Unfaithful's ​Niamh Cusack & Matthew Lewis: “I really like smelling the audience!”
Image Credit: Marc Brenner

Matthew Lewis (Harry Potter film series, The Syndicate) and Niamh Cusack (Heartbeat, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time) will appear in Unfaithful by Owen McCafferty and directed by Adam Penfold, alongside Sean Campion and Ruta Gedmintas, from the end of August at Found111. Broadway Baby’s George Meixner met them to learn more about the project.

If the audience laughs at something, fine, but I’m not interested in that

I was keen to find out how the play would suit its surroundings, how (very) early rehearsals were going and how the actors were anticipating that close-knit audience. There isn’t much information out there explaining the production, which is obviously how they like it, and both were careful not to give too much away. We only get a thumbnail sketch of how the cast intersect and a heavier emphasis on what and how the issues are at the true heart of the drama.

What stage of rehearsals are you at?

Niamh: This is our first week. It’s a short rehearsal period, but it’s a short play. So we’ve got three weeks of rehearsal and we’ve really bombed through it this week. I think we’ve done really intense work – it’s an intense play, an intense and funny play, and I think this week has been about just starting to prise it apart and see why people say what they say and what they really want. We’re getting it up on its feet already which you don’t always do at this early stage but I think with this play it’s really useful. I think we all really love the play so there’s an appetite for it.

Can you explain your character and their relationship to the rest of the cast?

Niamh: My character is called Joan, she’s a middle-aged Dublin-woman, [a] working class woman. She was a dinner lady and she’s now supervisor of school dinners. She’s married to a plumber called Tom [Sean Campion]. They live over here and where we meet them [the location isn’t specified by the script] is somewhere maybe a bit like Slough – outside of London, but an urban place.

They have a daughter Julie (who we don’t see) who has gone to university, but that will be the first generation of going to university so it’s new to them. But really, I think it’s about [the fact] their marriage is in some kind of crisis, [an] existential crisis. Who are they now? How do they connect? In a way I think what’s in the play is that people find it difficult to connect, even with their most intimate people at times in their lives, and maybe it’s to do with the society that we live in.

So, Tom has been approached by a young woman, and Tara [Ruta Gedmintas] is in a relationship with Peter [Matthew Lewis] and Peter is working as a male escort. There’s Peter and Tara who are a couple, then there’s Joan and Tom who are a couple: a young couple, a middle-aged couple. Although what they seem to be wrestling with seems to be different things, I think what they are really wrestling with is who they are and how to connect with another person in a truly intimate way.

I never meet Tara, but Tara is the person who has approached my husband and suggested sex with him - and we don’t know if he has sex with her or not. He comes home and I think he has had sex with her so then I appear to go back to the same hotel, and as it happens I meet up with her boyfriend [Peter] and have an exchange with him. So everybody is connected.

In a way, that’s the part of the play that’s not trying to be completely naturalistic. A lot of the play is – it’s about real, real people. But these situations and the heightened moment in time for all four of them – that’s theatrical.

Matthew: Peter is one half of the younger couple, and he is... it’s difficult to know what to say because a lot in this play is ambiguous and we like to keep it that way for as long as possible! He’s a male escort and [the play for him is] how this job impacts on the rest of his life. He wants a sense of freedom and he believes by being an escort he doesn’t have to sit at a desk or work at a till, it gives him a freedom no other job does. He’s his own boss, he can go out whenever he wants, he can pick and choose his own clients as he wishes, he can go as far or not as he wants to. He feels like, whether it’s an illusion or not, that gives him control. But I guess the question is at what price to both his relationship [with Tara] and him as an individual.

Niamh told me that Ruta propositions Sean’s character. Do you meet Niamh and Sean’s characters?

Matthew: Basically, what happens is Tara, who is my partner, for whatever reasons, initiates a conversation with Tom and whatever happens between those two happens and so Joan’s way of dealing with this is... she ends up hiring Peter, my character. That’s how our relationship comes about. Through that, you explore her side of the coin – how the relationship between her husband and my girlfriend has affected her, and it’s also her taking a look at who she is. Also, you start to see, what do I put into this job? Is she just another woman? Does the conversation become more than that? Do the lines get blurred between what is a client and something more? And I guess, what does infidelity and unfaithfulness actually mean when it comes to sex? Is it possible that sex and companionship and talking can be detached from all that, with no emotion and therefore it’s not being unfaithful, or does it always have some degree of... can it just be business or does there always have to be some degree of intimacy to it? And that’s what gets explored between both couples and how they interact.

Have you been considering the use of the space at Found111?

