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Hell of a role
Playing the devil is a role that’s almost always reserved for men, but Siobhan Redmond was happy to get in on the evil act, she tells Steve Pratt
THE last time I saw Siobhan Redmond, she was a red herring. This time, she’s a devil woman. And because of her satanic tendencies, we’re talking bad habits, comparing notes on wearing a nun’s habit.
My brief experience of this particular item of women’s clothing came during a backstage tour of the musical Sister Act. She gets into the habit as part of playing Mephistopheles in a new version of Doctor Faustus.
She came to the interview from her rehearsal in a nun’s habit and says she’d found a problem – with the wimple covering her ears, she couldn’t hear the other actors.
As the devil woman, she wears a series of costumes. “If it’s any consolation to anybody, I am acutely physically uncomfortable the whole way through this show,” she says, laughing.
As for the aforementioned red herring, that was in ITV’s recent drama The Town. She and Phil Davis appeared in the opening scene, were found dead and didn’t appear again. It was designed to throw the viewer by introducing two familiar faces and then killing them off.
Doctor Faustus is not only a coproduction between West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds and Glasgow’s Citizens’ Theatre, but a new version of the play combining the talents of original writer Christopher Marlowe and award-winning Irish playwright Colin Teevan.
The first and last acts are Marlowe, s, the two in between have been re-imagined by Teevan with stage illusions as Faustus sells his soul to the devil to become a modern-day conjuror coveted by the rich and powerful.
Some of the tricks, says Redmond, are quite spectacular. “I am in the fortunate position of taking all the credit for the magic and having to do none of it. And that’s good because I’m not the most dextrous of people,” she says.
This new version offers the best of both worlds. “A wonderful, spellbinding classical play with set in the middle of it, the little jewel, a piece of new writing. So it’s my two favourite things,” says Redmond.
“It’s a heady cocktail. I will be very interested to see how easily the audience will be able to make the transition from the Marlowe into the Teevan and then back into the Marlowe again.
“Colin has done a very good job in matching what he’s written to what there was in the original which, of course, was quite possibly not by Christopher Marlowe. Or as my Uncle Jim said, if it was written by Christopher Marlowe he was very, very drunk at the time he was writing.”
Redmond has worked with director Dominic Hill before, on a radio version of Chekhov’s The Seagull (“in which I was Madame Godawful”), but was expecting to have to audition. “I’m a 53-year-old woman. I’m not obvious casting for Mephistopheles, although I may be hellish to be around. Put it another way – 53-year-old women are not often, in my experience, given the opportunity to audition for this role.
“But in the end he just wanted to talk to me about the ideas he had for it, to see if it was something I might be interested in, which was delightful.
It was thrilling to think I was sufficiently devilish for him to want to take a punt on me.
“I reserve the right to be terrible in the role.
I’m trying very hard not to be, but I hope if people really hate it, it’s not because I’m a woman.”
Does it add anything having Mephistopheles played by a woman? “I hope it might in that there are all sorts of resonances, sort of biblical references, that one can’t help but be aware of. Unless you are called Mary in the Bible, essentially you’re not going to be having much fun and you’re going to get quite a lot of blame,” she says.
“Even if the idea is at the back of people’s heads, it gives Mephistopheles the chance to play with being maternal, being flirtatious. It gives the demon opportunities that perhaps in a more conventional production wouldn’t present themselves.”
Teevan has Mephistopheles telling stories about her past. She hesitates on the word “her”, explaining “I do wish the English language had a word that means both he and she because I am resorting to saying it. But it’s certainly not a sexless creature. Mephistopheles tells a couple of stories about a past human manifestation in which she was a man. She is both Arthur and Martha, so I get to play all of that, which is great.”
Redmond’s CV shows her moving between stage and TV – time with the RSC and National Theatre of Scotland, plus TV series such as Between The Lines, The High Life, Holby City and Taggart.
“Work is the thing I like doing best in life and I’m fortunate enough to be able to live entirely selfishly. I don’t have to take anybody else’s wishes into consideration so I can up-sticks and go away for a while. I’m looking at a year that is more or less constantly away from either of the places I officially call home, which are London and Edinburgh,” she says.
“That’s fine because even if I don’t do anything other than what I’m scheduled to do, this year I’ll have played Mephistopheles and the real Lady Macbeth again in a play called Dunsinane, which is touring again and which we’re taking to the US this time next year. That’s not supposed to happen for actresses my age.”
REDMOND was a regular in the police series Between The Lines with Neil Pearson.
“Does it look dated?” she asks when told I’ve been watching it on DVD. “It was the only thing I’ve begged to be in. I remember wearing a shirt with shoulder pads, then a jacket with shoulder pads and then a coat with shoulder pads in. I said, can I please lose one of these pads? I’m beginning to look like that American football player, the Fridge.”
Redmond is fun to interview and fun to watch in the comedy series The High Life in which she, along with Alan Cumming and Forbes Masson, played cabin crew. There’s been talk of a musical version for the National Theatre of Scotland. “The trouble is that with the advent of Easyjet The High Life looks like cinema verite,” she says.
“I was hoping that we could do one the age we are now where my character, still with a drawer full of engagement rings, has become morbidly obese. Only because I want to dance about in a fat suit.”
- Doctor Faustus: West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, Feb 23-March 16. Box office 0113-2137700 and online wyp.org.uk