Duncan disorderly - new role takes Lindsay into dysfunctional territory

Chalk Farm star of stage and screen, Lindsay Duncan, tells Bridget Galton why she was drawn to her latest role as an alcoholic mother in a debut play by a 19-year-old writer THINK Lindsay Duncan and you think intelligence, quality and versatility. Despite the beef o

Chalk Farm star of stage and screen, Lindsay Duncan, explains why she was drawn to her latest role as an alcoholic mother in a debut play by a 19-year-old writer

THINK Lindsay Duncan and you think intelligence, quality and versatility. Despite the beef of many middle aged actresses that the parts have dried up, the

57-year-old shows no sign of suffering from a lack of meaty roles.

It helps that, like all good actors, she is hard to categorise.

Her pale, Scottish beauty can look ethereal in TV dramas like The Rector's Wife or striking as she portrays the powerful Servilia in the BBC's Rome.

But although her screen work ranges from Longford to Mansfield Park, Duncan's successful career orbits around her stage roles.

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She scooped the 2002 Olivier best actress award for Amanda in Noel Coward's Private Lives and another for her role as the scheming Madame de Merteuil in the original production of Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses in 1987.

And she was also nominated for an Olivier for Kevin Elyot's Mouth To Mouth as a mother over-fixated on her son in 2002.

The latter started as new writing at the Royal Court, which is also the origin of her latest role in Polly Stenham's That Face.

Stenham was just 19 when she wrote her assured debut about a dysfunctional wealthy family of absent father, neurotic mother and messed-up teenage children.

Critics acclaimed Stenham's striking, fresh voice as well as praising Duncan's depiction of Martha, the alcoholic mum who fosters an inappropriate co-dependent relationship with her drop-out teenage son, while her daughter gets embroiled in boarding school bullying.

The production transfers on May 1 from the Court's intimate studio theatre to the Duke of York's in the West End.

"I enjoy doing new plays enormously," says Duncan, who has lived in Chalk Farm with her actor husband Hilton McCrae and 16-year-old son Cal for the past 17 years.

"It's thrilling to be allowed to flesh out a character for the first time and transfer a writer's work from the page.

"It's also exciting to be in a debut play by a remarkable young woman who is clearly a proper talented writer and will be around for a long time."

Duncan has often called herself "a writer's actor". While some actors' talent lies in making a silk purse out of a sow's ear of a script, she gravitates towards quality writing and concentrates on doing it justice.

"I am very instinctive. I read a script and it has a physical, emotional effect on me - I feel moved by it. I think, 'There is great writing, this is the beginning of something.'

"As soon as I read this play, I couldn't not do it. Martha is a great monster and it was such a good piece of writing that, even if it had arrived totally anonymously, I would have done it.

"One of the things that astonished me is that someone as young as Polly can write way beyond her years with such courage and authenticity.

"It's pretty wild but, although you find yourself being shocked by it, it rings true in terms of human behaviour."

The play was trumpeted as a new direction for the Royal Court - away from middle class audiences gawping at the problems of a disenfranchised underclass and towards a greater probing of bourgeois lives.

"It's not news that people who are apparently leading civilised lives wearing nice clothes with careers and beautiful houses still have problems. But there is something very powerful about seeing that on stage because it's an area which isn't so often examined," says Duncan.

"In this family, the money is covering up a lot of cracks and neglect. It is there as a buffer.

"The absent father can make himself feel better by throwing money at the problems and the mother doesn't need to go out to work so isolates herself in the home with her son.

"When theatre is at its best, it is properly challenging, not hectoring or patronising. It is reflecting us back to ourselves."

Returning to rehearse the role after a break of some months, Duncan is aware she shouldn't radically alter an already successful performance.

But she says: "The good side of theatre is you can always do better and have the chance to dig a bit deeper.

"The hard bit is the repetition. It's difficult to maintain it and achieve that quality performance after performance."

By contrast, screen work requires actors to deliver an intense performance in short bursts and Duncan finds it a relief to switch between the two differing demands.

However, she is not one to shy away from difficult roles. Like anyone good at their job, she seeks new challenges.

"I am not looking for a part that's on the sidelines that will be easy. I am not looking for a quiet life. That is not what I am in the business to do.

"The challenge is definitely part of the excitement and fun of the job."

She adds: "I love the alchemy of drama, that we all bring different bits of ourselves to the enterprise.

"The writer puts words out there and the words pass through the filter of you. You have to locate things, do the spade work, flesh out the part, help your imagination and make sure you have asked the right questions and are not skimming the surface.

"It's not all about you. Someone has written the part, there is human truth in the writing and you are the interpreter."

She says quality writing helps actresses make the imaginative leap into roles beyond their personal experience.

"I would be such a mess if I had actually experienced everything I've been through on stage!

"I have never been an alcoholic or a murderer or a French aristocrat corrupting a young girl. But if you believe it yourself, an audience believes it absolutely. The better the writing, the better I am going to be."

That Face runs at the Duke of York's until July 5.