LYdia Wilson is always flipping the script, turning stock characters into charismatic, fully formed people. The sweary best friend in the Anna Paquin satire Flack. A spaceship officer in star trek beyond. Domhnall Gleeson’s f***-up little sister in About Time. When she first graduated from Rada, she would roll her eyes at the reductive parts she would sometimes be asked to audition for. “The main thing [would] be something about how they’re physically perceived – ‘a brittle beauty’ or ‘a fragility’.” She pauses, racking her brain for a more damning example. “Actually remove offensive [ones] like, ‘a beauty that doesn’t quite stand up on closer inspection.’”
Her resistance is no surprise – Wilson is far too commanding an actor for soft parts. Whenever she’s performing, the 37-year-old commands a crowd, to the point where I’m surprised just how softly spoken she is in person. At multiple points in our conversation in the bar of the Old Vic theatre, I worry that her voice de ella wo n’t pick up on my dictaphone. Yet there’s a real strength to Wilson’s presence of her. Her hair is pulled back and she sports a black T-shirt and leather trousers. Her words from her, as quiet as they may be, carry a real bite.
She’s going to need it for her latest role: Ivanka Trump. Wilson stars in The 47tha new play from man-of-the-moment Mike Bartlett (who currently has three shows on the London stage, new play scandaltown at the Lyric Hammersmith and a revival of cock at the Ambassadors Theatre). It’s set on the eve of the 2024 election, an a showdown between presidential candidates Donald Trump (Bertie Carvel) and Kamala Harris (Tamara Tunie).
It’s not the first time Wilson has taken on a real-life role in one of Bartlett’s “future history” plays. In 2014, she played Kate Middleton in King Charles III, which imagined the events of Prince Charles finally taking the throne. Her performance by Ella as the Duchess of Cambridge was widely praised, with The Independent‘s Paul Taylor comparing her to Lady Macbeth – “all smiles and underlying steel”. You’d probably choose similar words to describe Ivanka.
But there are further similarities between the productions. Bartlett’s dialogue in both is written in Shakespearean blank verse, a lilting de-dum form that Wilson says bridges the flow between comedy and tragedy. “It’s a really enabling form to have people speaking poetry because it just takes them into that epic space,” she says. “You don’t have to dig around for where the drama is. It innately has it.”
When playing a well-known figure like Trump or Harris, it’s hard not to slip into impersonation or caricature. But Ivanka is different. She’s a bit of an enigma. We know she has power, but not the extent of it. Wilson calls her a “silhouette” or a “hieroglyphic” to decode. “I’ve always found she sort of defies categorisation,” she says. Within the play, Bartlett presents her as a mercurial outsider. “I think he’s trading on the unreadability of power in real life… [He’s weaved] her in as a slightly ambiguous presence.”
Before reading the script, Wilson didn’t have any particularly strong thoughts about Ivanka, as she theorises a lot of Brits don’t. I ask if it’s hard to research a person who is so rarely written about neutrally – if anyone talks about Ivanka, it’s probably from a place of either reverence or loathing. She nods. “100 per cent. And actually, maybe you’ve put your finger on what a challenge it’s been for me in this is. It’s interesting because, obviously her being a female, I’ve noticed that people slightly take the brakes off their misogyny as well and let that fly when they start talking about her… Once you have permission to make someone a villain, then these other things kind of get smuggled in. You realize that the misogyny is so close to the surface.”
In previews, she’s noticed that British audiences are responding to misogyny on stage in a very different way than they did with King Charles III. There’s “a vocality to the disgust and the protest in the audience when they see things happening to Ivanka… When we did King Charles in America, I felt like they were further ahead with that conversation… whereas in England, I really felt like I had to almost flirt with the audience to get them to hear Kate Middleton’s point of view.”
At multiple points during our conversation, Wilson compares The 47th to a musical theater production – glitzy and a bit “bonkers”. “I can’t believe we’ve got 21 people and it’s like having a village and it’s so f***ing nice,” she says. Being back in a show like this has taken some adjusting to. Wilson was one of the first actors to properly return to the stage when theaters were able to reopen in May 2021, appearing opposite Gemma Arterton and Fehinti Balogun in Walden at the Harold Pinter. That, in comparison, was a totally different, “singular” experience. “Honestly, I was probably worried about remembering my lines,” she says, with a laugh. “I know that Gemma was much more conscious in that moment, and she came off like, ‘Wow, that was a thing’. And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, it was a thing’.”
With the theater industry having been severely impacted by the pandemic, many artists have grappled with whether or not they should depict the trauma of the last few years on stage. I wonder if she was apprehensive, by the same line, about showing the Trump presidency on stage?
“It’s hugely alive subject matter,” she says. “The stakes are life and death, people’s livelihoods, jobs, and the future of the planet. These people…” She trails off. “I guess there’s theater as an escapist space and then this is slightly messing with that. But I also think there’s a bit of an awakening where we’re realizing that now is the time to act. So maybe in theater, now is the time to kind of get our hands dirty with the uncomfortable stuff that’s happening now.” It’s only been during this conversation that I’ve clocked that 2024 is just two years away, I say. She nods. “I hope we’re not uncorking any spirits that we can’t put back in the bottle.”
‘The 47th’ runs at the Old Vic Theater until 28 May
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.