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How I found my Hedda Gabler

Al Senter talks to Lizzy Watts before Hedda Gabler comes to Royal & Derngate on November 28…

If Lizzy Watts, who has succeeded Ruth Wilson in the title role of Hedda Gabler, is feeling the pressure, this engaging performer seems to be thriving on it. In fact, where most actors would take giant steps to avoid seeing what their predecessor had done with the role, Lizzy witnessed Ruth Wilson’s Hedda, not once but twice.

However, Lizzy is now working hard to put her own stamp on a character which is often described as the female Hamlet in recognition of the particular challenge it sets an actor.

NT - Hedda Gabler

Before the call came from the National, Lizzy had been catching the eye on both stage and screen, with theatre work at Shakespeare’s Globe and at Chichester and a featured role in the popular television drama The Durrells.

“I think that Sam, from the NT’s Casting Department, had seen me in Strife at Chichester,” explains Lizzy.]

“Coincidentally I had just changed agents and I said to them that I was interested in being seen for characters of my own age (she’s in her mid-30s) rather than the younger roles I was being offered. I was cast as Hedda back in February and I took the call when I was in a clothes shop, trying on a new dress. As a result, I went ahead and bought it,”

It is not often that you hear an actor bemoaning the fact that her youthful quality means that she is often taken for younger than her actual age. Would that we all had that problem!

“I felt a little bit that I was missing out on those meaty roles that come to women in their 30s and 40s,” explains Lizzy.

“So it would have been madness to have turned down the offer. And I am enjoying the pressure. In fact, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the way rehearsals have gone. Not only am I playing this iconic role but it’s in a production that has already been well received.”

Part of the pleasure for Lizzy has been working with director Ivo van Hove and his Associates.

“One of Ivo’s notes advised me against trying to “explain” Hedda, as she seems to change going from one moment to the next. She can be a sharp bitch but there is also a vulnerability to her, a vulnerability that has been caused by the sheltering she’s received in her upbringing,”

Hedda can seem remote, a contradictory figure whose moods can turn on a sixpence. How would Lizzy describe this elusive personality to those who have never seen the play?

Lizzy Watts as Hedda Gabler_credit Ellie Kurttz

“Hedda is a young woman who has decided against following her inner drive and so she has chosen to settle down, to conform, to accept the security that marriage will bring her. In doing so, however, she is living a life she does not want to lead. She’s terrified by the outside world but she also wants to be free in the way that only a man is free in this society.”

Lizzy sees distinct parallels between the choices which Hedda makes and what is available to Hedda’s modern-day counterparts.

“I was talking about it with a group of my female friends and we discussed the pressure we feel to think about having children while pursuing a career and what that entails. We felt that as women we hadn’t ticked all the boxes,”

Lizzy has praise for the creative team and for the key elements in the production.

“The design is very beautiful and aesthetically pleasing and they have created a space that seems very free. Patrick’s version is quite sexy. They have been very willing to allow me to explore Hedda in my own way. It has been a very enjoyable process.”

Lizzy hopes that the audience will be as willing to work just as hard as the actors, especially in the pivotal Third Act.

“I want it to look as if we all, actors and audience alike, are going through one of those mornings after the night before occasions. We should look as if we have gone through a massive event. Nobody has slept properly and everybody seems to be suffering from a hangover. I’d like people to be pleasantly surprised by this family drama that does not seem to be a million miles away from their own lives. I feel that one of the joys of the theatre is when you sense that you know the people up on the stage, that you recognise them from real life.”

Lizzy conscientiously filled the hefty gap between being cast as Hedda and the start of rehearsals by immersing herself in a substantial helping of Ibsen’s plays. How did she fare?

“I read A Doll’s House, Ghosts, Pillars of the Community and they all tend to feature a woman who is fighting against social conformity. Take Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. That play could have been written now and you wouldn’t have to change a word. He is a writer both for today and for all time.”

Lizzy graduated from drama school in 2006 and fortunately she has managed to make a living, although there have also been periods of unemployment. How does she deal with this inevitable part of an actor’s life?

NT - Hedda Gabler

“Whenever I am out of work, I look to find something that has nothing to do with acting, simply to stop myself going mad. I couldn’t work in a Box Office or at a Stage Door. It would be too close to where I want to be. Acting was originally a hobby for me which I decided to take up professionally, despite my parents being less than delighted with my decision. It was seeing Michael Gambon in Pinter’s The Caretaker that made up my mind. I was sitting up in the Gods but I felt that I could smell him even at such a distance.”

Lizzy is looking forward to being the leader of the company on the tour and Plymouth and Dublin are high on her list of special venues.

“I love being close to the water and so Plymouth will be an ideal stop on the tour. I’m also very pleased that we’ve added a date in Dublin because my sister and her family live in Ireland and we plan to meet up.”

Even the prospect of living out of a suitcase for several months holds no fears for Lizzy.

“When I was touring with Shakespeare’s Globe, we played dates including China and Russia and I learnt how to pack for venues where the temperature ranged from 30 degrees to minus 30 degrees.

Ms Watts is plainly prepared for anything.

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