They have enjoyed huge success on TV with The Undoing and Killing Eve, respectively, but Noma Dumezweni and Harriet Walter started out on stage. They met in 1999, when Dumezweni played a witch and understudied Walter as Lady Macbeth for the Royal Shakespeare Company. The pair caught up to discuss Dumezweni’s role as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, theatre ghosts and how Black Lives Matter is shaking up Broadway.
Harriet Walter: Noma, we first met at your audition for Macbeth. I have a memory of you and me under a table in a Clapham rehearsal room, whispering some hocus-pocus, and deciding you were the one.
Noma Dumezweni: That was a big old day: meeting Antony Sher and Harriet Walter. I thought: “Oh shit, this is big guns now!” I was so excited to audition for the RSC. That was the year I turned 30 and it felt like everything was changing.
HW: You were so open to all the experiments we did. Lady Macbeth is such a famous part, but she doesn’t have that much stage time, so you have to do quite a lot of work with the character. I can be a bit overanalytical, but I was keen that you kept au fait with the key turning points I saw in Lady Macbeth.
ND: You were very generous with me. I thought: “I’m never going on. It’s never happening!” It was nice on paper …
HW: It’s a horrible role! I was ill quite a lot, do you remember?
ND: There were a couple of moments when I could feel my sphincter going.
HW: It’s a very tricky thing, understudying. I’ve only done it once, for Suzanne Bertish in [David Edgar’s adaptation of] Nicholas Nickleby in 1980, and it was impossible, because she played this wide range of extraordinary characters whom she’d really made her own. Should you do an imitation of her so you don’t upset the rhythm for other actors, or do you give your own interpretation?
ND: I’ve realised that I want an understudy to be themselves, but I also want them to keep that rhythm and the shape of the production.
HW: It can upset the whole balance of the play if you get a different chemistry. The other person might be going: “This is my big moment.” They might be inviting a lot of agents to show off what they can do.
Theatre is dependent on a lot of people breathing and shouting and mingling sweat. We’ll be allowed back last
HW: I was 30, too, when I joined the RSC. I was watching and learning from Peggy Ashcroft and Patrick Stewart, who was only 40, but I still thought of him as this great senior. There was Juliet Stevenson, Roger Allam – lots of us in our infancy, learning by being thrown in at the deep end. There’s very little you can learn from spear-carrying.
ND: When you’re playing a witch, you’ve got so much time. I’d go up to the flies to watch the Macbeths together, soaking up everything. I remember romanticising the RSC’s past. Now I’m the past of the RSC!
HW: We all do romanticise it. On the day they closed the theatre for a big refurbishment, we were allowed to run around the building. There was a sign on the door that I took home – buildings make you sentimental. The RSC has a well-known theatre ghost. The caretaker’s dog didn’t like going along a particular corridor.
ND: I know that corridor! I love all those stories in theatre. Like the ghost light – I didn’t know about it until I was on Broadway. It’s the light on stage that gives the spirits and energies that are wandering the theatre at night somewhere to anchor. Isn’t that gorgeous? I am romantic about theatre. This is a crap time, but it will never go away.
Chris Wiegand: Some British theatres opened again during the pandemic, but Broadway has remained closed, hasn’t it?
ND: There’s been nothing on Broadway, but it’s been a huge year with Black Lives Matter and the We See You White American Theatre movement. I’m a British observer here and it’s a huge enlightenment. Yes, I’m black, I know what the diaspora is and what racism is, but I’m not African American. That’s a singular experience. All these things are affecting what theatre is doing in the US. It’s a discussion – it always comes back to: what is art, how can we serve art and get people in to see it?
HW: I criticise London for the price of theatre, but it’s worse in New York. The cost of the tickets is so prohibitive.
ND: It limits who comes.
HW: None of us want the restriction of only being able to play to people who can afford huge amounts of money.
ND: And who then take it for granted and don’t see the joy and magic in it any more. Sometimes, when I’m in certain theatres, I feel that there’s no one being inspired, the spark isn’t happening.
