Julie Hesmondhalgh Talks Returning to the Stage in “The Greatest Play in the History of the World”

Currently back on our screens in the BBC drama “The Pact”, Julie Hesmondhalgh is also returning to the stage this month in Ian Kershaw’s “The Greatest Play in the History of the World”. