Michelle Fairley: “Theatre’s where I do my best work”

Northern Irish actor Michelle Fairley began her career at the Royal Court Theatre. She is now enjoying a homecoming in the 30th-anniversary revival of Jim Cartwright’s Road.

The production opened on 21 July and has had rave reviews, echoing the response it received the first time round when it launched Cartwright’s career. Remarkably, he was only 24 when he wrote it.

Fairley describes it as a privilege to be part of the production, and to return to a venue where she has worked under directors including Max Stafford-Clark and Peter Gill. Her latest isn’t too shoddy, either: John Tiffany, fresh from his success with Harry Potter And The Cursed Child.

Tiffany’s production of Road is played in proscenium [face on to the audience], unlike the original Royal Court Theatre staging that was famously in traverse [on a stage that ran through the auditorium]. “[Proscenium] means you get to see everything,” says Fairley. “And it’s so brilliant that you won’t want to miss anything.”

Having seen the production, I can confirm this. Fairley gives one of the most eye-catching performances in an ensemble bursting with virtuoso talents. Like many of the cast – which includes Lemn Sissay, Mark Hadfield and June Watson – she plays multiple roles. Brenda is an alcoholic single mother, while Helen clumsily attempts to seduce a heavily inebriated soldier. Marion, meanwhile, is in the early days of an autumn romance. “It’s like all the stages of a relationship in a single evening,” says Fairley.

[caption id="attachment_193091" align="alignnone" width="300"]Mike Noble and Michelle Fairley star in Road at Royal Court Mike Noble and Michelle Fairley star in Road at Royal Court Theatre[/caption]

But when she was first approached about the play, she was apprehensive. She says the challenge, both of playing several characters and speaking in a northern accent (the play is set in Lancashire), was “terrifying”.

She has conquered her fears with spectacular results and garners many of the evening’s biggest laughs. But despite the humour, Fairley is keen to emphasise that Cartwright’s characters are far from caricatures. “These are really strong people. Gut-wrenchingly, heartbreakingly intelligent people… They’re so resonant and pertinent, you don’t want to do them an injustice.”

The timing of the revival is apposite, with Britain’s so-called “underclass” seeming more cut off from the rest of society than ever before. “The play is so pertinent to what’s been happening in the last few years. But the characters’ pain is also mixed with their joy for life. They’re like icebergs.”

Fairley’s casting seems natural in a play requiring such flexibility. In recent years she has enjoyed success in roles ranging from “ultimate matriarch” Catelyn Stark in Game Of Thrones to a materialistic widow in Abi Morgan’s Splendour at Donmar Warehouse. “I like to use my brain, to be pushed. I’m not somebody who responds well to safeness. I like being pushed right to the edge. That’s why I’m really loving Road, because it scares the shit out of me.”

[caption id="attachment_193092" align="alignnone" width="300"]Michelle Fairley and Mark Hadfield star in Road at Royal Court Michelle Fairley and Mark Hadfield star in Road at Royal Court Theatre[/caption]

Her next theatre project will mark another shift. She’s preparing to play Cassius in Nicholas Hytner’s promenade production of Julius Caesar at his new Bridge Theatre. She says she’s relishing the challenge, and the chance to work with Hytner, but has barely had time to give it a moment’s thought while tackling Road.

What else would she like to see on the horizon? Tennessee Williams is a favourite writer, but she is yet to appear in one of his plays. “I’m approaching an age now where there are some brilliant female roles. But there are also so many actresses around of stature, so I might not get the opportunity.” Something tells me she will.

And although she doesn’t like setting herself goals because she enjoys surprises, one thing is clear: theatre is where her heart is. “I have to do television and film to pay the bills, and it works a different muscle, but for me theatre is where you do the best work. This is where I started, and I hope it’s where I end up.”

Michelle Fairley stars in Road at Royal Court Theatre until 9 September.

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