📷 : Orlando James
Making a number of appearances in Shakespeare plays, Hannah Morrish is currently performing as Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well at Jermyn Street Theatre, running until 30th November, with a few of her previous roles being screened live to cinemas. Hannah has been nominated at the Ian Charleson Awards for a couple of years and is part of independent film, Magpie, about post-traumatic stress disorder in World War Two. We caught up with Hannah about her current role as Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well, working on Shakespeare productions and being nominated for the Ian Charleson Award.
How is it playing the role of Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well at Jermyn Street Theatre?
I am loving playing her. I feel very lucky to play her. I’ve never played a character in any Shakespeare play that has such agency and who carries such a large part of the narrative of the play so it feels quite nerve-racking. Every night I feel nervous. But it feels exciting and that anything could happen, in a way that I’ve never felt before playing any other Shakespearean role.
Was there anything that drew you to the script?
That Helena’s not easy. She’s not an obvious heroine. Harriet Walter describes her as an ‘imperfect heroine’. She does bad things but she does them because she thinks that they’re the right thing to do. She has a clear desire and she does everything in her power to get it. I think that I was scared about playing her at first because I was worried that people would dislike her, as they have historically, but I liked that challenge.
How long were you rehearsing for this role and how would you describe Helena?
We were rehearsing the play for about three and a half weeks, then we opened in Guildford for another three weeks, and now we are at the Jermyn Street Theatre, so in total I’ve been with her for about two months so far. How would I describe Helena? I would describe her as assured, as grief-stricken, as tenacious, and as incredibly empathetic and loving.
What do you enjoy about performing Shakespeare’s plays?
I love the fact that they change so much. I’ve only seen All’s Well That Ends Well once before but depending on the time that you’re putting them on, the director, the actors, the aesthetic of the piece, it can be a completely different play, and also, knowing that even in the Jermyn Street Theatre, where there’s only seventy audience members, that story will be different to every single one of those people, and I think that’s extraordinary and very exciting.
You performed at the National Theatre in Antony and Cleopatra, what was this show and theatre like to perform in?
The whole experience was a little bit like a dream. I love the play and it was an extraordinary cast. I learnt a huge amount, the vast majority of that time was just me learning from that company, from Simon Godwin, who I loved working with, and also from that space, because it’s so huge and the audiences are so massive. I learnt about the possibilities of being an actor in a space like that.
How do you feel doing the live screenings of productions such as Anthony and Cleopatra and Titus Andronicus?
They’re actually really fun and the adrenaline is amazing. It’s just a lovely feeling to know that so many people get to see it. I had friends in Boston who were seeing it, and I think that it makes it so much more accessible to people. I personally love going to see live broadcasts of theatre in the cinema. For me it feels really intimate, so I loved being on the other side of that and I love knowing that things might be seen that might normally be missed in the theatre.
Can you tell us about your first season with RSC and the roles that you played?
It was the Rome Season and I played Portia in Julius Caesar, Lavinia in Titus Andronicus and Virgilia in Coriolanus. I think that company is extraordinary and it’s like nothing else because you are completely a family and with them for fourteen months. You become such a close-knit group of people. It was like going to drama school all over again. I learnt so much, and also loved playing those women who were, although silenced, incredibly strong and rooted and intelligent.
Why would you recommend seeing Shakespeare’s plays to theatre-goers and appearing in them to young actors starting their career?
I’d say the poetry. Something that’s always stuck with me from drama school is that the reason you go to the theatre is not to see life but is to see life plus, and for me, the language of Shakespeare is that. It’s seeing people behave in ways that we understand but the life plus is the adding of this extraordinary level of poetry which elevates all of their actions and their darknesses and their strangenesses. It makes it poetry and I think if you accept that what you’re speaking is not another language, it’s not difficult Shakespearean language, it is poetry, then I think that’s an amazing thing to learn as a young person, and to reap the benefits from as an audience.
What do you find the most challenging aspect of playing a Shakespeare character?
I think to know that you can’t really have psychological realism in the same way as you might be able to with a more contemporary playwright. That the subtext is in the language essentially, so you can’t play lots of nuanced subtextual detail, you have to be much more front-footed than you would be in a contemporary play or even in an Ibsen or Chekhov. There is an energy that is required and a leaning in that I sometimes shy away from and know I could get better at.
What’s it like being nominated two years running for the Ian Charleson Awards?
It was incredible and very lovely to be amongst all of the nominees but also learn so much about the history of the award and about Ian himself and how much he was loved, and how this award supports young people who otherwise might be struggling, and I feel very proud to have been associated with it.
You’ve appeared in a few screen roles; can you say more about some of your most recent?
I did an independent film called Magpie and we’ve been filming on and off when we’ve had a bit more funding here and there. It’s about post-traumatic stress disorder in World War Two and the American friendly invasion in Norfolk, and I play a nurse whose husband comes back from war with post-traumatic stress disorder. I learnt a huge amount because I was working with a brilliant crew. Screen technique is something you learn at drama school but I think you can only ever really learn whilst doing. It’s something I’m fascinated by, and I’m such a film obsessive, so for me to be on set and watch how it all works and learn my role within it, I find incredibly exciting.
Have you seen any theatre shows recently that you would recommend?
One of my favourite things I’ve ever seen I saw again recently at Shoreditch Town Hall. It’s called Dressed by ThisEgg and it’s about the power of female friendship to rebuild and repair wounds after sexual exploitation and trauma. I’ve grown up with the women who created the show, and I think they’re extraordinary. It made me laugh and weep every time I saw it. I wish it could continue on so more people could see it.
What led to your stage career and what advice would you give to young performers?
I started acting at a theatre company in Cambridge lead by Tamsin Cowell when I was about fourteen. We were treated as professional actors, she was incredibly inspiring, and gave us material like Hamlet, and Spring Awakening, and The Seagull, and Peer Gynt. She was incredibly inspiring to me. Then I got involved with the National Youth Theatre, and I was just very stubborn about it, I knew that being an actor was what I wanted to do. My agent signed me when I was doing the National Youth Theatre Rep Company when I was eighteen. I’d just found out I’d got into Drama Centre, and I was so desperate to train, but my agent supported my decision and stuck with me throughout those three years, so I was very lucky. Everyone’s path is different, so the only advice I can give is stubbornness, openness, joy, and just pushing on.
Had you considered a career away from acting?
When I was six I wanted to be a therapist, and I sometimes still think about it.
All’s Well That Ends Well finishes at the end of November, how will you spend your time for the next few months?
I will be working in a little gift shop on Exmouth Market, back to auditioning, and seeing my family.
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