09 August 2010

"This fantastic play": Parlour Song

After five years (two of which were spent touring the comedy sensation Le Sud), actor Heather O’Carroll returns to Circa to star as the enigmatic Joy in the current Circa Two hit Parlour Song. She sits down with drama on the waterfront to tell us all about her experiences working on this “fantastic and intriguing” play.

DOTW: What is the basic story of Parlour Song?

HOC: Parlour Song is about a couple who’ve been married for 11 years, Ned and Joy; they don’t have any children and they live in a very suburban area of London. It’s one of those new-built estates where the houses are all very close together and the neighbours are in each others’ pockets, that kind of thing. Ned is a demolition expert, so he blows up buildings for a living, and he’s started to notice that possessions of his are disappearing. He’s a collector, a hoarder; he will go to a garage sale and pick up all this crap he doesn’t need and just hold onto it. But he’s also got some specific items that are pertinent to his and Joy’s relationship that he holds dear, sentimental things. These things start disappearing first: a pair of cufflinks, a soapstone birdbath that he gave Joy on their honeymoon, things like that. He’s also got this problem with insomnia, he’s having bad dreams and doesn’t want to go to sleep, and he’s also having these paranoid fantasies. Then there’s Dale, the next door neighbour, and his wife Lyn, but we never meet Lyn. Ned starts revealing to Dale that things are going missing and he doesn’t know why. So it’s about Ned trying to work out his own mental state and  his relationships with Dale and Joy. And it’s gradually revealed through the play where these disappearing items might be going.

Gavin Rutherford and Heather O'Carroll in Parlour Song. Photo by Stephen A'Court.

DOTW: What was it about this story that drew you to the play?

HOC: First of all, I am kind of obsessed with Britsh theatre. I absolutely love it. I was in London five years ago for seven months and just saw as much as I could possibly see and went to all these places like the Donmar Warehouse, the Royal Court and the National. And I found these really cool little theatres as well in London, like Soho Theatre and the BAC ; places I had heard of that were doing really exciting stuff. I love that kind of theatre, theatre that is contemporary, provocative. I love language; language is probably the biggest thing for me. I really enjoy playwrights who have their own vocabulary and play with language in a way that’s really interesting. In Parlour Song, for example, there’s a lot of repetition, but there’s also a lot of pausing, a lot of moments where what’s not being said is just as important and it’s about the space between the characters and what’s going on in the silence. I really love that kind of stuff. The language definitely really appealed to me in this play, Jez Butterworth is highly influenced by Harold Pinter, so there’s a lot of space around the words. I also have this ridiculously warped sense of humour, really black, so I love black comedy. And I think with Parlour Song, a lot of the laughter comes from the tragedy, from people recognizing themselves and recognizing something darker going on underneath. We’ve had so many nights where there’s been this really nervous laughter, and I really dig that. I mean, there’s some really good laugh out loud moments, and it’s real English humour and there are some really funny physical moments as well in the play. But the moments for me that I really enjoy are the moments where people are really nervous about laughing because that’s exciting. Also, I hadn’t done anything distinctly Britsh before, even though I really love that kind of theatre. Gavin Rutherford and I have just spent the last two years doing Le Sud to packed houses around the country and it was great to exercise those big comedy muscles; you’re on gag alert the whole time, you’re looking for the biggest gag, what’s going to make people laugh. And it’s just literally nonstop laughter during that show. So it’s exciting to do comedy in a way that’s more subtle and more complex. I mean, laughter is laughter, you get a buzz from it; we had 900 people for our closing night in Christchurch for the Christchurch Arts Festival, and having 900 people laugh hysterically is the most amazing feeling ever. You can’t even speak because they’re laughing so much. And Parlour Song is exciting in a different way. Doing something that is darker and more subtle is really cool.

DOTW: What can you tell us about your character, Joy?

HOC: Joy is such an enigma. That’s a word that’s been used in plenty of reviews about her. It took me a really long time to figure her out and I still don’t think I have completely. But I’ve got to a point where every night I can still be figuring her out on stage. And also the audience reaction to her is really interesting, to gauge where you place her. I think the thing with her is that she’s really guarded, she reveals herself really slowly throughout the play. I think at first you would see her very one dimensionally, and people have said to me, “Oh she’s a bitch”, but what I really like is that through the course of the play those walls come down a little bit and we see more of her vulnerability and her desires. She’s a slow burner I think. I always think of that expression, ‘still waters run deep’; she’s got this very cold, icy exterior, and once you start peeling away the layers you start to understand her more and you understand where she’s coming from. And that’s really nice to play. I think it’s beautifully ironic that she’s called Joy because there’s not much joy in her life. You don’t really get to know a lot about her back story, she’s really reflected in her two relationships in the play, through her relationship with Ned and her relationship with Dale. I think another interesting thing is that the three of us are never on stage together in a scene; it’s only ever two people in dialogue. So there’s always this feeling that there’s one person’s perspective left out of any scene, that there’s another person always in the background of what’s going on with these characters. And I quite like that as well.

