Lia Williams interview: 'Elizabeth I was just like Lady Gaga' (2024)

As Mary Stuarttransfers to the West End, its star Lia Williams talks to Ben Lawrence about the original queen of self-branding

In 2016, a simple but spectacular coup de théâtre occurred at the Almeida Theatre in north London. In Robert Icke’s radical reworking of Mary Stuart, Friedrich Schiller’s play, the two lead actresses, Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams, tossed a coin at the start of each performance to see who would play the tragic title character and who would play Elizabeth I.

Gimmicky? Perhaps – but audiences and critics both adored the conceit, sensing the jeopardy that reinforced the urgent power play between the two characters as the Virgin Queen hesitates over signing her cousin the Queen of Scots’ death warrant.

Now, Mary Stuart has transferred to the West End and, in a dusty office, Williams is talking about inhabiting these two remarkable women once more. She sees Elizabeth and Mary as two sides of the same person, the head versus the heart, which, of course, makes the flipping of a coin feel like a considered artistic choice.

“Mary is free-spirited, crap at politics, and wears her heart on her sleeve, which gets her into terrible trouble. She is the bird in flight. Whereas Elizabeth is a Machiavellian politician – she is considered and she seeks opinion from her court. But she is also insecure. As she says, ‘Even my virtues are not really my choice’.”

Lia Williams interview: 'Elizabeth I was just like Lady Gaga' (1)

Williams is keen to stress that Mary Stuart – despite being written in 1800 and set 450 years ago – is “not a dusty history play”. She considers Elizabeth’s belief in the divine right of kings as akin to Robert Mugabe’s. On top of that, there is the issue of Brexit and the will of the people, the England versus Scotland debate – and, of course, she says, exhaling loudly, there is Trump.

“I was taught to believe that leaders of the world were impassioned people who had a social conscience, whether they were Right-wing, Left-wing or somewhere in between. Now it is all about power and branding, and Elizabeth was the greatest self-brander of all. She was Lady Gaga, creating an unforgettable image which isn’t necessarily the truth.”

It is easy to believe that Williams’s love for modern reference points comes from collaborating with Icke, Britain’s most feted young director. She first worked with him on his 2015 production of Aeschylus’s Oresteia in which she gave a scintillating, Olivier-nominated performance as the husband-killing Clytemnestra; for that, he told her to watch a box set of The Sopranos in order to understand the violence, bloodshed and recurring family feuds of the House of Atreus. When it came to Mary Stuart, he suggested she watched Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.

For all his wunderkind talent, Icke has proved a divisive character, thanks to his dismissive comments about British theatre; he has said he walks out of shows all the time, and recently said going to a play compared poorly to the experience of going to a pop concert: “you don’t come back from seeing Beyoncé saying, ‘I was kind of bored’.”

Does he have a point?Williams considers this carefully. “You have to have a powerful drive if you want to create change and that can be misinterpreted as arrogance. But it’s not. It’s about passion, and we’re reluctant about passion in this country. Rob believes that English theatre is sleepy and on the back-foot and he thinks that of British acting as well. He wants to regalvanise the live experience because otherwise he thinks it is going to die. There are so many other forces. We’ve got Netflix taking over. But there is nothing greater than live performance when it is right; and no film can match it.”

Williams knows all about Netflix – she is a superb Wallis Simpson in The Crown. She is also appearing as Alice, the white foster mother of a murdered black child in Kiri on Channel 4. She wonders whether it could be controversial. “Alice is perceived to be racist, not by social services but by Kiri’s birth family. This idea of a white middle-class woman fostering a black child… It’s a very delicate area but makes for a fascinating argument.”

The past two years have been prosperous for Williams, career-wise – a burst of activity, which she links to the death of her mother. “My mum was a huge presence in my life. Grief is so astonishing – it can turn a corner and slap you around the face when you are halfway through a smile and that doesn’t lessen with time. But the most glorious thing that has come from her death, if I can say something like that, is that I now have a sense of total abandonment and of freedom to step into my acting fully – probably for the first time. Her death has made me realise that I am closer to the abyss and I can now throw caution to the wind.”

Born into a middle-class family in Birkenhead, Williams was a retiring child, whose perhaps surprising passion for performing was inflamed at the private school she attended after they moved to Manchester. “It started with a sense of being on the outside of things,” she says. “I was painfully shy, and I thought school was so alarming.”

Her father was not keen on her being a performer, so, aged 17, she ran away to be a showgirl in Spain, having been rejected by every drama school she applied for. Her equity card thus assured, she returned to London and, in 1984, she understudied in the West End musical Daisy Pulls It Off, where she was spotted by Alan Ayckbourn. Thus began an association with the playwright, culminating in a Critics Circle Award for Most Promising Newcomer in 1991 for the West End transfer of The Revengers’ Comedies.

In 1993, she was directed by Michael Winner in her first feature film, the critically mauled revenge thriller Dirty Weekend. “I really didn’t know what I was doing,” she laughs. “It was really hard because the book of Dirty Weekend was a feminist diatribe [by Helen Zahavi] and he [Winner] turned it into a sexist load of old nonsense. It was a shock to the system and I was too young to work out how I should deal with that.”

Lia Williams interview: 'Elizabeth I was just like Lady Gaga' (2)

Since that debacle, Williams has consistently been one of our most acclaimed stage and screen actresses, winning praise for her work with Harold Pinter and David Hare, and being nominated for a Bafta in 2004, for May 33rd, a TV drama in which she played a young schizophrenic. Her performances are often marked by both a stillness and a harrowing psychological crescendo. “I would never be cast as the housewife-next-door,” she laughs, “because I am just a bit weird.”

Now 53, Williams has an air of light-hearted integrity about her. Curled up barefoot on her plastic chair, like a watchful feline, she is actressy, but in a good way. She lives in north London with Guy Hibbert, her screenwriter husband, and she will open in the West End at the same time as her son Joshua James, 27, who is appearing in Lady Windermere’s Fan.

Did she try to persuade him not to embark on such a rackety career? “No, I was delighted because he’s really good, and to do something that you really love is all that matters.” Has he learnt from watching his mother? “I don’t know, to be honest. Josh is very individual and I think we encourage that in each other.”

It appears she is far from passing the baton on entirely, however. “Recently, there has been a curiosity from writers towards older women who have something to say. We have a wealth of experience and complexity to bring to roles.” She smiles: “I feel like I am at the most exciting part of my life.”

Mary Stuart is at the Duke of York’s Theatre and then touring. Tickets: 0844 871 7623;

Kiri continues on Channel 4 on Wednesdays at 9pm

Lia Williams interview: 'Elizabeth I was just like Lady Gaga' (2024)


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