With the UK premiere of Alan Alda’s ‘Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie’ taking place at the Tabard Theatre from the 4th February, I spoke to acclaimed actress Cathy Tyson about her starring role as the first female Nobel prize winner, her own career and her return to the theatre scene…
Marie Curie is well-known for her career as a physicist/chemist and being one of the most famous scientists of her time – could you tell us about your take on her once you had read the script?
Fortunately the script has allowed for her emotional life as well as her scientific life. I’m a mother, she’s a working woman and she’s passionate about what she does and a trailblazer really. She’s confident, but she also loses her power because of certain things that happen to her in the play. I’m just having a whale of a time taking on this extraordinary responsibility as the lead character within an ensemble cast and engaging with those members in each team developing relationships; how we’re going to flesh this out. She’s an extraordinary human being and she’s vulnerable…that’s what I love about the play.
So my take is that you are always feeling as a woman, the need to prove yourself, and the importance of your reputation. She’s from Poland and she lived in France, so she’s away from her home and her culture and also being judged on that. At times she’s an outsider, so there are things I can relate to. I did my research. I’m nearly most of the way through Susan Quinn’s book Marie Curie: A Life, and some children’s books; though I have to watch it with the research because we have to learn lines. I’ve sensed that she was a very passionate woman about literature…it’s been lovely getting to know this fascinating woman.
So how will this particular production portray such a story about her career and personal life?
That’s what Alan Alda’s script is about. As I say, her story is fascinating. Double Nobel Prize winner, scandal attached to her name and tragedy…Just the details of her life, the form in which Alan Alda has done this, it moves at a pace. There’s drama, there’s scandal…The different colours that they go through [with] romance. There’s love and intrigue. You see her character develop, you see her at home with her husband, the life that she has with her lover…I don’t want to give the whole story away, but just the trials and tribulations that she went through, that’s how it’s done.
Why do you think her story is important to present to today’s modern audience?
Her story is important, because of the history of women during that time, a, because it’s an interesting story and b, because if they could achieve it then, what could we achieve now? These people inspired legions of women after them to go into work. On a personal level, it’s a good story and its funny – science. It’s interesting, this world of intensity. Alan Alda is a funny man. I find the scenes with Pierre, especially one of them and the way that he does it, is eccentric.
How have rehearsals been and have you encountered any challenges?
We encounter challenges all the time, but it’s a lovely ensemble company. We walk into that room and I feel, hopefully, that other people feel free to do what they want. There is no hierarchy, we work in a smallish room, but when you’re enjoying yourself and having a good time it doesn’t matter. What we’ve got in the room, amongst us, that warmth – I wouldn’t trade that for anything else. Also if you can get along with people in a small room, that’s really good. It’s been tiring, I’ve been in everyday, but…the last play I did, I was in everyday and I was playing a miniscule role. We were called in because the director didn’t know what scene he wanted to do, but because he was very, very good, you didn’t mind; you were around creativity. So coming in everyday, this is normal to me. But this is coming in as the main part and I’m just grateful that I’ve got the strength. Maybe Marie Curie is hovering over me!
Does it make rehearsal more intense due to spending literally every moment with each other?
Well some of us do and some of us don’t. I’m there; I’m with Kristina (stage manager), Ruby (intern) and the director (Mark Giesser). We’re working intensively. Rehearsals are a very special period. We know we won’t have this period when we open, so this is gold dust. It’s a joy to come into work. Ruby, she’s got to go and fill out application forms for university and she didn’t want to do it, she wanted to come into work…but this is what happens when you’re enjoying yourself. It’s a privilege to do it.
You started your acting career at a very young age – what was it about acting and drama that drew you in?
It was an emotional outlet. The first thing I read was a speech by Shakespeare in Merchant of Venice. Shylocks ‘to bait fish withal: If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge…’ When my mother handed me that speech for a college audition, I couldn’t believe it. It was like a moment for me, an awakening of my God, this man is speaking about how I feel. It just came at the right time. Prior to that, we had three hours of drama in St Winifred’s R.C School, I was in a play and as soon as I opened my mouth on stage, all the unruly girls – as soon as the play began, shut up! And I just thought this has the power to keep those girls quiet, when teachers in the classroom couldn’t even do that. So that was another awakening. I thought there is something in this, because they had never listened to me before and here I am speaking and all these girls are quiet. So it was a need for me, because I was very quiet and I got to talk about how I felt…it was very therapeutic.
Your first film debut was British classic ‘Mona Lisa’ – what was it about the script that sparked your interest and how did you deal with the positive yet critical reactions?
I mean it was nice to get that attention, but also I thought I didn’t deserve it because I hadn’t learnt my craft. It was a bit bizarre – two years into acting professionally and then I couldn’t understand it. But then you don’t have to understand everything about life. It was overwhelming, but it was also nice – I just felt under confident. They said I was good, but I didn’t feel it, so you just go along with what other people say.
Whilst away from the drama scene, you studied English and Drama at Brunel University – what made you decide to return to education and was it what you expected?
It wasn’t what I expected. Some parts of it were better, some parts of it were agonising. I went because I felt jaded, but I’m glad I did it, even with the essay writing, I came out with a good mark. The beginning I was absolutely flummoxed. I built myself up through the years and got better and better, which was hard, lonely grafting in the library, but worth it and it made me read widely. But I felt jaded so I thought; I need to go somewhere so I can study. I love reading and it was brilliant. I’m indebted to my university and I’m part of the Board of Humanities, which I’m honoured.
As a mixed race actor playing a Polish figure, do you feel that there is a need for more colour-blind casting and opportunities within the industry for actors of colour?
I hope so and if not, let’s hope this encourages other black actresses to go and play Elizabeth I and to do all sorts of things like that. It’s opened up my doors to thinking ‘oh right! I can play white historical figures now!’ and that’s what other people need to be thinking too.
What is that ‘special’ thing about acting that motivates you to continue working in the industry?
It’s that passion…the passion that you have to keep that flame alive; sometimes it’s going to flicker low. But that flame of passion is very precious within dark days, because it’s that that’ll keep you going. Read and be inspired by other people’s work, plays…these things have fanned my flames and I feel very grateful to be an artist.
Cathy will appear in Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie by Alan Alda from 4th – 28th February 2015 at the Tabard Theatre
For enquiries / to book tickets go to: Box office: 0208 995 6035 / Website: tabardweb.co.uk
interview with Cathy Tyson for the british blacklist by @Nellie_Ville