Lisa Dillon on Hapgood: the spy thriller that came in from the cold

Lisa Dillon in Hapgood. Picture: Alastair Muir

Lisa Dillon in Hapgood. Picture: Alastair Muir - Credit: Alastair Muir

Bridget Galton talks to the actress about starring as a female spymaster in a revival of a Tom Stoppard play with a reputation for being difficult.

Tom Stoppard’s Cold War spy thriller Hapgood has had a bumpy ride since it opened in the late ‘80s.

Critically mauled at its premiere for its overly clever parallels with quantum mechanics, it fared somewhat better when revived in 2008 starring Josie Lawrence but has never been feted as later plays like Arcadia which have a similar marriage of the physical and metaphysical.

But its reputation as a dazzling yet difficult play hasn’t deterred veteran director Howard Davies from taking it on.

Lisa Dillon, who plays single mother and spymaster Elizabeth Hapgood says if anyone can crack the play Davies can.

“He’s a man of such enormous heart and technical skill who is relentless with his actors. I really hope the critics won’t have that reaction this time”.

She at least is very taken with a work that equates particle physics with espionage; double agents with a scientific phenomenon whereby light particles can be in two places at once.

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“The more I work on it the more I am dazzled by it. I am really excited to see how an audience receive it but I don’t think it is that tricky. We have enough stuff on TV and in theatre about things we already know. It’s exciting to see something I haven’t heard about before.”

At the outset Hapgood must expose a mole leaking secrets to Moscow, while caring for her young son.

Dillon finds it amazing her tough, capable character was written before Stella Rimington was outed as head of MI5, and certainly before Judi Dench played M in the Bond movies.

“What’s remarkable is that it’s come out of his imagination at a time when we really didn’t see women in these positions, and he doesn’t patronise on any level about her doing this job or make any apologies for the juggling act she does. In the play it’s accepted that she’s a woman doing the role. She’s intelligent, quick-witted, the woman plays chess without a board! Everything she does she’s so professional and efficient but she’s also sexy. The scenes with her son show she puts as much into that relationship as she does into her work.”

The scienctific theory is manifested when Hapgood tries to observe a meet between agents and her presence changes the outcome.

“It’s a metaphysical idea that the act of surveillance changes things. When you are trying to observe what’s going on with spy patterns and double agents your surveillance alters what happens.

“I think there’s a deeper parallel that Tom is drawing to do with theatre and how things change when you are observed.”

Learning the idiosyncratic rhythmns of Stoppard’s fast and clever dialogue has been hard she says, but thankfully Alec Newman’s Russian Scientist delivers most of the tongue-twisting technical bits.

“He does it so effortlessly he turns science into poetry it’s quite moving at times to listen to.”

But she adds: “Stoppard still brings it down to the emotional. Any scientific thought that the play is exploring it always there to illustrate something emotional about a character or situation.”

Dillon also gets to play Hapgood’s “sloany grubby wild” twin, a change of gear she rather enjoys. But how has it been having our greatest living playwright in rehearsals?

“He’s a very dear man. Given how intelligent he is, he could have been intimidating...Well it is quite intimidating having him there anyway”

Post the Paris attacks with surveillance albeit more technological than personal these days back on the agenda, will the play feel timely or dated?

“It’s set in a kind of hot time with Thatcher and Reagan and Stoppard is tapping into that sense of empty redundancy: ‘what is it all for? what is the cost?’

“I think that’s why the play will work this time. It will have more relevance now we can look back retrospectively on a time when the technology of an intelligence investigation was so different and realise how sophisticated it has all become. A modern audience will really get that.”

Until January 23.