Wolf Hall star Lydia Leonard returns to stage in the Almeida’s Little Eyolf

Lydia Leonard in Little Eyolf. Picture: Hugo Glendinning

Lydia Leonard in Little Eyolf. Picture: Hugo Glendinning - Credit: Archant

Are women becoming better depicted on stage? At the very least, the career of Lydia Leonard shows signs of progress, finds Alex Bellotti.

The ‘strong female role’ is becoming a rather tired tag, but as a means to an end, it seems to describe the welcome amount of interesting female characters increasingly evident on stage and film.

A case study for such progress could well be the burgeoning career of Lydia Leonard. Having broken through over the last two years with her long-running stint as Anne Boleyn in the stage adaptation of Wolf Hall, this year she has also played Virginia Woolf in the BBC mini-series Life In Squares and now she will take on Ibsen in the new Almeida production of Little Eyolf.

“It’s really, really exciting and a privilege to get these juicy parts,” says the west London actress, 33, reflecting on managing to evade, so far, the downtrodden girlfriend part. “I’m lucky because I don’t really fit in that box – most women don’t fit in that box.

“It certainly seems to be talked about a lot, there’s obviously a long way to go in terms of the quality of parts available and the pay gap in this industry, but it really has been at the forefront of conversation over the last year or so.”

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Leonard’s first stage role since finishing the Broadway run of Wolf Hall in the summer, Little Eyolf centres around the struggling marriage between Rita Allmers (Leonard) and her husband, Alfred (Jolyon Coy), who is increasingly preoccupied with their son, Eyolf. When tragedy strikes, though, the dominant personality of Rita comes to the fore – buckling the traditional power dynamics of a late 19th century marriage.

“She’s very strong, and very, very bright – probably the brightest in the play,” Leonard says. “But because of the time, she wouldn’t have been educated and it would be easy to be patronised by her more academic, ‘intellectual’ husband, which must have made for a very frustrating, repressed place to live if you’re that kind of woman.

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“She’s a ball of pent up, rampant sexual frustration as well, which she doesn’t hold back from voicing and demanding as her conjugal right, which is really extremely modern. It’s mind-boggling that it was written well over a hundred years ago.”

The play is, I suggest, a natural follow-up on the Almeida stage to Medea, which finished on Saturday. Ahead of her turn in Rupert Goold’s beautifully savage production, Kate Fleetwood also talked of the sacrifices women have to make in life and love once motherhood takes hold.

“Exactly,” Leonard agrees. “And these are women that are kicking and screaming against that. There’s a very clear line in [Little Eyolf], where Rita says, ‘I don’t want to be just a mother, I want to be everything to you’. It’s craving that equal, joint passion between two people when they first meet, rather than this disintegrated back burner of a relationship that she’s been placed in.”

Having left Wolf Hall in the capable hands of the BBC adaptation (“Obviously that has to be different because onstage it needs to be streamlined, but I thought it was wonderful”), Leonard’s immediate future could also feature a return to our screens. She’s hoping in the new year that the pilot of Quacks – a BBC Two comedy starring herself, Rory Kinnear, Mathew Baynton and Rupert Everett – will be turned into a full series, but in the meantime she is quite happy to do some last minute reading on Ibsen.

“I came to it relatively fresh,” she says of Little Eyolf. “I bought an enormous biography of Ibsen which I can’t say I’ve finished.

“It makes me want to know more about his mother and the women in his life. He got into a lot of obsessive relationships with younger women I think, but whenever you read timelines or biographies of his life, it’s talking about his father. It makes you think, ‘He came from a woman as well!’ He writes such strong, interesting women that you can’t help but wonder where that stemmed from.”

Little Eyolf runs until January 9 at the Almeida Theatre. Visit almeida.co.uk

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