Niamh: Yes, I think Adam [Penford, the director] has thought about that a lot and Richard [Kent] his designer has. It’s going to be traverses, it’s going to be audience either side and the stage is a little bit elevated. I’d never been into this space before but I think the thing that is great about this space is... it’s got a great atmosphere especially when we rehearsed [yesterday] at night and it really does have a great feel to it. There’s something slightly grungy about it that will suit this play as there’s something very dark about it and there’s something quite subconscious about it.

What did you know about the other plays previous to this?

Niamh: All I know is that they’ve been successful and they’ve captured something with this space and the kind of plays that they choose. I think Emily [Dobbs, the Head of the production company] has caught something in terms of the zeitgeist. I think she knows that there’s a place, there’s an opening, a desire for this kind of theatre on the Charing Cross Road. It’s not West End-y, but it is very close to the West End.

Had you any experience of Found111 through fellow cast-members from Happy Valley (James Norton in Bug) or Ripper Street (David Dawson in The Dazzle) appearing here before?

Matthew: No, no, so I had no scenes with James Norton so we never met! So in terms of crossover, it’s definitely there but we were like ships in the night.

No, I’d never been here. I knew of the theatre, but I’d never been here until we came to do our photo-shoot about two weeks ago. I didn’t expect it to be quite what it is! I guess because it’s so intimate and it’s a derelict building, it was a bit like “Holy shit this is weird…” but I can totally appreciate that once it gets full there must be just an electric atmosphere, it must tingle, so I’m quite looking forward to that. Again, it’s something I’ll have to get used to, the intimacy of it, but it feels so right with this play; it is dirty, it is grimy and it’s all rough edges. Even ideas throughout… it’s very real and people are trying to scratch at the surface of things and even when they’re talking they’re not quite sure what it is they’re saying and it can go off on tangents. There’s something about this space that I think is really going to play into that.

In terms of the audience size, have you done anything recently quite so intimate?

Niamh: I have. I did a play by Paul Andrew Williams, his first play, but he’s a filmmaker, he made a film called London to Brighton and also Song for Marion. That was at The Trafalgar Studios which I think is even smaller than this.

It must be very different from a conventional stage...

Niamh: It is. I actually really like it. I really like smelling the audience and the audience smelling me! I think for this play, because it is about intimacy, there is a sense of it not being displayed or presented. I think you should feel like your eavesdropping on something very intimate and I think you will feel that.

How has it been working with younger cast, especially in a potentially intimidating setting like this?

Niamh: I think these two young actors are really really good, really really focused and really really confident. So I don’t think it’s going to be intimidating for them. I think one of the big advantages of working in our business is that you can’t just atrophy – you’re not just with people your own age or cultural background – you’re constantly being challenged by the kind of people you’re meeting. But along with that challenge is a general sense or willingness to be open and collaborate. It’s a kind of gift to work with people that could be my children, partly because they know things I don’t. It’s a feeding [relationship] for both sets [of age groups]. All of us are benefitting from the others.

There’s a real gift to working with people that are different to you. It’s a real pleasure and particularly if they’re positive about the differences and there is a mutual exchange going on, which there really really is.

How are you thinking about how you are going to interact with the audience in such a small space? Niamh said that you and Ruta seemed very confident and that it won’t be a problem. But the first time I came here, because obviously you can sit this far away [I gesture at the space between us across the table] you feel like if you blink you are going to ruin the scene!

Matthew: Yeah, yeah I know what you mean. I’m very acutely aware of that. If Niamh has taken that as some kind of confidence from me then that’s amazing because I’m not sure how much I feel it now after one week. I guess at the minute I’m trying not to think about it too much [he says conspiratorially, half under his breath]. I’ve only just got in the space for the first time this morning, Ruta and I, I’d seen it before, but we only got it up on its feet this morning, so that’s already made me feel a little bit more comfortable with it.

It’s one of those plays where because it’s so real and the characters are so layered, (it’s something Adam, our director has been talking about) on the surface it seems very simple. Oh, this is the story, this is what he is trying to say and this is where the characters are going. And actually when you’ve unpacked it, there are a whole lot of things that are going on with everyone. There are a whole lot of beats and notes and it’s a bit like fuuuck. But I think once we get there it’s going to be so intense in terms of what’s going on, and because there’s only four of us, and only ever two people onstage at any one time, it’s like a series of two-handers. I think I’m just going to be completely engrossed with it to be honest that I think everyone else will sort of melt away.

It’s also one of those things where there’s humour in it and it is darkly comic, but the humour comes from the reality of it. If the audience laughs at something, fine, but I’m not interested in that, it’s more just playing the truth of it and seeing what people do and don’t relate to.

In terms of that I will be interested absolutely in how people receive it and as with any play I’m sure there will be things that are funny that I haven’t picked up on and vice versa. I’m going to try not to be too influenced by it, which may be difficult!

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