CLOSEUP CULTURE catches up with Jill McAusland who has received rave reviews for her portrayal of Bronagh in The Moor, written by Catherine Lucie and playing at the Old Red Lion Theatre in London until March 3.
Q: You must be delighted with the response to The Moor. How demanding is the role of Bronagh? I imagine it leaves you shattered – physically and emotionally?
A: THANK you, I really am delighted. Bronagh was a role I felt incredibly excited about taking on. For my performance and the play as a whole to have been so well received is really wonderful.
I think the fact that Bronagh is such a demanding role was partly what drew me to her. She is a huge but brilliant challenge in terms of her emotional journey but she is really a gift of a role for that very reason.
It is challenging to be on stage for the entire length of the play – even before the audience have sat down! – and there are a lot of lines to remember with very little time for me to stop and take stock, but I am lucky that once I am on the stage I stay there and I do not have the challenge of having to sit in the dressing room waiting for the next scene.
In some ways that almost makes it easier for me to stay in character and live the play as Bronagh. It also means there is no time for me to let any exhaustion sink in.
Q: Bronagh is a troubled individual. How easy is it to get into character?
Q: I THINK the way that Catherine Lucie has written Bronagh really makes it easier for me. So much of how the audience learns that Bronagh is troubled is through the things she says and how she says them.
In that respect, so much of the job is done for me through the lines. However, for that reason, learning the lines has been one of the hardest parts of undertaking this role. The consistencies and, indeed, inconsistencies within Bronagh’s storytelling mean that every night I do have to prepare for the play by going through the lines in my head and that is quite unusual for me.
I think that helps as an actress though. Like Bronagh I have to get my story straight in order to get ready to tell the audience what I know, or do not know. And I think remembering that Bronagh does not necessarily see herself as a troubled individual helps.
Her perception of her own circumstances might not be as objective as the audience can be, so I just try to play her truthfully from moment to moment – even if that is when not telling the truth!
Q: The Moor marks your return to the Old Red Lion Theatre after playing Harriet in the Correspondence. Do you have a soft spot for the ORLT – especially in light of the financial difficulties such fringe theatres now face?
A: I REALLY love the Old Red Lion. I find it such an exciting space in which to put on work. It has been an interesting experience for me bringing Bronagh into this space as my character of Harriet in Correspondence was totally larger than life, loud, in everyone’s face. Bronagh is very much the opposite of all of those things.
The element of direct address within The Moor means I have even more appreciation of how powerful and intimate the connection between the audience and the actors can be in the Old Red Lion. I definitely have a soft spot for fringe. I think the fringe has some of the most exciting work that London’s theatre scene has to offer – certainly every member of the team who has worked on The Moor is exceptional in my eyes.
I always encourage those I know, who are maybe less familiar with the work that goes on, to support and help the fringe to thrive, especially being all too aware of the financial difficulties facing it.
Q: You have an impressive theatre CV already. In terms of demanding roles, where does Bronagh rank?
A: I HAVE been lucky to play some amazing roles at such a variety of theatres. Most contrasting from Bronagh and demanding in a different way have been my ‘panto’ roles at Watford Palace. Twelve shows a week, with 10.30 morning shows belting out Mariah Carey while fighting off the panto lergy, is an altogether different kind of challenge.
However, in terms of acting demands, I recently played Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion. I relished the challenge of creating my interpretation of Eliza and it was made even more exciting by the fact that I was performing at the English Theatre in Frankfurt. I love George Bernard Shaw and Eliza has been a dream role of mine since I first encountered Pygmalion.
The vast range of Eliza’s journey was a real challenge. She moves between emotions within sentences and her emotional responses are not necessarily always appropriate – and that was demanding. But I would consider Bronagh as similarly demanding emotionally for those same reasons. She is a character who asks people to go on a journey with her, admitting from the start that they might not entirely be able to trust her. But that is super exciting from an acting point of view.
Q: How did you enjoy working with Oliver Britten and Jonny Magnanti? Oliver seems quite a character. Given his love of music, what did he think of your singing? And how difficult was it to be one moment laughing with him off stage and then being confronted by this onstage bully?
A: OLY and Jonny are two of the loveliest actors I have ever worked with – I have to say that, I owe them both a pint. But honestly, they are brilliant.
The two of them together are like a little double act. At times in rehearsals it was so difficult because they would be making me laugh so much on breaks and then we had to start work again and it was so challenging to shake that laughter off.
But I think that is crucial when working on a play that explores themes that are as dark and intense as those in The Moor. They are both brilliant people to have in rehearsals for that reason. I have got a nickname and everything.
