Having made her name with standout performances in new work, Ria Zmitrowicz is tackling the classics, appearing in Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Almeida. She tells Natasha Tripney about collaborating with inspirational writers and directors and the importance of youth theatre
Ria Zmitrowicz’s lunch sits uneaten on the table in front of her. When we meet at the Almeida Theatre’s Upper Street office, she’s still in rehearsals for Rebecca Frecknall’s Three Sisters, and her excitement is palpable. “I haven’t done anything like this before,” she says. “If I stopped to think about it, I’d freak out.”
Zmitrowicz has been cast as Irina, the youngest of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, opposite Pearl Chanda and Patsy Ferran – the Olivier-winning star of Frecknall’s heady, atmospheric production of Tennessee Williams’ infrequently performed Summer and Smoke.
Zmitrowicz hasn’t done any Chekhov before. In fact, apart from Caroline Steinbeis’ bold 2015 staging of The Crucible, she says: “I haven’t done many classics. I haven’t done anything this big. It’s been quite overwhelming.”
Not having many preconceptions about how Chekhov should be played is also freeing. She’s treating it as she would any new play, which is fitting, because while Frecknall’s production and Cordelia Lynn’s new version locates the play in the past, “the heart of it is now”. It’s about playing what feels believable, recognisable, human, she says, and Frecknall has been a joy to work with in this regard. She has a practical sense as a director that comes from having a dance background, but also has the “academic side down”.
Zmitrowicz’s experience of the rehearsal room so far, working with Ferran and Chanda, has been incredibly positive. The nature of the play – set among “a group of people stuck in this place with nothing to do” – has required the cast to become “really close, really quickly even though we only met each other a month ago – you have to bond really quickly”. Watching the play after the interview, this comes across on stage. Her performance as Irina morphs from something wonderfully gauche and girlish in the early scenes to one of quiet resignation as life takes its toll on the character.
In person, Zmitrowicz is animated and effervescent if a little nervous. She keeps apologising for waffling on, even when she’s doing nothing of the sort. She brings a lot of these qualities to her roles: voluble, but vulnerable and raw, picking at the liminal space between girlhood and womanhood.
She knew from a young age she wanted to be an actor and benefited from having a supportive teacher. She performed in school plays and amateur dramatics and ended up auditioning for the National Youth Theatre, in part because she thought it would be “a fun day out in London”.
When she got in, Zmitrowicz moved to live with her dad in the capital to complete the NYT’s Playing Up course. She kept applying to drama schools, but after three years of auditioning, she still hadn’t got a place and began to question whether this was the right path for her. “I wasn’t getting anywhere with it.” It didn’t help that fees had gone up from £3,000 a year to £9,000 a year – a level she couldn’t justify. “It’s such a shame. I think many people must have felt like that.”
‘I haven’t done many classics or anything as big as Three Sisters. It’s been quite overwhelming’
By this time, however, she’d made a number of good friends through youth theatre, including the playwright Luke Barnes. “He said: ‘Come to the pub and I’ll buy you a pint and we’ll read this play I’ve written.’ ”
The play turned out to be Chapel Street, about two teenagers out on the lash in a harsh, uncaring world. With director Cheryl Gallacher, they staged it at London pub theatre the Old Red Lion, in 2011. The set was intentionally designed to feel like an extension of the pub, Zmitrowicz explains, because at the Old Red Lion, “you can smell the loos a bit and it’s beery and we just thought, let’s not pretend we’re not in a pub”.
Chapel Street was well-received and they took it to Edinburgh in 2012 as part of the Old Vic New Voices scheme. Transplanted to one of the dark, dank Underbelly spaces, this version differed considerably from the London run. During rehearsals Zmitrowicz and her co-star were mucking about with a trolley, which they incorporated into the performance, creating a more kinetic effect. “The production evolved and we evolved with it,” she says. “Having all that time with a play, going on that journey with it was really formative. I felt like part of the play’s DNA.”
