Dickensian Diaries - Interview with Polly Lister

It’s perhaps just as well that Polly Lister is approaching the role of Miss Havisham in Derby Theatre’s Great Expectations with a touch of trepidation, because the deeper the challenge the more it seems to bring out of her performances.

She was just as apprehensive before taking on the role of Beverley in Mike Leigh’s acclaimed play Abigail’s Party but so made the character her own that she walked away with a UK Theatre Award.

“Sometimes it’s the things that you are most scared of that turn out be your best friends,” says Polly, reflecting on that 2015 performance.

She’s on familiar ground at Derby Theatre, having already impressed audiences with her performances in Solace of the Road and Cooking With Elvis, but taking on one of the most familiar characters in English literature and all the preconceptions that comes with it is still daunting.

“There’s always the fear,” says Polly. “I remember when I got the role of Beverly in Abigail’s Party I thought ‘Oh gosh’ as people have such strong ideas of what they believe it to be. As soon as I was cast I stopped and thought ‘this is going to be so hard’ but it’s the part that won me that award.

“It’s the same with Miss Havisham. She is absolutely iconic. When I went to the audition I wasn’t sure they were going to see me in that light.

“The part is bigger than the actress. Everybody thinks they know how she should be and it’s your job to convince them otherwise.”

She finds the wealthy spinster created by Charles Dickens in one of his best-loved stories endlessly intriguing.

Polly says: “Miss Havisham jumped wholeheartedly into marriage, she thought that would be the beginning of a different life and when it didn’t happened she stopped living. She stopped the clock and let everything decay around her.

“She would be a sad, tragic figure if that was all there was to it but there’s this cruel aspect where she drips poison into Estella (her adopted daughter) to try and make her into this hard woman. That’s what takes away some of our sympathy and divides us when we think about her.”

Polly had never read the book or seen a stage or screen adaptation before auditioning.

“I grew up in a family where we told stories vocally and that was my experience of it. I read it diligently for the audition and I loved putting the original text next to our adaptation. It’s so rich with stories that resonate with everybody. There’s great jeopardy, intrigue, relationships, hidden secrets, lies and money. And all the characters are very big hearted, you can get under their skin and understand the bad things they do. And at the heart of it is this unrequited love of Pip for Estella and what that leads him to do.

“In a way I’m really glad I didn’t see Gillian Anderson playing Miss Havisham in the BBC TV version - she is a fine actress - and I have only seen clips of the old black and white version as well so I haven’t got any preconceived ideas at all, other than the historical references we make up in our heads. The Derby Theatre trailer and the clothes I was given seem to be in tune with the idea of this woman living a life behind cobwebs but one of the reasons I’m so looking forward to working with Sarah Brigham is that between us we will discover who she is.”

Indeed, Polly is delighted to be working again with Sarah, Derby Theatre’s artistic director.

“Getting to go back to Derby and working with Sarah again is just the best thing,” she says. “It’s a story that has been told for many, many years and we get the privilege of telling it again with a great group of people.”

Since she was last at Derby, Polly has performed her one-woman show I Was A Wife which takes us through the comic highs and painful lows of her marriage and break up.

There couldn’t be a greater contrast between baring your soul alone on stage and the collective spirit of an ensemble production like Great Expectations and Polly knows which she prefers.

“I’d rather be in an ensemble any day,” she says. “I never wanted to write a one-woman show - I couldn’t think of anything more awful than being on stage on my own. But budget demands and the artistic director’s vision led me to write a one-woman show in which I play 15 different characters and sing three songs – it’s an epic.

“I’m proud of it and I’m really glad it’s not just a story about my divorce, more about finding my identity after being fired from a part I thought would be forever.”

And does Polly think that cathartic experience will help her find a deeper understanding of Miss Havisham?

She says: ”I have been acting since I was seven and I started doing it professionally at 21, and I think life experiences good and bad, but mainly bad , enable you to portray people in a deeper way. You may have done a good job before but there can be a sadness, a depth of understanding, that wasn’t there before.

“I never wanted anything to work as badly as I wanted my marriage to work. I never fixated on ‘the wedding’ and what it would be like but I took it for granted that I would meet somebody who would love me and who I would love forever. I never questioned it. It took me until I was 36 to meet someone I believed in. But by our first anniversary I realised he wasn’t who I thought he was. Two years after the wedding he locked me out, changed the locks and asked for a divorce. That’s the most devastating thing that has ever happened to me.

“It has been a long journey redefining what my future will look like without that dream.

“I don’t think I’m like Miss Havisham, or that she’s like me. But I am going to be playing a woman who believed wholeheartedly in a future that had a different colour and was prepared for all those challenges but had it stolen from her, with no reason. She felt like she was taken for a fool, but she doesn’t know as he just doesn’t turn up. And I didn’t know. So hopefully that will lead to a more thorough, believable performance. I will be revisiting events, memories and feelings.

“I truly believe that my performance in Abigail’s Party was only as successful as it was because I was a woman who had lived in an unhappy marriage who could see in his eyes that he didn’t love her any more. That’s where the pathos in that performance came from.

“I hope there will be people who will watch Great Expectations and think when I’m playing Miss Havisham that that bit of sadness, that moment of devastation seemed real - that it came from an honest place.”  

Great Expectations plays here from Friday 29 September - Saturday 21 October. Find out more and buy tickets here.