players to. We filmed the footage for the documentary, bits of all the great speeches and scenes – Shakespeare’s greatest hits I suppose.” Whilst Michael Wood was busy finding Shakespeare, the two were busy finding each other, culminating in an engagement just nine days later. Did Michael Wood’s insatiable enthusiasm inspire this whirlwind love affair? “Nooo! It was genuinely love at first sight. I know in the past that Michael Wood’s been criticised for being so completely over-enthusiastic but that’s how he is, he’s passionate about what he does. He’s really a phenomenal man. It was important that he employed both of us: in that way he was intrinsic!”

With all this talk of seduction, I immediately associate her with Goneril or Regan when we discuss her role in her last Jonathan Kent production, King Lear at the Old Vic (Kent also directs The False Servant). They’re the arch-cows who fight to the death to seduce the villainous Edmond. But no, she played Cordelia, the good one. I’m stopped in my tracks. “I have to say I disagree with her being the good one – I don’t think she is. Traditionally she seemed to be the representation of good but I didn’t play it like that. For my money, you have to believe she comes from the same womb as Goneril and Regan. Ultimately, yes okay, she is standing for something that is intrinsically good at the beginning but she embarrasses her father in public. She’s stubborn and she’s hard and she goes after what she wants. Ultimately she loses out.”

Having effectively reduced a Shakespeare character to a cardboard cut-out, I attempt to do the same with Ophelia from Hamlet, Carroll’s first major professional role at the Bristol Old Vic. It is possible to view Ophelia as a woman wronged: she behaves virtuously but her father is murdered, she is dumped unceremoniously by Hamlet, and she ends up floating face down in a lake. I venture: “She’s pretty good.” [Big pause] “Isn’t she…?” “Well, I don’t know. I think she’s repressed. She doesn’t really have a chance to be anything really. She’s Polonius’ daughter, she’s Hamlet’s intended, she’s something to somebody else but she isn’t anything for herself and so the minute she’s cut free, she just withers. I think she’s a desperately sad woman: she’s not good, she’s not bad, she’s not anything. She just isn’t given a chance.” It’s clear that Carroll sees no point in categorising a character. “I think the minute you say somebody represents a particular state you shoot yourself in the foot because no person is intrinsically anything. It’s a bit two dimensional, and so I try to look at the characters from a three dimensional point of view.” Part of the three-dimensional approach includes not viewing the characters in isolation. “Theatre is the chemistry that happens between two characters. There’s no such thing as one person representing something moving forward in an empty space from A to B. You can’t play an idea or a state, it’s just not physically possible. Or if you do, you can’t move much.”

Carroll, having not shot herself in the foot and completely free to move, suits this production of The False Servant perfectly, as it resists classification too. It is both funny and frosty: “In the last act it turns nasty and it’s not a comedy anymore. In the first couple of previews we fell into the trap of playing to the audience’s laughter, and to the possible comedy side. But Jonathan [Kent] said, ‘okay you could do it like that, but that’s not how I want it to be: I think if it suddenly turns, it’s harder and cleverer and ultimately more rewarding for an audience.’” The turn from comedy to cruelty is unsettling. And so is the Chevalier, who cannot be neatly labelled good or bad – liberated or callous? “The play doesn’t really answer those questions. It’s up to the audience to decide whether they like the characters. That’s a rare thing – we’re so often told how to feel about the people on stage.” It makes compelling viewing when conflicting ideas are allowed to co-exist. The False Servant is funny and sinister; Cordelia is hard and virtuous; Ophelia is neither good nor bad; the Chevalier is not simply cruel or commendable and, most importantly, not just a man or a woman.

The False Servant is at the National Cottesloe until 15 September.

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