Heather O'Carroll in Parlour Song. Photo by Stephen A'Court.

DOTW: Do you relate to her in any way or is it a complete departure?

HOC: No, it’s not a complete departure – it’s funny because I said to Chris Brougham one day, “Oh God, you’re not a 100 miles away from Dale are you?” And he said, “Yeah, I don’t think you’re 100 miles away from Joy either!” I think it’s really well cast in that way. I don’t know if you ever play characters who are that far away from you, I don’t know if I’ve ever had that really, cause you’re always bringing something of yourself to it. I definitely think there are aspects of Joy that I can relate to. But like I said, it was so hard to get to know her, but exciting and terrifying too. There was just moments that were like, “I can’t even play this character!” But maybe that is because she’s so like me.  Maybe there are those aspects of myself that I don’t want to admit to or confront. And maybe that’s where the apprehension came from. But it’s been amazing!

DOTW: Are there any particular challenges with this play?

HOC: The challenege we had with this play is that Jez Butterworth, I don’t know if it was intentionally or inadvertently, placed a very complex timeline within the play and it’s only really revealed when characters say things like “six weeks ago …” or “six months ago …” or “a week ago …”, things like that. In the first week of rehearsal we were talking about this timeline and trying to work it out, so I sat down with a piece of paper and attempted to plot the play in terms of its timeline. It got really messy and I got blamed for my timeline quite a bit, and I was like, “It’s not my timeline, it’s Jez Butterworth’s timeline. Leave me alone!” But when you see the play, you’re never going to pick up on that – you’ll see a flashback and you’ll realize it’s a flashback. In terms of the way it sits in the play, people will see the timeline chronologically. But in terms of us trying to figure out where that person is in their journey and in the journey of the story, it was quite hard. But also exciting, because then you get to bring things to scenes that are sort of enigmatic, you create this tension onstage because you’re aware of where you are in the story, which the audience will pick up on and it will feed into their own version of the story and the timeline as they see it. A lot of people have said that the play is intriguing and engrossing, and I think that is because the audience is piecing together the story. A lot of the story is not told overtly, so there is that thing where you sit there and try to piece it together. And I love those moments where a character will say something that the other character doesn’t know but the audience picks up on. Some nights they’re really vocal; there a couple of moments that I have where I say something and the audience will go, “Oooooh!” That is really exciting when you can hear the audience playing along, when you can figure out whose side they’re on, or just when that penny drops, that is really cool when that happens. I had a guy on the street come up to me the other day, he just accosted me on the street and he said, “Oh my God, are you in that play at Circa? It’s so amazing, we loved it so much, we came on the preview night.” You know, that’s really cool that it’s a play that people are so connected to that they want to come up and talk to you about it. Parlour Song is not tied up in a little bow at the end, and I like that because the audience just doesn’t walk out the door and forget the play, they go away and they talk about it. On preview night, we were at the bar having a drink after the show and we had five people who had come together come up to us and they said, “Right, we’ve been discussing the play for half an hour, and now we need some questions answered.” We thought it was great and told them to fire away, but told them we couldn’t guarantee we would know the answers. I think that’s really cool that we can then have a dialogue between the audience and crew so we can all ask questions of each other about it. And we might all have a different opinion about how the play is structured but that’s cool, it makes it unique to every audience member. Any play that you come out of and you’re still talking about is good in my book, the worst thing to have coming out of a play is indifference. I love that this play is something that provokes such reactions and dialogues and discussions.

DOTW: In a previous issue of drama on the waterfront, Gavin Rutherford described his experiences during a day of the rehearsal process of Parlour Song. What was that process like for you?

HOC: It was great. I think Gavin touched on this, but one of the cool things for me is that we aren’t all in scenes together, there’s always one person from the cast watching the scene. It was really nice sometimes if I wasn’t required to rehearse that scene I could go away and learn my lines or do something else and then when I came back, I would see the work that had gone into that scene that day and I could sit back and sort of be an audience member. It would feed into other parts of the story, but it was nice to just observe other people working rather than all being in the same scenes together all the time. So that was really cool. And we just had so many laughs; we were just laughing all the time, which was great. We all just genuinely love the play. Even Rachel, our stage manager, she would say everyday that it was so exciting to come in and watch rehearsals because she really loved the play. And that’s not always the case if you’re just kind of sitting there in the rehearsal room everyday. We all just had a really good time.

