Chichester: Niamh Cusack enjoys the thrill of live theatre

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Translator and director Jeremy Sams is proving the perfect ally for the cast as they launch into his version of Jean Anouilh’s The Rehearsal (Minerva Theatre, Chichester, May 8-June 13).

“Jeremy is such a joyful spirit,” says Niamh Cusack, who plays the Countess, “and he has done such a brilliant, brilliant adaptation. It is really witty and pithy, and the subtext is big. It is not just all froth. There is lots going on, so much going on underneath. It is such a fascinating play. It doesn’t feel like it has been translated. It feels as if it had been written in this language, and it is almost like the characters dance their way through it. It feels right, but it has a deftness and a grace that seems somehow not quite English, that seems French.

“I have never done an Anouilh before, and it is a real joy. I think my father was in The Lark (by Anouilh) hundreds of years ago, but I think Anouilh went out of fashion in the 60s.

“In the play, the Count and the Countess are haute bourgeoisie, and they are very, very wealthy people. She is probably a little bit more aristocratic even than he is. She has got a lot of connections and a lot of money, and they have been left this big country pile they wouldn’t otherwise really want to be in. The proviso is they have to spend a month there every year. They have balls there to pass the time. The other proviso is they have to bring up 12 orphans in the west wing. They have contracted a nanny to keep the children out of the way.

“The Count and the Countess have a marriage of convenience in that they both have affairs, but they remain married, and it is all very polite. But suddenly the Count falls in love with the nanny, and that stirs the cat among the pigeons...

“The Countess is quite intimidating but she is intimidating because she is very, very clever. She is a great schemer and manipulator, but I don’t think she has ever had a challenge like this before. She has managed a dance of manners and etiquette, and life goes on but her husband has suddenly fallen in love without any artifice at all. She doesn’t quite know what to do!”

For Niamh, it’s the latest chapter in a happy career in which she has clocked up credits across both stage and screen, the latter big and small.

“I have been very lucky for most of my career, and I think they all feed each other. But if I had to choose what I like best, I would have to choose the theatre. It’s partly to do with the fact that writers that write for the theatre are generally writers that are writing for the love of writing. They take their time and they write the piece they want to write. Sometimes in film and TV, it is compromised by the committee of executives that are making the decisions. That’s less the case in the theatre.

“But I also love the thing of having a live audience. The play doesn’t really exist until you are in front of an audience. It’s like a big mix of the playwright and the actors and the audience. The writer writes on his own, and the actors rehearse without the audience, and then you are in front of the audience, and it is the audience that are explaining the play to the actors. It is the audience that tell you what kind of play you are doing.”