Sophie Melville: ‘I was scared theatre would be posh and I wouldn’t understand it’

Sophie Melville in Iphigenia in Splott. Photo: Mark Douet

Sophie Melville’s laughter is coloured with disbelief. “I can’t get my head around it,” she admits. She is fresh from being nominated for an Evening Standard Award for best actress alongside performers such as Billie Piper and Noma Dumezweni, and, when we speak, Melville is still reeling slightly from her recent success.

The show that got her nominated for an Evening Standard award and earned her an Edinburgh acting gong from The Stage in 2015 was Iphigenia in Splott, the blistering Gary Owen monologue that she has spent much of the last two years performing. This scathing attack on austerity politics went from a 10-day run at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, to a celebrated stint at the National Theatre. “I really wasn’t expecting any of it,” says Melville, “so it has all just hit me sideways.”

Sophie Melville with her The Stage Edinburgh Award in 2015. Photo: Alex Brenner

Melville’s career to date, as she describes it, has been a series of surprises and serendipities. It was not until she was at sixth-form college that acting even occurred to her. “I somehow fell into doing it,” she tells me. Although she had danced since childhood, she was not exposed to much theatre while growing up. Only thanks to a push from a director at college did she begin performing in plays and then apply for drama school.

But what really clinched it, oddly enough, was a play by Owen. “I read Ghost City and I thought that there are people in these plays that are like me,” says Melville. “I think I was just scared of it being posh and it being Shakespeare and not being able to understand what was being said.” Owen instantly became one of Melville’s favourite playwrights. “When I met him in my audition [for Iphigenia in Splott] I was just beside myself,” she recalls.

“I really got the acting bug when I started auditioning for drama school,” Melville explains. “I became obsessed with it and would just go and watch anything and everything.” As a teenager in her hometown of Swansea, she saw physical theatre companies such as Frantic Assembly and DV8 – “I was completely obsessed with them” – as well as the work of Welsh companies such as Dirty Protest.

Melville’s newfound passion then took her to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, for training that she clearly loved. “Obviously I’m biased, but I do think it is one of the best drama schools,” she says. “They really do let you just be yourself and find out what you’re good at.” In her third year, Melville left early to act in the summer season at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, an experience she describes as “an extension of my training”.

“I was up there in the Lakes for seven months with 14 cast members,” she says. “It almost felt like another year in drama school.” Performing three shows in rep and switching roles from night to night was a challenge that plunged Melville right in at the deep end. “It was hard,” she admits. “It gets to a point where you’re like: ‘Oh my God, have I got to do this again?’ But I think you’ve got to keep reminding yourself that you’re getting paid to tell a story. That is the best job in the whole world.”


Q&A: Sophie Melville

What was your first non-theatre job? Working in a shoe shop.

What was your first professional theatre job? A summer season at Theatre by the Lake in 2013.

What’s your next job? I’d love to know, but I’m not sure yet.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Just to be completely honest with yourself all the time. Never try to be somebody you’re not, because you’ll get work by being you.

Who or what was your biggest influence? It was the people who were in drama school, the girls in the years above me. I always felt like it was more attainable to have idols that were closer to my reach.

What’s your best advice for auditions? To be as prepared as possible, to be as nice as possible and to not be scared. Just go in and do whatever you feel like doing.

If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? I started off as a dancer, so I think probably dancing. But if it wasn’t performance-based then maybe a yoga teacher.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Not at all, and I always find it really weird when other people do. I always make sure I have a nice big warm-up physically and vocally, and I always brush my teeth – I can’t go on stage without brushing my teeth, so maybe that’s my ritual.

Working with a cast of more experienced actors, Melville learned important tricks of the trade, from warm-up techniques to dressing-room etiquette. The main lesson, though, was stamina. A couple of years later, when Melville took on Iphigenia in Splott, this education in endurance paid dividends. Her astonishing performance of Owen’s monologue was exhausting just to watch. To perform, it must have been something of a physical and emotional ordeal.

“I had to let it completely become my life,” Melville admits. During the show’s run, she cut out alcohol, caffeine and sugar, as well as carefully planning her meals and limiting other physical activity to maintain her energy levels. It comes as little surprise that Melville trained as a dancer and now regularly runs and practises yoga. As an actor, physicality is key to her presence on stage, and when it comes to performing, she has a sportswoman’s mentality.

Sophie Melville in Blackbird at the Other Room, Cardiff, in 2016. Photo: Kirsten McTernan

“I think you do almost have to treat yourself as an athlete,” Melville says. “Especially when it comes to stuff that’s very emotional, you’ve got to look after yourself.” She’d love to bring even more of that athleticism to her work in future, mentioning a desire to perform with a physical theatre company such as Frantic Assembly and a love for stage combat that she discovered at drama school. “I’d love to play a female character that does a lot of fighting,” she says. “I’d like a sword.”

Playing strong female characters is important to Melville. After attacking the part of bolshie yet vulnerable Effie in Owen’s play, she is now appearing in the Orange Tree Theatre’s revival of Clare McIntyre’s Low Level Panic, one of the key feminist dramas of the 1980s. “It shows three women who are struggling with being objectified by men,” Melville explains. Her character Mary has just experienced a sexual assault and is questioning the way society and culture treats women.

“There’s nothing ever really resolved in the play; it’s constantly questioning women’s roles in society and how much they’re objectified,” says Melville. Though she stresses that Low Level Panic is a comedy, its more political points clearly resonate with her. Mentioning the recent women’s marches around the world following Donald Trump’s inauguration as US president, she suggests that the play is as relevant as ever.

Melville in Low Level Panic at the Orange Tree Theatre, London, in 2017. Photo: Helen Murray

“It’s really quite scary how little we’ve moved on, and also how we’re probably taking a step back now having Trump as president and making derogatory statements about women and grabbing people’s pussies – I mean, that’s outrageous, isn’t it? That’s one massive step back.”

Melville’s words tumble out: “I’m going a hundred miles an hour,” she notes apologetically partway through our conversation in an animated rush. It’s easy to believe her when she insists that she is “really passionate about stuff that’s asking questions”. Returning to Iphigenia in Splott and its attack on welfare cuts, she says: “I think it’s really important for people to see stuff like that right now with the way the world is going.”

Although Melville has enjoyed taking on less issue-driven work – she talks with real affection about playing Marilyn Monroe in Theatr Clwyd’s production of Terry Johnson’s Insignificance last year – her heart is in theatre with a political edge. “I would love to forever do work that is important,” she says.

And Melville believes in theatre’s potential to shift attitudes: “Sometimes I think I should be doing something important with my life, like working for charities and helping people in need. But I think if it’s a good piece of theatre it does help, because it gets people talking and it gets people thinking.” She hopes that this is what Low Level Panic, like Iphigenia in Splott, will ultimately achieve. “When people leave and they’re talking about what they’ve seen, that’s a good piece of theatre.”

CV: Sophie Melville

Born: 1991, Swansea
Training: Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama
Landmark productions: Romeo and Juliet, Sherman Theatre, Cardiff (2014), Iphigenia in Splott, Sherman Theatre; Edinburgh Fringe; National Theatre (2015-16), Insignificance, Theatr Clwyd, Mold (2016), Blackbird, the Other Room, Cardiff (2016), Low Level Panic, Orange Tree Theatre, London (2017)
Awards: The Stage Edinburgh Award for Iphigenia in Splott, 2015
Agent: Independent Talent Group

Low Level Panic runs at the Orange Tree Theatre, London, until March 25