It can be disheartening when someone you greatly admire turns out to be a bit of a let down. Thankfully, there was no chance of that happening with Julie Hesmondhalgh. She really is as lovely as you might think.
And now that the curtain on live theatre has finally been raised, the hardworking actress is back on the road with husband Ian Kershaw’s piece, The Greatest Play in the History of the World.
It’s a pretty bold title to live up to, isn’t it?
“It certainly is,” says Hesmondhalgh with a laugh. “It came about four years ago when I said to my husband ‘what’s the point of being married to a writer if you can’t write something for me?’ I wanted a one-woman, non-age specific, simply staged piece, so he went away and eventually presented me with this play. Bless his heart.”
The production has already enjoyed performances at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, London’s West End and an award-winning run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. When Northern Soul‘s Editor reviewed it in 2017, she observed that “Kershaw writes about people in the same way that Laurie Lee writes about nature. Sentences are squashed full of exquisite observation, replete with revealing detail and heart-breaking beauty.”
“It’s a tiny, yet massive play,” says Hesmondhalgh. “It’s a love story about loneliness, isolation, fear and the universe. It’s also about slippers, so it’s very funny, too. The background to it is the golden record aboard the Voyager spacecraft currently floating around the outer solar system.”
“The disc contains sounds, messages and images about the diversity of life and culture on Earth. It was created in case any intelligent extra-terrestrial life forms stumble upon it. As well as it being this tiny little love story, the play is also about how tiny we are in the universe and what we’d like on our own golden record that we leave behind.”
Writing a piece especially for your partner sounds like a potentially daunting prospect. Does Hesmondhalgh think that Kershaw was nervous when she first read the script?
“I think he was probably terrified that I wouldn’t like it,” Hesmondhalgh admits. “But it’s so beautiful and such a gift for an actress to be given. He plans and structures his work in advance but with this he just sat and wrote. The first draft was pretty much what we ended up taking on the road. I think we’re at our best when we’re working on something together and this piece is also lovely for our daughters because it’s kind of like our family claim.”
There’s little doubt that the most devastating effect of COVID-19 is the number of people we’ve lost. As restrictions continue to ease, its concerning that the bereaved and grieving seem to be less and less newsworthy, let alone acknowledged. Hesmondhalgh and Kershaw have started work on a new project to help to restore that balance.
She says: “It will be a reflection and memorial to the losses from COVID-19. We’re trying to put names and stories behind the statistics because I feel we’ve all become a bit inured to the numbers. We’ve been here before with HIV and AIDS, where it became this impersonal thing that, unless you experienced it yourself, felt a long, long way from you.
“Working towards the national day of reflection in March , we’re going to create a corner in the Royal Exchange where people can come and talk about their experiences and the people they’ve lost. We’re then going to create a live performance using some of the stories of what happened. We want it to be a gentle, beautiful, reflective thing where people can come and feel safe.”
Like many, I don’t expect to go from nought to 60 overnight just because a restriction date has passed. Hesmondhalgh agrees that the emotional after-effects of the past 18 months are going to be with us for some time.
“As we re-open, I feel that it’s already gone a bit bonkers. It’s great [that] people are celebrating being able to go out into the world again, but many are still suffering terribly from long COVID, from loss and also with the fear built up from being isolated for so long. I feel we need to be careful in this period just to keep people a little bit safe and be aware we’re all going to accommodate at different speeds.
“What’s already become clear from taking this show on the road is that the theatre is really good at looking after people and making them feel safe and that they’re going to be OK. We just need to be mindful of everyone and the way we talk about coming through it.
She continues: “The vaccination programme is fantastic, but it doesn’t extinguish the horror that came before it. People are still living and suffering with it. I have a friend who struggles terribly with long COVID. It isn’t just something that either kills people or feels like a bad cold. It has so many layers and we’re all coming at it from different angles, so we need to be gentle with ourselves and with each other.”
After such a long, enforced interval, it’s clear that Hesmondhalgh’s return to the stage was daunting and thrilling in equal measure.
