Actor Lia Williams on playing Paula Vennells: ‘I think she’s more shallow than malicious. She created her own set of truths’

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Lia Williams, 59, is an exceptional character of questing intelligence and warmth whose award-winning performances connected shape and surface person a measurement of staying successful nan mind. Her 1993 mentation of a student accusing her professor of harassment, successful David Mamet’s Oleanna, was 1 specified role. Now, 30 years on, she is astir to play a professor, successful Alma Mater astatine nan Almeida by Kendall Feaver, a tremendous caller play that returns to nan taxable of intersexual misconduct.

It seems you’ve ever been drawn to governmental drama.
I’ve worked pinch Harold Pinter – who directed Oleanna – and he utilized to say, astir his ain work, that he was ne'er consciously governmental yet a governmental strain ran done everything he wrote. I’m now opening to wonderment – I’ve been doing this occupation for 40 years – if location mightiness beryllium thing akin successful me. While not overtly governmental – I’m an idealist and eclectic successful my tastes – I support getting drawn to caller penning that discusses analyzable issues but besides has heart.

You play nan first female maestro of a college, Jo Mulligan – an unsettling operation of enlightened and unreconstructed. Has nan taxable of really we attack intersexual misconduct changed?
Not a awesome woody has changed, yet everything has changed. Oleanna was a polemic and loaded. Alma Mater isn’t. It has brilliantly clear arguments from different characters. Jo Mulligan is simply a second- aliases third-wave feminist who fought for adjacent authorities sounded against Nikki, a young student. Fourth-wave feminism has gone online and exploded. But we’re challenged nowadays by groupthink. It’s cool to beryllium feminist while, successful Jo’s day, it was often seen arsenic wacky. Jo wants to promote her students to see nan things she has discovered for herself specified arsenic to deliberation extracurricular nan container and beryllium responsible for your ain actions.

Being responsible – aliases failing to beryllium – reminds maine of really bonzer you were arsenic Paula Vennells successful nan ITV play Mr Bates vs the Post Office – that mirthless master grin of yours a small masterpiece – did you make a adjacent study of Vennells?
I couldn’t. Vennells, arsenic we each know, was intolerable to find: she conscionable disappeared. There was that 1 changeable of her connected a bicycle successful a churchyard but she was truthful protected by lawyers that ITV and nan writer couldn’t get adjacent her. The astir absorbing point for maine was that nan writer was not allowed to invent a azygous connection for that peculiar domiciled truthful everything I said was transcript. We had to make nan printed connection sound arsenic if it was coming from my mouth, different nan lawyers would person sued.

Lia Williams, centre, arsenic Paula Vennells successful nan ITV play Mr Bates vs nan Post Office.
Lia Williams, centre, arsenic Paula Vennells successful nan ITV play Mr Bates vs nan Post Office. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

What did you deliberation of her grounds to nan Horizon inquiry – and did you support nan unit connected her to surrender her CBE?
I ne'er for illustration witch-hunts but she has to beryllium accountable. It’s perfectly crucial. I made a prime not to play her arsenic evil because I thought it important nan assemblage make nan decision. That’s really I attack my activity generally. I played her pinch ambiguity and erstwhile you look astatine footage of her – you cannot activity retired wherever she’s at. During nan hearing, her tears seemed to bespeak she was genuinely sorry, but being sorry is not nan aforesaid arsenic taking work – and my reference is that she’s not emotionally tin of handling nan extent of that responsibility. I deliberation she’s much shallow than malicious. She created her ain group of truths and believed them. She was successful measurement complete her head. She was a firm personification done and done and perchance did not person nan imagination to woody pinch this benignant of horror.

Has your acquisition of directing in nan theatre changed your consciousness of what it is to beryllium an actor?
When you enactment successful a play, you are a definite colour connected nan canvas. When you direct, you spot nan full painting. I spot myself arsenic 2 different people. I’m much earthy and susceptible arsenic an actor. When I direct, I’ve a stronger grip connected what I’m doing arsenic good arsenic connected who I am. When you’re acting you person to suffer who you are, suffer your footing.

And speaking of footings, I publication that your character son, Joshua James, has been school you stone climbing. How did that cookware out?
Rock climbing isn’t my thing, we discovered.

Not relaxing capable possibly – what do you do to relax?
I emotion scuba diving. I walk an tremendous magnitude of clip pinch Angus Wright, my partner. We met doing nan Oresteia present astatine nan Almeida [he played Agamemnon to her Clytemnestra]. The Almeida is my favourite theatre. We took nan show to New York aft Covid but I ruptured my achilles connected nan 2nd time of nan tech [technical rehearsal]. An absolute disaster. It felt for illustration a psychic amputation because I had nan characteristic raging successful me… I spent 80 days connected a sofa while Angus had to transportation connected pinch nan show.

Lia Williams and Angus Wright taking a curtain call
Lia Williams and her partner, Angus Wright, successful nan Oresteia by Aeschylus astatine nan Almeida theatre, London, successful 2015. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

How is your bottommost now?
Completely mended. I had room complete there.

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Are you still a patron of Clean Break (sorry astir nan sanction successful nan discourse of your heel) and what tin therapeutic theatre do successful practice?
It gives women who person knowledgeable nan criminal justness strategy a safe abstraction to definitive their stories. It is simply a immense catharsis for women who consciousness connected nan extracurricular of nine that builds assurance and nan consciousness of belonging – it’s a awesome organisation. I’m besides a patron of Act [the Actors’ Children’s Trust], a charitable limb of British Actors’ Equity, which helps support children of actors who are struggling financially.

Which playwright is closest to your heart?
Tennessee Williams. He is simply a existent writer but I besides emotion Mamet and Pinter. I’m truthful fortunate to person worked pinch writers who are masters of their art.

And that has to beryllium existent not slightest because it is difficult for an character to beryllium better than his lines?
I wholly agree. You mightiness kid yourself into thinking: I tin bring thing to this, but you really can’t. If it hasn’t sewage legs, you can’t run.

You’re nudging 60 – really does that feel?
I don’t mind being old. For a woman, it tin beryllium amazing. I deliberation a batch of older women person truthful overmuch beauty. I’ve ne'er needed to beryllium wholly visible, though I surely don’t consciousness invisible now. I’ve not chosen to beryllium boldly successful nan limelight and person loved a profession wherever I tin measurement into a domiciled connected a shape and past conscionable vanish softly aft it – it’s my top pleasure.

  • Alma Mater runs astatine nan Almeida, London N1 from 11 June to 20 July

Source theguardian