With her professional acting debut in The Old Vic’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Helena Wilson is now performing as Ann Welch in The Deep Blue Sea by Terrence Rattigan, running until 27th July at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre. Helena was nominated for the 2019 Ian Charleson Award for her portrayal of Mariana in a version of Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure and attended the ceremony earlier this year. We recently sat down with Helena to talk about performing in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, being nominated for the Ian Charleson Award and playing Ann Welch in The Deep Blue Sea.
Had you seen or worked on any Terrence Rattigan plays before being cast in The Deep Blue Sea?
No, I hadn’t. I did an English degree but somehow Rattigan slipped through my fingers and I didn’t have the chance to get to grips with his work, but I’m so glad I have now. I’ve got The Winslow Boy on my list to read.
What’s it like being directed by Paul Foster and how was it auditioning for the show?
It was lovely auditioning for the show. Paul and I didn’t even get through the audition without bursting into fits of laughter. You obviously want to impress when you’re going in for an audition but you also want to work out what the director might be like if you were lucky enough to end up getting the job. I’d learnt the lines but I put my script on the floor in front of me just in case I forgot what to say and Paul made a joke that it was like I was doing karaoke! We had a big laugh and it was so good because it cuts through all the nervous tension.
He’s very detailed and he pays equal attention to all the characters, which I think is so exciting. I’m playing a supporting role so it’s nice to feel there’s a big tapestry of characters being made.
📷 : Manuel Harlan
The play takes place in one room over one day, have you worked on a similar setting in other roles and what’s it like to be part of?
I don’t think I have. I did a piece of new writing called Love Me Now last year, which was set in one flat, so I have done a piece which is all set in one space, but not with the double whammy of being over one day. You have a bit of a task on your hands because the audience can’t be entertained or distracted by changes of a scene so you have to keep their attention the whole way through. If you’re only going to show them one place over the course of an evening, you have to get them invested in where you are, so hopefully we manage that.
How would you describe your character Ann Welch?
Ann Welch is a young woman, two years into her marriage to her husband, who’s also in his early twenties, so she’s unusual in terms of how young she is to be married. She has maintained her job working as a secretary at the home office and she’s halfway between the stages that women expected to go through at that time – she’s got married, but not had children. I think she is quite keen to get on in the world, I think she’s quite conscientious and I think she’s brighter than her job allows her to be, as I think was the case for a lot of secretaries in the early 1950s. She’s frustrated there and she loves her husband deeply, but she finds herself in this in-between situation, not only in her professional life but also with the fact they haven’t set up a home yet.
Ann is somebody who’s looking for the next thing. At the start of the play, she’s got a very busy mind, she’s quite nosy, which I like because it’s nice to play, but she’s sort of surgical and analytical. Then you meet her again later in the play when she’s actually a lot more vulnerable and you’re reminded that, even though she’s dressed like a grown up and going to work, she’s actually very young and not quite sure what she’s doing.
📷 : Manuel Harlan
How are rehearsals going so far?
They’re going well. We did three weeks in the American Church on Tottenham Court Road, which was brilliant. It’s such a lively building and there’s a street market outside, so it’s a really nice place to rehearse in. We’ve just moved house and now we’re around the back of the theatre. We haven’t done any table work or sitting around talking about the play, which is something that some directors like to do at the beginning. We might have just read the paper on day one but on day two we were up on our feet, staggering through it, which is terrifying but also absolutely brilliant. From there we’ve been doing a balance of not going over things too many times because then they get a bit stale. We’ve done calls, which means we’ve only been called in for a rehearsal if we’re in the scene, but now we’re towards the end of rehearsals, it becomes more of a show and you start watching what everyone else has been doing, which is really exciting.
For those not familiar with the production, why would you recommend them seeing it?
I would recommend seeing this production because we’re lucky to have such a brilliant bunch of actors telling this story, Nancy (Carroll) is an absolute heroine of mine and has been for ages, her Hester combined with Hadley’s (Fraser) Freddie, Gerald’s (Kyd) Sir William and all the others are great. We’re doing the play in a naturalistic style and I think what that has allowed us to do is to hone in on the scenes. This production is one that is absorbed in the detail of the work and the truth of the writing as well as all the bigger ideas. I would say that this is a great play to see in this space, it’s almost like you’re in the sitting room with us, it feels very contained and I think this is a perfect space to do this play.