“It’s been so exciting and also an honour to be touring to all these regional venues because the audiences have such ownership of their local theatres and have supported livestreams during lockdown. Being on stage is my happy place. I was really craving that shared live environment again, but the nerves never leave you. Every night just before I go on, I always worry this might be the show that is my undoing.”
Despite the success of actresses such as Sarah Lancashire, Suranne Jones and Katherine Kelly, it’s still a bold move to leave a serial drama such as Coronation Street. But Hesmondhalgh has flourished in a wide range of parts from Broadchurch and Happy Valley to Inside No.9 and Doctor Who.
“I’ve been so lucky, and I never forget that. I left the Street at the right moment and the storyliners gave me a beautiful, long goodbye that made people look at me differently as an actor. Then I just made some good choices.
“If you have the good fortune to be able to be a bit patient, you can set out your stall in terms of the work you’re interested in doing. I didn’t panic and waited for interesting things to come up. It’s been such an adventure and, after 16 years on the Street, it felt like I’d just come out of drama school again. I don’t feel jaded or old school, I just go for it and do my best with this creaking old body.”
Hesmondhalgh’s latest TV role has been the BBC drama The Pact, a real potboiler of a thriller filmed in Wales, produced when COVID-19 restrictions allowed.
“I’m thrilled to bits that it’s gone down a treat and people are loving it. We didn’t know how it was going to work so we’re all over the moon that it’s been such a hit.”
The series is one of an increasing number of gritty, female-led dramas. All too often it’s a woman who ends up in the mortuary with a toe tag. But this isn’t the case with The Pact, and the shift in gender roles is something that Hesmondhalgh is particularly happy about.
“It’s a massive deal and it’s interesting how sometimes things just hit the moment. I felt people were starting to really look at the way sexual violence was portrayed on television. When we did Broadchurch, it was always a woman being pursued through the woods, viewed through the eye of the perpetrator.
“Women are brutally killed every day and, after the horror of what happened to Sarah Everard, there’s been a big conversation about the way that the murder of women is used for entertainment.”
She adds: “We call it ‘the blue tit on the slab shot’ as the victim is inevitably a dead female sex worker. Not to be ‘woke’ about it, but it’s gratuitous violence and, if you’re a young person growing up and consuming that stuff as your entertainment, what is that telling you about the world? That this is now a normalised thing?
“The Pact has a group of really flawed women at its centre. There is a death, but a woman is not the victim. It’s also really well conceived, so many dramas go off the boil, but this doesn’t go daft. It’s full of twists and turns and totally believable. There’s even redemption at the end of it.”
The creative community’s ingenuity and tenacity when it came to producing work for audiences during the pandemic has been impressive. Hesmondhalgh has worked on various projects, including performing a monologue over the phone to an isolated theatre-lover in London and also via Zoom to a care home in Pitlochry. This personalised access to live theatre is laudable, but the actress believes it is important to ensure that it doesn’t replace the pre-COVID-19 shared experience.
“Live streaming needs to remain part of our language as many cannot access the theatre due to money, physical disability, mental health or poor transport links,” she explains. “For actors, too, it allows more Zoom audition opportunities for those who can’t afford to go to London all the time. Good things have undoubtedly come out of all this, but it should work alongside live theatre, not replace it. Think of all those brilliant companies that go into rural areas and communities doing productions and meeting the people. That’s so important.”
As well at stage and television work, Hesmondhalgh has also lent her voice to a local project, Walk This Way.
“It’s an immersive audio piece that I did for Thick Skin Theatre called Monuments by Jonnie Riordan. It’s a beautifully written play about the history of Ancoats before it was cool. You get to have me in your ear as you walk round the area.”
Julie Hesmondhalgh in our ear? We are totally on board with that.
The Greatest Play In The History Of The World is currently touring, and will be at Oldham Coliseum from June 24-26, 2021. Click here for more information. It is also at Liverpool Playhouse Jun 29-Jul 3, 2021
The Pact is available to view on BBC iPlayer.