DOTW: How is it to work with this team (including director Susan Wilson, lighting designer Jennifer Lal, set designer John Hodgkins, stage manager Rachel Marlow, AV designer Andrew Simpson) on this work?

HOC: I had only worked with Susan once before, on The Cherry Orchard which was here at Circa. Susan’s great, it’s been five years since I’ve worked with her, and it was really nice to work with her again. She’s really open and ready for a laugh and just had some fantastic insight into these characters and the dynamic of the play. She’s really good with the subtlety of it, finding all the little nuances – one of the reviews [link] said that and I really liked that because that’s exactly what it is. It’s finding those little moments that people are going to recognize, and navigating through those moments, like I said before, where people aren’t speaking to each other but there’s so much going on. I’ve worked with Jen and John a million times, and they’re great. They’ve done such a brilliant job with the set and lighting. There’s a big reveal at the end of the play – which I won’t go into – but every night there’s a vocal response to it, which is really exciting. And Rachel and Andrew I’ve worked with before. I directed a show called A Brief History of Helen of Troy last year, and Rachel was my lighting designer and Andrew was my sound designer. Andrew was nominated for a Chapman Tripp Award for sound design for that show. So it was great to work with them again. They’re all fantastically talented people.

DOTW: What can you tell us about your castmates, Gavin and Chris?

HOC: Gavin and I have known each other for a really long time now; after touring with Le Sud, we’ve been in each other’s pockets for the last two years. It’s so good to work with someone you know really well, especially when you’re playing husband and wife. Ned and Joy are supposed to have been married for 11 years, so you have to have that familiarity and that ease with each other. I knew Chris in the industry, but I’ve never worked with him before. The funny thing about Chris, one of the first scenes I have with him – well, both of the scenes I have with him – are intimate scenes, which is always funny when you don’t know someone very well and you have that kind of scene. Especially at the beginning when you have scripts in your hand and there’s not much you can do at that stage. So it is quite funny getting to know somebody just by groping them. But it’s been really great, he’s fantastic. Gavin’s fantastic as well. They’re just really good actors and perfectly cast.

Heather O'Carroll and Christopher Brougham in Parlour Song. Photo by Stephen A'Court.

DOTW: Finally, what should Circa audiences know about Parlour Song?

HOC: Having such an interest in British theatre, I had heard about Jez Butterworth because he wrote this amazing play called Jerusalem, which was just on in London recently and won all these awards. And Parlour Song is right up with Jerusalem in terms of its themes and writing. And I think it’s just really great that Circa allows us to see the best of what’s happening overseas. In 2006 I set up my production company, GladEye Productions – I’ve now produced two plays under that company, A Brief History of Helen of Troy, which was produced with Playground Collective, and a play called Guardians, which I saw overseas, and which I produced and acted in. And I set up that company in order to do contemporary, cutting edge theatre from the international stage, specifically to do international work. I’ve never said I wasn’t going to do New Zealand work, but this company was created because I think we should see the best of what’s happening overseas as well as the best of what’s happening here. Because we can’t shut ourselves off to influences from overseas. And the plays that I choose aren’t specifically from a place, they speak to me through character or language or theme. And that’s more important to me as a human being to connect on those levels rather than only identifying in a national way. I also want to challenge myself as an actor to play characters that are different to me, and not only in terms of character, but also in terms of nationality and of class, all these different things that go to make us as human beings. One of the big challenges in this play for me and I think the other actors is the accent; I love accents. I shouldn’t have to limit myself to only playing a New Zealand accent all the time because accents are another part of an actor’s craft. So I think that’s a big thing; you’re seeing this fantastic play which is not touring here or coming here by any international company, but you’re seeing three top actors here in this country taking it on and presenting it along with all the other elements lighting, direction, everything – to create this great production. And people are really excited by it. I guess, at the end of the day, what audiences will get from it is a really intriguing, great story with fantastic characters, some very funny moments and also some moments that they will really feel for. There is some beautiful, sad, poignant stuff going on in there. And you shouldn’t be afraid of that; it doesn’t have to just be comedy, you should have an emotional experience as well. This play doesn’t sugarcoat it – there are some really funny moments but it’s a very real situation with some very real emotions going on in it and that can be cathartic. 

Parlour Song is on at Circa until 21 August. To book tickets, please call the Circa Box Office at 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz. 

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