Vinette Robinson: ‘Playing Ophelia had an impact on me I can’t fully explain’
Vinette Robinson, one of the stars of Albion, which opened at the Almeida last week, tells Nick Clark about working with Rupert Goold, the poem that changed her life and why writers have a hard time in the age of Brexit
Albion is a new collaboration between writer Mike Bartlett and director Rupert Goold. What is it about?
It’s about a woman, Audrey, who has taken on a country garden she remembers from her past. It’s about her drive to restore it and also about how her family fits into it all. The play is about nationhood, belonging and the concept of home. Also, with the garden it’s about taking chaos and containing it.
What about your character?
Anna is the former partner of Audrey’s son James, and the two women have a fractious relationship. There is care there, but there is also definitely a battleground about who knows and loves James the most.
With a title like Albion, is this a state-of-the-nation play?
Some might see those themes, but essentially it’s a family drama. It’s very Chekhovian. But it is about a moment in time and facing the prospect of change.
Does it deal with Brexit or reference it?
We are wary about saying this is a play about that. It isn’t, but there are elements there. It isn’t a political think-piece, it’s about heart. I feel for anyone writing a new play with any of those themes. People will pounce on it and say: “Brexit, Brexit, Brexit.”
Does Albion reflect what’s going on in the UK right now?
I worked with Philip Ridley once [in 2011 on Tender Napalm at the Southwark Playhouse]. He said the playwright’s job is to tap into that “dreamscape” of society and all those themes that are bubbling under. We are always looking for meaning in the chaos of living and that’s what storytelling is. The world is essentially just chaos so we tell ourselves stories to feel anchored and make sense of it all.
You worked with Rupert Goold early in your career on Speaking Like Magpies, part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Gunpowder season, in 2005. How has it been working with him again?
I was struck by how clear he is. I’ve been doing TV for a long time, which I love, but it was really good to get back to the rigour of a rehearsal room with someone as sharp as Rupert. He’s clear on the objectives, the framework. How you interpret from there is left up to you.
How do you prepare for a role?
It depends. Sometimes you can get lost in research. I did a lot for Ophelia [in the 2011 Hamlet at the Young Vic with Michael Sheen]. I read a lot of Emily Dickinson, and because of the nature of the production we looked at Jung and RD Laing. With this one, not so much.
Was that Hamlet an important moment in your stage career?
It was. That job meant a lot to me. It was very special working with those people and that process. Ophelia is a particular archetype and where it struck me in my life… it had an impact that I can’t fully explain. I know it wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea but I believed we were really doing the work for the right reasons. And exploring the right questions.
That was your most recent theatre performance. Why has it taken so long to return to the stage?
Rupert asked that during my audition. It’s just the way it worked out. I had auditioned for other things, but this is the one that hit. It has been too long, I didn’t intend it.
How have you found your return?
I did most of my work in theatre when I started so I feel most at home there. I love being on set too [Robinson has appeared in TV shows including The A Word, Black Mirror, Waterloo Road and Sherlock] but it’s that rigour that I missed. Being in a room with someone as good as Rupert… I’d missed that. You create a world in rehearsals in a much more cohesive way than you do in TV.
You once said you like playing characters with emotional cracks. Is that still true?
It’s interesting dealing with someone at crisis point. I tend to get characters who are very vulnerable and grief stricken… I’ve started to think I’d quite like to play a footballer’s wife. Mix it up a bit.
You were praised for your performance in Tender Napalm. What was that like?
There was just me and Jack [Gordon]. There were just two chairs and us and a lot of words by Philip Ridley. He trained as a visual artist and you can tell, the way he paints with words. The challenge was thrilling.
Are there ideal roles?
I’ve always wanted to play Isabella in Measure for Measure. She fascinates me, she has a dogmatic and uncompromising idealism.
That would be a return to one of your first professional productions – in a Complicite production of Measure for Measure at the National Theatre.
To watch Simon McBurney and those actors work was great, it was like an extension of training. We had also done Measure for Measure at drama school, and that was where I had met Rupert. Directors used to come in and rehearse us and he was the first. I played Juliette. I was incredibly shy, and he must have thought I wasn’t interested. It was the opposite. I came from a working-class background where no one does this. Suddenly I was in London with all these articulate, accomplished students. I was always the last one up to do exercises.
Do you have any theatrical or performance links in your family?
My grandad was a working men’s club singer, so my aunts and uncles grew up singing in the clubs. My mum can’t sing and I inherited that.
Is it true that doing a poetry reading made you want to be an actor?
That’s true. I was at middle school in Bradford, at the age of 13, and in our English class we were doing poetry. My teacher put me and my friend up for the Ilkley Speech and Drama Festival. We did that and won a prize. Acting had never entered my head before. It wasn’t in my world.
Do you remember the poem?
[Reciting] Colonel Fazackerley Butterworth-Toast… I can’t remember anything more, it’s about a mad old colonel and a ghost.
You trained at Webber Douglas. How important was the support from funders?
There was no way I could have done it without those bursaries. I was lucky to get two and worked all the way through as well.
Is the landscape for working-class kids trying to come through better or worse?
It’s well documented that it’s harder now. Many of those bursaries don’t exist any more. I don’t know what help is out there.
Do you fear for kids from your background trying to get into drama?
I do, I think it’s important to have voices from all backgrounds. It enriches everything. There’s a lot of unconscious bias. If you don’t try to address that, the conversation narrows. It’s going the wrong way, which is systematic of a wider problem. We’ve been having this conversation about working-class actors for a long time, but how do you turn that into action?
CV: Vinette Robinson
Training: Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art
Landmark productions: Measure for Measure, National Theatre (2004), Tender Napalm, Southwark Playhouse (2011), Hamlet, Young Vic (2011)
Agent: Curtis Brown
Albion is running at the Almeida Theatre until November 24