Interview – Naomi Frederick [Agnes Colander] [Jermyn Street Theatre]

Following its acclaimed run at The Ustinov Studio at Theatre Royal Bath last year, Trevor Nunn‘s world premiere production of Harley Granville Barker’s lost masterpiece, Agnes Colander: An Attempt At Life – revised by Richard Nelson – will now transfer to London’s Jermyn Street Theatre for a five week run from Tuesday 12 February to Saturday 16 March 2019.

Written in 1900 and unearthed a century later Agnes Colander: An Attempt At Life is a witty and compelling exploration of love and sexual attraction.

Ahead of the opening, we caught up with star Naomi Frederick who is about to reprise her acclaimed performance in the title role.

© Simon Annand

Agnes Colander is considered a lost masterpiece of British theatre. Could you tell us a little bit about the play and the rediscovery?

Agnes Colander’ was written in 1900 by Harley Granville Barker, aged 23, who hid the manuscript amongst his personal possessions, scribbling on the cover that “It should certainly not be published. It might well be destroyed.” The play was recovered on Granville Barker’s death, and was housed in the British Library until Trevor Nunn and Richard Nelson unearthed it and eventually gave it its world premiere at the Ustinov Studio in Bath in 2018.

Trevor Nunn directs this world premiere production. Could you tell us about the staging? How does the director ensure the play feels fresh?

Trevor directs the play with the lightest touch. His key objective is to allow the meaning of the words to sing. Ostensibly, Granville Barker has written a conversation piece; but there are layers upon layers of meaning, to do with the complex human situation, which Trevor has helped us excavate in rehearsal. The naturalistic style of the writing dictates a naturalistic staging which also befits the “room-sized” proportions of the Jermyn Street Theatre. The astonishingly direct language with which the characters speak to each other makes every line sound fresh.

How would you describe the character of Agnes?

Feisty, impulsive, idealistic, and fiercely intelligent. Agnes is a visionary. A woman ahead of her time.

What are the play’s primary themes and how do they resonate with a contemporary audience?

The play, instead of being named after its protagonist, could just as easily have been titled ’The Sex Question’. It’s a story about the sexes, about the role that sex and gender play in our lives, and about one woman’s journey in search of an ideal partnership. The play’s resonance with a contemporary audience is startlingly clear: the very questions that Granville Barker was asking about the role of women in 1900 still haven’t been fully answered today.

How have audiences responded to the piece so far?

The Bath audiences last year were amazed that the play is so old! It feels like new writing (or it should if the actors get it right…)

What have you most enjoyed about working on the production?

I’ve loved working with Trevor, whose forensic skills are limitless. And I’ve loved delving into the character of Agnes, whose authenticity and integrity are testament to the immense perceptiveness and sensitivity of her creator.

The play opened at The Ustinov Studio and now transfers to Jermyn Street Theatre. Do you feel this piece requires an intimate theatre space to work effectively?

The play demands a small space. The intimacy of the dialogue would be lost on a big stage. There are moments when the audience can hardly believe what they are hearing and seeing (I include an onstage meal of freshly roasted chicken), and the excitement is so much greater for being in a small space.

What have been the main challenges with this production?

To cling to the core meaning behind every line. The play is full of subtext. You say something, and underneath it lie a dozen other meanings! It’s richly rewarding for both actors and audience, but you have to stay on the game.

Has Agnes Colander inspired you to seek out more of the Granville Barker’s work?

As soon as I’d read ‘Agnes’ for the first time, I reached for ‘Waste’ and ’The Voysey Inheritance’. I wanted to see how the fledgling Granville Barker, writing ‘Agnes’ aged 23, developed as a writer. What is apparent is that he went on to write bigger plays. But the style of the writing in ‘Agnes Colander’ is recognisable in his later work.

How did you first get into acting and when did you realise acting was the career you wanted to pursue?

When I was 6, I wanted to be a ballerina. By the time I was 12, I knew I was too tall for ballet; and around the same time I discovered Theatre. I never looked back after that.

Who have been your main influences and role models?

My most formative experience as an actor was when I played Isabella for Simon McBurney in Complicite’s ‘Measure for Measure’ at the NT. I was 2 years out of drama school and I had so much to learn. I try not to cling to role models. But I love working alongside very experienced actors: Martin Shaw and F Murray Abraham both taught me a thing or two.

Do you get to see much theatre? What have been your most recent theatre highlights?

I have children, which makes me very selective about going out to the theatre. Recently, I loved ‘Hadestown’ at the NT and Pinters 5 and 6 at the Pinter. Completely different shows, but both triumphant in their celebration of the language of storytelling.

Which theatre roles would you love to play?

I’ll consider any role anyone wants to offer me!

What was the last film you saw?

The last film I saw was ‘Colette’. A research exercise prior to the re-rehearsals for ‘Agnes’. Plus I’ve worked with Keira Knightley so I was keen to see her in the role.

What was the last album you bought/downloaded?

Last album I downloaded: Anais Mitchell ’Child Ballads’.

Five desert island books?

Five Desert Island Books:
The Language of Kindness by Christie Watson
The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn
The Luzhin Defense by Vladimir Nabokov
Honey From A Weed by Patience Gray
Brecht Collected Poems

What’s next for Naomi Frederick?

Next, I want to make a film. I need to write it first. It’s going to involve travelling in Europe. So while I’m thinking about how to get it off the ground, I’ll busy myself with this year’s planting at our allotment

For more information, and to book tickets, please Click Here.

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