An interview with Rebecca Hall, who plays Sylvia Tietjens in Sir Tom Stoppard's adaptation of Parade's End for BBC Two.
Rebecca Hall wanted the part of Sylvia in Sir Tom Stoppard's adaptation of Parade's End as soon as she read the script.
"It didn’t read like the kind of screenplays that I come across. It just felt to me that not only was it a great piece of literature on the page, but it was clearly going to make an exceptional and unique piece of drama. I just said immediately, 'sign me up. When do we start?'
She continues: "One of the things that really appealed to me about the script was the fact that it’s unlike any period drama I have come across. I think it's really brave, really bold and truly innovative.
"I hadn’t read the novels before I started work and I would never have sat down and read them I mean, they’re enormous, but I was forced to, I suppose. And I’m really glad that I did, because they are extraordinary; a vastly underrated work which should have a lot more attention than it does. In my opinion, it sits in a very distinct place and was probably way ahead of its time when it came out, because it expresses views about war which are much more contemporary in the way that we all think of the First World War as being a futile debacle. I think this is one of the first pieces of fiction to really express that.
"When we think of novels or TV dramas set around this period, we often think about staid living room dramas that are about surface. All very British, stiff upper lip and not saying what you feel. And what Ford Madox Ford does with the novel is something which sort of explodes that form into something that’s much more heightened and impressionistic. And Tom Stoppard, arguably our greatest living English writer, is the perfect companion to that, because he doesn’t write cosy, realistic dramas. He does something that teeters on the edge of exploring, something much more dynamic.
Rebecca continues: "Director Susanna White, was somebody that I had limited experience of. I hadn’t met her but I’d seen her Jane Eyre, which I thought was brilliant and I saw Generation Kill, which I also thought was brilliant. And I decided anyone that can pull off those diametrically opposed pieces in TV is probably going to be just right for this material, because it's so contrasting and unexpected. The whole experience of working with her was really great. She knows her stuff.
"I've worked with Tom before and he is brilliant. I loved it when he was on set, I felt like we’d lost a parent when he wasn’t there, which wasn't often. I think he had a great affection for the project and felt very close to the material. And to have him on set was invaluable, because I think it can be easy to misconstrue and misinterpret things because the writing is not obvious. He was there to point out when you were kind of going off piste, as it were, and to say, 'Stay on this track'. And it will work for an audience, when they watch it, because of that. Because the actor’s able to interpret it properly. Tom and Susannah worked incredibly well together. They were like some sort of indestructible team of brilliance."
Talking about her beloved character in Parade's End Rebecca says: "Sylvia is one of the most complex characters I’ve ever come across in drama. She’s a mass of contradictions. She’s one of these people who is simultaneously amoral and yet a devoted Catholic. She’s a big flirt and yet she’s chaste. She’s manipulative and wily and angry and yet also victimised and a product of her situation. So she’s everything and its opposite all at the same time, which makes her completely dazzling and mesmerizing, frankly. And for an actor the biggest challenge is trying to realise all those elements of a human being.
"The thing I felt about Sylvia immediately is that she’s one of these women who is incredibly, instinctively intelligent. She’s emotionally intelligent. She’s bright. She’s whip smart, quick witted but she’s utterly uneducated, and she’s bored. So, in a sense, all of that brain power goes into manipulating people. And she doesn’t have the capacity to analyse herself or think analytically so she can’t understand why she does it or even, really, notice that she is doing it. And beyond that it’s her method of survival and also her method of entertainment.
"There are brilliant passages in the book, which are triggers for me, that talk about her physically describing her as statuesque and slow-moving, she’s one of those people that doesn’t rush anywhere, wouldn’t do anything because someone told her to do it. She’s sort of glorious, because of those things. I found her to be a very, very moving character as well.
"She makes terrible, terrible choices and behaves abominably, but there wasn’t a single choice that she makes in the story that I couldn’t explain. And that’s testament to Tom Stoppard and to Ford Madox Ford; the pair of them together. When you read the book you get the sense that Ford is exasperated with this character that he’s created but he cannot stop talking about her. And this woman that he’s created fascinates him. And in the same way Benedict's character, Tietjens, is so wound up and fascinated by Sylvia, even though he ostensibly is not in love with her."
And what was it like acting alongside Benedict Cumberbatch?
"We're old mates. So it was easy for us to communicate and be easy with each other on set. There was none of that working out who you are and if you’re going to be a decent human being; I already knew that. It was easy to generate the sense that these two people are in a long term relationship - over the course of the series a 10 year relationship - because we’ve known each other for 10 years. But also, I was just so pleased to get the chance to actually do some meaty work with him, because I admire him. I think he’s brilliant. And, he’s a great, great sparring partner."
Summing up the drama, Rebecca concludes; "What’s particularly interesting about Parade’s End is that it is a First World War drama but it's not about the front as much as it's about the home front. It's about how war affects home life and the domestic front. It shows the ramifications of war on society, culture and particularly love relationships. But essentially you see the end of a society parallel the end of a really dysfunctional marriage; a sort of three-way love triangle.
"And in a sense it's much bigger than all of these things, because it's about how history changes, how society changes and how relationships change. And the man who can think that his whole reason for being is about chivalry and doing the right thing, staying with a woman no matter how many times she runs away with another man, even if he’s not in love with her, but that is the right thing to do. It takes a war to change his mindset, where he realises that actually there’s a new world that’s modern and forward-thinking. And all of the characters are exploded metaphorically by the war and their home lives are changed for the better or for the worse."