Have you seen any shows at this theatre previously?
I saw the transfer of King Lear, which I loved. I’m so glad to be here because it’s absolutely amazing. Both spaces are so different and the program is so varied. I’ve seen Plenty and I can’t wait to see Oklahoma!.
📷 : Manuel Harlan
What are you enjoying so far about being cast in this production at the Minerva?
Getting to watch other people who I’ve admired for ages and seeing how they work and then doing scenes with them. I’m very much at the beginning of my career, but jobs are 99% about the people you do them with. The part as well is obviously important, but I think for me, it’s the company, and they’re a great bunch.
How did you originally get into an acting career?
I did an English degree and then got signed to an agent while still studying. I wanted to finish my degree and then we started properly auditioning once I’d graduated. It took about six months after I graduated, which is not a long time, but not a short time either. I’ve just been piecing it together from there really. I’ve got a brilliant agent and I owe a lot of it to her as most people have done drama school so I owe her for not seeing me in that context but still taking a chance.
📷 : Manuel Harlan
You appeared at The Old Vic in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, what was this like?
It was amazing and it was my first job so everything was new. As I said before, I did an English degree, so I’d studied Tom Stoppard but then he was in my audition so it was like two worlds colliding! David Leveaux, the director, was so kind to me and I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the industry. I had a tiny part with four lines but it was just the experience of being in a professional environment. To be in a company which included Daniel Radcliffe and David Haig and to watch and learn from them was really important to me because it was the first time that it was my job rather than just a hobby. It was so much fun – I got a really long blue frock that I kept falling over! It was brilliant, I have very fond memories.
What was the response like to your run in Measure for Measure as Mariana?
I don’t know what people’s response was to me but the response to the production was interesting. We did a condensed version of Shakespeare’s play twice once through with traditional Elizabethan context. We did a big swap in the second half with the characters so it took me a bit of time to adjust to that. We got some really interesting questions about women in power and the way that the patriarch was structured and how the story ends the same way even though you’ve seen it twice. So, there’s a political question and then there’s a theatrical question of – is it okay to make an audience watch the exact same thing twice but with different people. But it turned out that audiences latch onto different things on a second viewing and some really useful conversations about patriarchy and power came out in Q&As and chats with the audience after the show.
In terms of Mariana, I loved playing that role. I vaguely knew the play before but I hadn’t really gone into much detail with it. Mariana comes in late in act four of the five act play to deliver an important plot point and she’s not a particularly detailed character, which at first, I was frightened of. I then found out that it actually gives you a load of license to make some decisions for yourself. Josie Rourke, who directed, really helped me with that and she gave me some brilliant notes and a brilliant setup.
How was it being nominated for the 2019 Ian Charleson Award?
It was brilliant, I was so flattered. I was working in a pub and I hadn’t acted for a few months and at times like them, you just feel out of the loop of everything and you tell yourself that everyone else is getting on and doing stuff and you’re the only actor in the whole universe who’s not getting calls. Of course, that isn’t true. So, when I got nominated for the award, not only was it hugely flattering, but it also felt like ‘you’re not forgotten’.
It’s one of the loveliest industry events I’ve ever been to. I was sat in-between Kristin Scott Thomas and Zoë Wanamaker over lunch, trying to make small talk with them, and they were both so engaging, delightful and brilliant. It was just really inspiring.
📷 : Manuel Harlan
How do you find the experience of opening nights?
By the time you come to press night, you have actually done the play a few times so it’s different. The first preview fear is like ‘what if my shoe comes off?’ or ‘what if I go through the wrong door?’… that kind of thing. With press night, it’s more just trying to just do the show normally and trying not to treat it like a different performance, which is kind of impossible, but also so exciting. I love the traditions of giving cards and flowers and having a bash afterwards.
Do you have any productions booked for after the run of The Deep Blue Sea?
No, we’ll just see what happens. I would love something to come out of this. I’d love to work here again, so hopefully will have the opportunity at some point. So no, I have no roles booked but I’m open to options!
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