Christine Kavanagh is a veteran actress from the U.K., appearing for the first time on our stage as Mrs. Birling in J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. Christine is best known for her work on popular U.K. television shows including Doctors, Midsomer Murders and Inspector Morse as well as roles at a variety of popular London theatres including the National Theatre, The Harold Pinter Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Additionally, Christine worked with STC’s future Artistic Director, Simon Godwin, on Man and Superman with Ralph Fiennes. Christine discusses working on a production conceived by powerhouse visionary Stephen Daldry, as well as her experiences working in both television and live theatre.
STC: What is it like to work on such a historic and significant production?
CK: It’s a privilege and a challenge to be in this production. The privilege is that we have the benefit of the creative trinity of Ian MacNeil’s extraordinary design, Rick Fisher’s lighting, and Stephen Daldry’s concept and direction, which has opened up the play to future generations. The relevance of the writing is timeless, and the production visually thrilling. It sometimes feels like an opera as the music by Stephen Warbeck underscores the play brilliantly. It’s a rollercoaster to perform and although the play is set in a domestic setting it can have an epic feel.
STC: What do you hope American audiences take away from An Inspector Calls?
CK: I don’t feel one should be prescriptive about what audiences take away from a production, but I can only hope they will be delighted by the thrill of the design, and challenged by the simple message at the end of the play that we are all in this together. The message of community and responsibility couldn’t be more relevant today, and I hope that will resonate with your audience. Hopefully the character of the abused Eva Smith struggling to make a living stays in the mind long after the play finishes. It was a prescient choice of play and scheduling to bring this production to Washington, D.C. in the current climate.
STC: What do you like most about playing Mrs. Birling? What is most challenging?
CK: What I love most about playing Mrs. Birling is her strength—she may not be likeable but she knows her own mind. I love her intransigence. Even better is that J.B. Priestley has written two great parts for women, Mrs. Birling and the character of Sheila, my daughter. At my age, great parts for women can be hard to come by, so it is a gift of a part. Plus, I have Rick Fisher and Ian MacNeil to thank, as Mrs. Birling’s first entrance is a treat for any actor, and her costume is handmade and quite stunning. The downside of the costume is its very heavy and you have to learn to maneuver whilst descending a spiral staircase with grace, or run over cobblestones without tripping. I enjoy the challenge and the corset is great for your posture. The set can be dangerous but I like that—we need danger and trepidation on stage. The challenge is not to be daunted by previous productions and make the role your own.
STC: Have you ever performed outside the U.K.? How do you feel about going on tour?
CK: I have performed outside the U.K., but never performed in the United States before, so it is an extra delight as was on my bucket list to perform here one day and we are visiting such great cities on our tour. I’m a culture vulture, so shall be very busy in all the art galleries and museums that you have to offer. I like touring as you can really feel the temperature of a city after a few weeks and Washington has so much to offer, not just the politics. I’m also recording an audio diary whilst on tour, to create my very own “Letter from America”—not quite Alistair Cooke, more like “Mrs. Birling on the Road!”
STC: You’ve worked on a lot of television in the U.K., how does it compare to performing onstage?
CK: Theatre is my natural home; I understand how to get the energy across the footlights and how to project. TV is a different discipline, but they both require the same thing: preparation and truth. In television, you are not in charge of your performance, you offer up what you have, but the director and editor shape the final result. In live theatre, you still retain an ability to edit and can listen to the audience every night, so no performance or audience is ever the same. As an actor, you are in charge of your timing and delivery which is both thrilling and terrifying.
STC: What was it like working with Simon Godwin (our future Artistic Director) on Man and Superman?
CK: I shall risk sounding sycophantic but Man and Superman at the National Theatre was one of the best experiences in the theatre I have ever had. The rehearsal process for that production was so inspiring and cumulative, not a second was wasted, and the results were joyous. Simon Godwin and Ralph Fiennes had both prepared meticulously for the production. Simon created such a wonderful, warm but focused atmosphere in the rehearsal room that we were truly an ensemble company and that translated in performance. Simon valued every actor whatever their role and understands the process we go through. I love speed, energy and humor and all that was in abundance when rehearsing.
Photos by Mark Douet.