I nudge the recording device a bit closer to Patsy Ferran as we chat under the bright lights of the National Theatre foyer. The Olivier award-winning actor is an electric presence on stage – a performer you cannot bear to stop watching – but she is surprisingly softly spoken in person. We are here to talk about her star turn as Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire – a role that Ferran sheepishly admits she never imagined playing.
“I saw Blanche as uber-feminine, conventionally attractive, overly sexual and light,” Ferran says. “Very light. I think I have those qualities in my own way, but they’re much more leftfield.”
The truth is that even Ferran’s long-term collaborator, director Rebecca Frecknall, did not initially envision her in the role. But after the actor Lydia Wilson suffered an injury late on in the rehearsal period, Frecknall turned to Ferran. The two had collaborated to great acclaim on Williams’s lesser-known play Summer and Smoke a few years earlier and seem to find something special and new when they work on his writing together.
In this latest stripped-back Streetcar, the emotions feel somehow keener and the relationships painfully recognisable. Ferran’s southern belle Blanche DuBois is not a character already lost to the mists of fantasy: she is a highly anxious, visibly traumatised yet surprisingly strong woman – salvageable right up until those awful closing moments when she is suddenly and irretrievably lost.
Ferran is quick to attribute their success to Frecknall’s talents rather than her own spellbinding performance: “She’s the one who unlocked Williams’s work for me. She understands his need for human connection and what it means to be anxious and messy, but that there’s also great beauty in that.”
This latest Tennessee Williams production was a very different proposition from Summer and Smoke. First there was the extraordinary hype to contend with: the pared-down and powerful production at the Almeida received rave reviews, and the subsequent West End transfer sold out in a record-breaking two hours, thanks in large part to the star power of Ferran’s Oscar-nominated co-star Paul Mescal. Then there’s the heightened pressure that comes with producing one of Williams’s best-known plays: Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh’s glitzy performances in Elia Kazan’s 1951 film still cast a long shadow. Finally there was the frankly ludicrous rehearsal timeline, which Ferran recalls with wide-eyed astonishment: “I got the call on Monday. It was official on Tuesday and I was in rehearsals on Wednesday.” It didn’t take long for the doubts to flood in. “On the Tuesday, I called my agent to try to get out of it,” she says. “The reality of what I’d said yes to was hitting me, and the anxiety and nerves just skyrocketed.”
But the public announcement had already been made and there was no choice but to “just keep going”. As someone who “loves to be in control”, Ferran normally arrives at rehearsals with the script memorised, ready to play with her interpretation and interrogate the role from every possible angle. With this production of Streetcar, she’d have just one day of preparation and one week of rehearsals before previews began.
Oddly enough, all of this resulted in a surprisingly light-hearted and low-stakes rehearsal period. “All I needed to do was to get the lines out in the right order,” she remembers. “Acting notes and character notes would come later down the line.” There was no time to question herself, or even look outside of herself, when it came to taking on the role: “I just didn’t have the chance to get in my head and try and be something that I’m not. I only had time to offer myself to the role. It’s the calmest I’ve ever been on stage, because I was given permission to make mistakes.”
In typically self-deprecating style, Ferran adds: “It’s really unexpected casting. It’s proven to me that anyone could play Blanche. You could play Blanche. Your cat could play Blanche!” It helped that Ferran found herself working with a refreshingly relaxed company – they managed to find the funny side of what could have been a horribly tense situation. On the first day of rehearsals, Ferran and Frecknall “looked at each other and just burst out laughing”. That set the tone for the most enjoyable rehearsal period of Ferran’s career: “I met the company that day and I remember thinking: ‘Even if I crash and burn, I’m really glad I said yes because I get to hang out with these guys.’”
There were a number of slip-ups (quite literally) during the preview period. A dramatic stage effect – which saw a pool of rainwater wrap around the edge of the stage – initially caused havoc. Eyes glowing with mischief, Ferran breathlessly asks me: “Did you see Streetcar on Ice? It got really bad!” In another preview, Blanche’s dress got stuck (not good for a character who is constantly slipping in and out of her clothing), and Ferran couldn’t change out of her costumes: “I remember Paul turning to me and saying: ‘Something was different. What was it?’” She lets off a peal of laughter. “I was wearing clothes, Paul! I wasn’t in my underwear!”
Ferran heaps praise on her co-star Mescal, although you sense she doesn’t envy him the fame that is about to engulf his life, with a starring role in the upcoming Gladiator sequel likely to tip him over into bona fide movie star territory. “Paul is terrifying as Stanley,” she says. “He could easily abandon you on stage and enjoy the show for himself, but he doesn’t do that. He’s generous and committed and talented and doesn’t take himself or the business too seriously.” She pauses and considers her words carefully: “Whatever well-deserved madness he’s about to embark upon, he has a very good sense of humour, which I think will save him.”
While Ferran may not have an Oscar nomination to her name just yet, she has already had ample success in a career that gathers momentum with every year that passes. This is despite some uncertainty about her chosen profession. Born in Spain and educated at an all-girls convent school in Surrey, she had planned to study languages but, having chosen drama GCSE at the very last minute, eventually wound up studying the subject at Birmingham University. Then came Rada, a stage-stealing turn in a West End run of Blithe Spirit while she was still a student, and a Critics’ Circle best newcomer award in 2015 before her career had really begun.
She has the air of someone who cannot quite believe her own success – even now, following the Olivier award in 2019 for Summer and Smoke, superlative reviews – and, last month, an Olivier nomination – for Streetcar, and a burgeoning screen profile. When I bring up her magnetic performance in the recent Bill Nighy film Living, Ferran diverts the focus to praising everyone else involved, admitting to being a “big fan” of co-stars Nighy and Aimee Lou Wood and describing Oliver Hermanus as one of the best directors she has ever worked with.
Ferran has stopped watching her screen performances and doesn’t attend her premieres. “I get depressed when I watch myself on screen,” she says. “I think I’m appalling.” There’s a light smile on her face as she admits to these feelings, but she sounds surprisingly harsh on herself when I listen back to the recording. “I love my job so much and I don’t want to give myself a reason to quit, and watching myself sometimes feels like that reason,” she adds. “Perhaps that’s why I love the theatre – you do it in the moment and then it goes away.”
Ferran describes herself as “all about the slow burn”. She says yes to everything (she’s set to appear as Mary Tudor in Firebrand, a drama about Henry VIII’s final wife, Catherine Parr), expects little and is rarely disappointed: “If it happens, great. If it doesn’t, that’s OK. There’s always hype around a big moment, and then people move on quite quickly – and that’s actually not a bad thing. I just carry on working, paying my bills, doing a food shop, hanging out with family and friends. I hope that never changes.”
She pauses and leans in as if confessing to a close friend: “I’ll enjoy the moment of attention if it comes. But I’m never going to seek it out.”
A Streetcar Named Desire is at the Phoenix theatre, London, Monday 20 Marchto 29 April.