Zmitrowicz’s performance as the motor-mouthed Kirsty was extraordinary given it was her first professional role, combining emotional messiness with glinting precision. Writing for Exeunt, Stewart Pringle described her as “a person turned inside out, neuroses pulsing through her muscles and gleaming on her skin”. It was a real knock-you-on-the-floor performance that deservedly landed her an agent and kick-started her career.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Collecting glasses in a pub.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Luke Barnes’ Chapel Street at the Old Red Lion.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
The things that are unique about you, that you think are weird or unattractive, are actually your strengths. Embrace them.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
A year later, Zmitrowicz starred in God’s Property by Arinzé Kene at Soho Theatre opposite Peaky Blinders’ Kingsley Ben-Adir. “He’s just the best,” she says warmly. “We’re still mates.”
Then she appeared in James Fritz’s taut Four Minutes Twelve Seconds, which transferred to Trafalgar Studios. As we go through the list of the writers she has worked with, she shakes her head in delight. “I’ve been challenged by each of them.” It’s one of the most enjoyable things about her job: “The artists you’re working with – that what excites me, the craft.”
In 2016, she appeared in Alistair McDowall’s sci-fi play X and the following year starred in Ukrainian playwright Natalya Vorozhbit’s Bad Roads, an often brutal exploration of the plight of women in times of warfare. Vicky Featherstone directed both plays and Zmitrowicz describes working with the Royal Court’s artistic director as a “wicked experience”.
The material was harrowing but she felt very protected. At one point, her character was naked, but Featherstone found ways of conveying the exposure and violation without actually recreating it on stage. The effect was the same, she says – if anything it was all the more powerful. “We’re in the theatre after all.”
She speaks glowingly about Featherstone, whom she worked with again on Simon Longman’s bleakly hypnotic Gundog in 2018. Featherstone had a way of making her feel “empowered and valued” and not just for the duration of the production. “I carried these feelings with me beyond the work. That’s what it’s like, working with her,” Zmitrowicz says.
In 2017, she starred in Three Girls, a TV miniseries about the Rochdale grooming scandal. She played one of the teenage victims. There was, she says, a responsibility to do justice to this story: “Those girls sometimes get forgotten but we put their story in the centre.” The experience left her thinking: “This is why I wanted to be an actor.”
Three Girls also gave Zmitrowicz the opportunity to act opposite Maxine Peake and Lesley Sharp and landed her a place on BAFTA’s 2018 Breakthrough Brits list along with Jessica Barden and Paapa Essiedu.
Last year, she starred in Bijan Sheibani’s production of Dance Nation, also at the Almeida, a play about a group of teenage competitive dancers that also set out to give space to women’s stories.
When Zmitrowicz first read Clare Barron’s play, she says: “I sobbed because of the story but also just because it existed. I thought: ‘Wow, I have to be a part of this.’ It’s not often that happens. I think Clare Barron is a genius.” The ensemble cast included Karla Crome, Sarah Hadland and Kayla Meikle. “This group of women standing on this stage felt like a radical act,” she says.
Though it was an ensemble piece, Zmitrowicz stood out as Zuzu, a girl gradually realising she’s not as talented a dancer as her friend, her smile strained to breaking point, eyes etched with desperation. Audience members came up to her afterwards to say they had been affected by the show; Quentin Letts, then the Daily Mail’s theatre critic, got in a tizzy about the repeated use of a the word “pussy”.
‘Youth theatre is not just about going into the industry – it gives you skills you might not learn at school’
Because her youth theatre experiences were so formative, Zmitrowicz worries that, increasingly, not enough value is placed on the arts in education. “Youth theatre is not just about going into the industry,” she says passionately. It does more than that. “It gives you so many skills you might not be learning at school.”
While the industry can be intimidating, she believes in the power of collaboration. “I started by collaborating with Luke – that’s a good ground to build on.” Ultimately she has come to believe that there’s no one set way into the industry: “But that can be an exciting thing rather than a daunting thing. Everyone’s path is different and that’s okay.”
Training: National Youth Theatre
Landmark productions: Chapel Street, Old Red Lion, London (2011); God’s Property, Soho Theatre, London (2013); Four Minutes Twelve Seconds, Hampstead Theatre (2014) and Trafalgar Studios, London (2015); Bad Roads, Royal Court, London (2017); Gundog, Royal Court (2018); Dance Nation, Almeida Theatre, London (2018)
Agent: Sam Turnbull at Curtis Brown
Three Sisters runs at London’s Almeida Theatre from April 6 to June 1