HW: Doing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child must have been an exception.
ND: The amazing thing about that show was it had a roughly 60% new theatre audience – and lots of them then went on to see other shows, because they were introduced to theatre. They fought to do the prices so well and get people in. Accessibility to shows is what we need to manage. We, as artists, are not in charge of that. It’s the producers.
CW: What do you think the pandemic will have done to audience confidence about returning to theatres?
HW: The thing we do for a living is dependent on being in a crowd with a lot of people breathing and shouting and mingling sweat. We’ll be allowed back last.
CW: You’ve both worked on screen and stage. When you started out, did one appeal more than the other?
ND: I thought acting was theatre. That space shared by audience and actors, the magic thing that happens. That’s what I love. In theatre, I like the company, the camaraderie and, for good or bad, the dysfunctional family of it. I don’t want to look down on anybody who goes a different route, but I’m happy I did it this way: theatre before TV and film.
HW: People ask me if I get nervous on stage. I might do on a press night or if someone very scary is watching. But it’s in rehearsal when you have to be really brave. You’ve got to do it badly – get it wrong before you do it right. In TV, you walk on set and suddenly you’ve got to act straight away. Sometimes, you’ve hardly shaken their hand.
ND: Susanne Bier, who directed The Undoing, says she doesn’t understand rehearsals in theatre – it drives her crazy. I don’t understand why you don’t have rehearsals in TV, even if just for a week. But it’s a different world – it’s about money and time.
HW: Growing up, film was more important to me. I didn’t go to many plays as a kid. I loved the cinema and I wanted to be up there. It was the same impulse – to tell stories – but also to get away from myself, to be somebody else. And I won’t dress it up: I wanted attention. I wanted someone to go: look at her!
ND: Well, that is our job! I will dress up, I will stand here, and you will tell me if I’m good or bad. That’s what I want you to do … But I’m gonna make you love me!
HW: In the mid-70s, when I started out, there wasn’t this option for a female actor to do some big TV series in the US like Game of Thrones. Those things didn’t exist; there wasn’t really a film career to be had! Serious actors, if they were lucky, would be on a Play for Today written by David Hare. That was it. So, I didn’t think in terms of my career and where it was going. I just did job after job after job and enjoyed it.
ND: A career happens to you as an actor. We just do the job, do the job, then something like Harry Potter might come along and: Ooh! You’re right; acting is about transformation. That’s the joy. When we did Much Ado About Nothing together [in 2002], I loved playing Ursula. I wanted to play Beatrice after seeing what you did with her.
HW: The thing about Shakespeare that I love is you’re not confined by your physical makeup. That’s why we’re crossing race and gender in Shakespeare. He talks about humanity – anyone can relate to “to be or not to be”. There’s a wonderful freedom in Shakespeare. You don’t get that in TV – telly trades on your image.
ND: I’m hitting this TV world in my late 40s and early 50s. And thank God I’m hitting it now, because I was a mess in terms of how I felt physically, how I looked to the world, how the world showed me that I was supposed to look. I didn’t fit into that. It was invariably blond and blue-eyed.
CW: Roles can come out of nowhere, such as Linda at the Royal Court in 2015, when you replaced Kim Cattrall at the last minute.
ND: I had to use a script on stage. Harriet, you suggested that I keep different pages of it in different parts of the set. I’d done the reading of the play with the director, Michael Longhurst, a few months before. I thought: “Yeah, I’ll help a friend out, I love the Royal Court.” Then you go: “Fuck me, we did that.” And it is a “we”.
HW: I have to say, I do think sometimes we’re chosen not just for our ability, but for the way we work. If you’re a team player, there’s a whole lot of shit that people don’t have to deal with … That’s what I remember about Peggy Ashcroft. She just got on with it. I was being neurotic all over the place. Now, if I see anyone over 30 doing that, I go: “Cut it out!”
ND: One of my joys on Much Ado was that my shoes were Peggy Ashcroft’s – they had…