Oly has always been very kind about my singing voice – we have even joked about reprising The Moor as a musical which has kept us entertained! And I think onstage, it is like I am not with Oly. It is really important that I separate Oly from Graeme but I think because Graeme is so different from Oly anyway, that is much easier to do. I think people who know Oly as a comedy actor will be so pleasantly surprised and impressed by what he does in The Moor. And Jonny is just excellent!
Q: What was it like performing in front of your parents? Did it increase the nerves or was it work as normal?
A: I AM now so used to performing in front of my parents, but I still get nervous. What they think is so important to me and I really value their feedback.
My mum tends to like most things that I do but I think she just sees me as her daughter. I know it is hard for her to separate me from the character – although interestingly she found Bronagh difficult to trust and she thought she would not struggle with that because I was playing her. And my dad, he will let me know if he does not like something but not in a horrible way – he is just honest. And he has never actually said he did not like my acting! They both loved The Moor so much that they came twice. They are incredibly supportive.
Q: You have an impressive TV CV – Call the Midwife, Doctors, Holby City. What ticks your box the most. TV or adrenalin-fuelled theatre?
A: I REALLY loved doing all the TV that I have done, especially Call the Midwife because it just felt like such an amazing thing to be a part of and everything about the experience was incredible.
I have been lucky to work with an amazing director, Lisa Clarke, on all of my TV jobs, and that has definitely made them easier. TV is so quick compared to theatre and Call the Midwife was a huge emotional ask. So I think it is a great test for your abilities as to what you can pull out of the bag when action is called and, if you are lucky, it is nice to have a chance to do it again! I would definitely love to do more TV.
But I love the rehearsal process that theatre offers you. I like developing and creating a part as much as I love performing. Nothing beats the feeling of waiting in the wings (or being slumped over a chair) and feeling your heart beating as the audience comes in. I could not live without that.
Q: You went to Rose Bruford College. Did you enjoy it? Did it provide you with the perfect platform to launch your acting career?
A: I LOVED my time at Rose Bruford and it was definitely the platform I needed to help me into the industry.
I am not from a family where anyone was in anyway involved with the industry so I really had no idea how to go about becoming an actor. I was advised by drama teachers that the logical next step after secondary school was to go to drama school.
I learnt a great deal at Rose Bruford and I met my best friends there. Drama school affords you opportunities to be seen by industry professionals that are hard to come by outside of that environment. But I am not sure it is the be all and end all to have drama school training. I have worked with lots of actors who have not undertaken professional training and I honestly would not be able to distinguish between us. I think training helps with technical aspects of being an actor and for that I am grateful but I think acting is such an intuitive thing that sometimes raw talent speaks for itself.
Q: Did you always want to act? And did your parents encourage you along the way?
A: I HAVE definitely always wanted to perform and from about the age of 10 I knew I wanted to be an actor.
People would tell me I was quite good but I did not really consider the possibility of doing it professionally until I was looking at what to do after secondary school. There were a couple of students in years above me at secondary school who had gone on to drama school which possibly made it a more realistic prospect for me and my parents.
I had a brilliant drama teacher, Mike, who ran the youth theatre I went to. He absolutely encouraged (and still does) me – and I think he helped convince my parents I should pursue acting.
My parents were always very much of the attitude that I should go for it. I remember my dad saying to me that I would not want to end up looking back thinking what if. So he and mum just advised me to try and see what happened.
Luckily, I got into drama school on my first year of auditioning and I think that was a little bit of validation that helped me feel I had made the right choice. I owe so much to my parents though. There is no way I would be an actor without having their support.
Q: What is next for you? Do you have any TV, film or theatre work lined up that you could tell us about?
A: NEXT for me is going back to the office that I work in when I am not acting. It is a lovely company who are incredibly supportive of my acting – several members of the office came to see The Moor!
But in terms of acting work it is a case of wait and see right now. I have been in constant acting work since July last year which feels like a really good run. I am now excited to see what is next for me and potentially what opportunities might come as a result of The Moor.
Q: If you could choose a play, a role and a theatre to act in, what would be your choices?
A: OH a great question! That is so hard! Having worked as an understudy on the Royal Court’s West End season with Jumpy, I would love to go back to work at the Royal Court and have the opportunity to perform there every night for a run of a new play by a writer such as Dennis Kelly or Simon Stephens – something like Girls and Boys that Carey Mulligan is performing at the Court right now.
I love new writing and the work that those playwrights create is some of the best. I would really like to do a musical – Eponine in Les Miserables was my dream role when I was younger. And then give me Kate in Taming of the Shrew in an RSC production and I would be very happy!
Ultimately, as long as I am acting and the part gives me something to get my teeth in to, I honestly hope I would approach any play, role or theatre with the attitude that I am just very lucky to get to do what I love!