Lindsay Duncan is one of a rare breed, an extremely good actress who has remained fairly anonymous. Though she has two Laurence Olivier Awards glittering in her trophy cabinet – for Private Lives (2002) and Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1986) – along with Tony, Drama Desk, Evening Standard and Critics' Circle Awards, you could walk past her in the street without realising. After five years away from the London stage, Duncan has returned to the Royal Court in new play That Face. She spoke to Matthew Amer about the dysfunctional family drama.
Lindsay Duncan is slightly flustered as she comes out of rehearsals for That Face. The morning session has overrun and she has to have lunch and talk to me before heading back to once again become a mother dependent on alcohol, valium and her 18-year-old son. It is a tiring, draining role. Her character, Martha, has few, if any, redeeming features. Instead she manipulates one child to be her constant companion while barely acknowledging the other's existence. It is intense and emotionally sapping, and it takes Duncan a few minutes to leave the rehearsal room behind. Her last outing at the Royal Court came in Kevin Elyot's Mouth To Mouth, in which she also played the maternal half of an intense mother/son relationship. "They weren't as f**ked up as these two," she laughs.
Laughter, it seems, is the antidote to letting the horror of a character or situation get the better of you. "All good rehearsals involve quite a lot of laughing," Duncan confides, "so that's the way to get through it".
There needs to be a lot of laughter in these rehearsals, as That Face is a harrowing play exploring a series of strained relationships centred on Duncan's character. The barely acknowledged daughter is wreaking havoc at boarding school, possibly just trying to get a reaction. The father lives in Hong Kong with a new family, only getting involved with his previous family to stop a scandal. The son is in a perpetual state of trying to be an adult but never really getting past a general simulation; an effect caused by his mother's insistence on needing him to be both her support and her baby. Duncan describes the scenario as a chain of damage: "one damaged person marries another damaged person, they have children and they damage them".
"It's the craziest thing I've ever done"
Harrowing it might be, but also extraordinary. That Face is the very first play from 20-year-old playwright Polly Stenham. Duncan, who has performed the work of Pinter, Poliakoff, Bleasdale and Hampton, cannot heap enough praise on the emerging writer, lauding the sophistication of her debut work. "She's in there, she's a proper writer," Duncan enthuses. "Some people seem to arrive made and Polly seems to be like that. She's got real craft. She's tackled something full on. She's created recognisable characters who are psychologically authentic. She's given the play some structure, which is a quite difficult thing to do. She's given wit as well, so this isn't just grinding you into the dirt with the pain of it all; it's witty, it's flamboyant, it's challenging. This is spinning a lot of plates and you know that as soon as you read it."
The script is what matters most to Duncan, more than the writer, the character or the location. Without a script, she admits to being "a bit lost", but with the right material she flourishes. In a colossal feat of understatement, she claims to be "reasonably good at interpreting good writing… It's probably not the hardest thing in the world if the writing is really good."
The longevity of her career and that collection of awards could probably be used as rather weighty evidence to prove she is more than 'reasonably good' in her chosen profession. But sitting in the bar of the Royal Court, munching a salad lunch and sharing her potato wedges, Duncan barely seems to realise her talent and the success that she has had. A hair in her salad, which to an actor of a more diva-ish disposition could have resulted in a hissy fit of award-winning proportions, puts her off her food, but never elicits more than a little stomach churning.
The attention of an interview actually seems a little uncomfortable for her. Though she is nothing but a delight to chat to – full of vigour, humour and passion – she occasionally plays with her hair or her napkin nervously.
She definitely is nervous about her 15-year-old son seeing the production. "That's the least he can do!" Duncan jokes, but she is unsure what he will make of it. He was too young to see much of the darker work that came earlier in her career, but is now old enough to see a play in which his mum spends most of her time pretending to be drunk and behaving inappropriately with her onstage offspring. "I start laughing whenever I think about it," she giggles. "It's hysterical laughter actually; nerves."
"We owe it to her to get it right"
The script may be the most important part of a production for Duncan, but she did accept one project in her illustrious career without glancing at words on a page; the HBO/BBC co-production of Rome: "I thought 'how often does an opportunity come for British actors to work on a major series like that?' It's a gamble, because it was an unusual situation, not something I'd ever done before. I liked the idea of creating a character and then going on to a second series."
The process of putting together the epic mini-series was indeed something unlike anything she had been involved with before. "It's the craziest thing I've ever done," she smiles. The reputation and budget of HBO was enough to convince her to join the production and, though she would not do something on that scale again – the time constraints and commitment are unappealing a second time round – she enjoyed filming.
Being involved with a group of people for so long, she says, was like being part of a theatre company. Working in Rome was "a nightmare!" she jokes, before continuing. "It was as amazing as anyone would think it would be. I never ever got over being in Rome. It was always a thrill, it was always exciting and I've got some fantastic memories… some of them to do with food and wine! Being somewhere very beautiful when you're working is as good as it gets because you have something that underpins your life. You go to work, but there's a novelty about it, especially somewhere like Rome; driving past the Forum every day at dawn, it's intoxicating really. It's so beautiful.”
It all sounds very glamorous, and you would not be surprised to hear that toga-clad grape-feeders were also employed to care for the needs of the actors. But, for Duncan, working at the Royal Court has just as much glamour as living it up in Italy; the history of the theatre and the people that have worked there, the fact that in London's trendy, privileged Sloane Square is a building that on the outside looks charming but on the inside attacks preconceptions and ideas. These are what draw her back to this theatre; these and the writers.
Away from all talk of glamour, Duncan's reason for performing comes back to the writing, which she believes is incredibly important. Good writing, she says, connects everyone worldwide as, though we have cultural differences, at the heart of well-formed plays are ideas that touch everyone. The most important thing the theatre world can do is nurture its new writing talent: "That's important because if we don't do that, we don't bring on writers, we won't have anything at all." This is what the Royal Court has done with Stenham, a product of its Young Writers' Programme. It is what it has done through the rehearsal process as Stenham, director Jeremy Herrin and the cast worked to make the play as good as it could be. Now that that process is over, Duncan says, it is in the hands of the actors to help it make the impression it deserves: "We owe it to her [Stenham] to get it right."
That Face plays at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs until 19 May.