5 Questions with Elizabeth MacGregor and Dominique Nesbitt

Elizabeth MacGregor

Elizabeth MacGregor

Dominique Nesbitt: Chekhov is renowned for his honest and well-rounded depictions of women. I think his Three Sisters is a perfect example of the depth and substance he gives to his female characters. What drew you to the character of Olga?
Elizabeth MacGregor: My instant response would be to describe Olga as ‘the sensible one’ – but in reality, that doesn’t do her justice at all. Olga is the pillar of the family, as the eldest sister, she’s assumed the role of care-taker and comforter to her three younger siblings after the death of their mother and father, and has forgone her own ambitions in order to keep the family together. When I first approached this role, I wondered why Olga didn’t seem to be resentful at having to take care of the others, but I really believe that she genuinely cares for her siblings (and the greater ‘family’ of friends and servants) and gains a strong sense of identity and emotional fulfillment through nurturing the others. I think ultimately what drew me to the character of Olga is her emotional strength and her resilience.

Chekhov is also renowned for writing texts that are universal in both theme and tone. We are keeping our production set in the period in which it was written. I was wondering whether this has changed the way you have prepared for the role, or whether its universality has meant that you have easily tapped into the mindset of a woman living in 1900s Russia?
It has been a welcome challenge to prepare for this role – and it is a mixture of both. It’s very important to understand the context of the time and place in which the play is set, so I’ve been reading and researching as much as possible about Russia, the politics of the time and the lives and expectations of a woman in Russia in 1900. Women in 1900 carried themselves very differently from the way we do now – so I’m also thinking a lot about movement, gestures and posture. The themes are universal though – so I feel able to tap into the emotional experience of Olga – but it’s important to be expressing that in the context of the time in which the play is set.

During the play, Masha’s husband Kulygin confesses that he perhaps should have married Olga instead. Have you created a backstory in order to give that scene added gravitas?
As much as possible, I’ve created a backstory using the information provided in the script. It’s important not to give too much of the backstory away though – I wouldn’t want to dissipate the energy of the ‘secret’.

You have just been approached to play the lead in a production of your choosing. What would it be and Why? (You may also want to cast some of the other characters as well!).
I would dearly love the opportunity to play the role of Desiree Armfeldt in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. The musical explores the themes of love, desire, opportunities, and more importantly, missed opportunities, and the passing of time. Desiree sings the well-known song, ‘Send in the Clowns’ – and when I first learned to sing that song as a naive, unworldly 14 year old, I really didn’t understand the song at all and thought that I was ‘way too cool’ to be having to sing about clowns. Well, when I finally saw the musical about 10 years ago, I heard the song and was completely mesmerized and quite emotional and I just knew then – ‘I really want to sing that song, I really understand it now’. I am completely in awe of Sondheim’s ability to portray intricate themes and complex human emotions with beautiful music and incredibly clever lyrics.

In Act 1, Olga proudly declares that she has prepared supper for Irina’s name-day celebration. During rehearsals, we have all had the absolute pleasure of sampling some of your own delicious creations. What would be on the menu at a dinner party hosted by Elizabeth?
Oh, that’s easy – but how do I narrow it down to just a few dishes! For entrée, I have a wonderful German recipe for a warm potato salad served with cured salmon; followed by duck confit with du puy lentils, and for dessert, lemon tart. There’s no chocolate in the dessert, so I’d simply have to make some truffles to have afterwards, because you can’t possibly have a dinner party without chocolate!

Dominique Nesbitt

Dominique Nesbitt

Elizabeth MacGregor: What drew you to the role of Irina? What do you like about her?
Dominique Nesbitt: I’ve always been drawn to stories that deal with the passage of time. In Chekhov’s Three Sisters we are given the opportunity to track the lives of these three women (and others) across four years. If nothing else, we learn that a lot can happen in that considerably short space of time! When we first meet Irina, she is 20 years old and full of life and promise. I think it was that youthful determination and spirit that first drew me to her. She has dreams and aspirations that are delivered with such vigour and passion that you just hope she can see them fulfilled. It is clear from the outset that those dreams have outgrown her provincial surroundings. She yearns to go home to Moscow and it is that unrelenting desire for the city which sees her through the next couple years spent working in menial jobs. There is something in her story that we can all relate to, I think. She is a fiercely independent and free-thinking young woman who strives for more than a life in the country can offer her. Being the youngest of the family, Irina seeks out the guidance and counsel of her older sisters – particularly Olga – whom she admires and respects. By 23, she has experienced tragedy and faced challenges the likes of which most of us will hopefully never experience in our lives. Her resolve and maturity at the end of the play is startling and it remains one of the things I admire most about her.

How have you approached preparing for your role, bearing in mind the era in which the play is set?
Despite it being set in Russia in the 1900s, I think the characters have been written in such a way that they are as relatable and approachable to modern audiences as they were to audiences 100 years ago. In terms of my own preparation, I have done a little extra research to ensure that my movements and gestures are in keeping with the period. I have also had a look at important historical events that framed this period in Russia because I think it is particularly crucial to setting the mood and tone of the play. In terms of characterisation, I think I have approached Irina as I would any other character. As I said earlier, I think the sentiments she expresses are timeless in that they speak to that youthful determination we all have to carve out a meaningful existence in whatever we choose to undertake. I just hope I can do that justice!

If you, Dominique, could give Irina one piece of advice, what would it be? Are there any other characters in the play to whom you would give advice, and what would that be?
Being 24 myself, I don’t really know what words of wisdom I can impart given that Irina and I are very close in age but I guess I would tell her to place a greater value on patience. There are several moments in the play where she lacks the patience to see that there is great beauty in the path that leads us to our destination. There isn’t one specific character to whom I would seek to advise but I would instead remind everyone that happiness is not overrated and they should seek it out and hold onto it as best they can.

Live theatre is dynamic – no two performances (of the same production) are exactly the same. What is the most unexpected (or funny) thing that has happened to you in a play, and how did you respond?
How true it is! I played Glinda, the Good Witch, in my High School’s production of The Wizard Of Oz and during one performance, I slipped and fell mid-song on the train of my voluminous skirt. Whilst I was unable to mask the fact that I had clearly fallen, I attempted to rally the munchkins around me in the hope that together we could make it through the rest of the song without further incident. It was incredibly embarrassing at the time but I do look back now and laugh.

You clearly have an eye for design and style, given the beautiful and distinctive clothes that you wear every day to rehearsals. Are you inspired by costumes? Is there a particular era or style of costume/clothing that you would like to design?
That is such a lovely compliment. Thank you! I have always been very interested in fashion and costuming, because I think you can glean a great deal about a period just by examining the different silhouettes and range of fabrics used to make garments. That may be why I collect vintage clothes because I love the idea of wearing garments that have a backstory. As an actor, trying on the costumes of your character can be a rather transformative experience. As silly as it sounds, I do believe that your costumes can help you to feel and move as your character. There is no one particular style or era that I would specifically like to design because I would probably pull ideas from several different eras. In saying that, my favourite silhouette is probably the 1950’s ‘New Look.’ If I were to design the costumes for a production, I would love to use that silhouette as a base. I’m also drawn to novelty patterns and rich floral prints. But then I also love Hungarian Folk embroidery, which was popular in the 1930’s and the drop-waist dresses of the 1920’s. It’s far too difficult for me to choose! The common thread is I’m drawn to clothing that signified a shift in the mindset and/or social circumstances of an era. I hope that answers the question.

Elizabeth MacGregor and Dominique Nesbitt will be appearing in Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, translated by Brian Friel.
Dates: 17 Oct – 14 Nov, 2015
Venue: Genesian Theatre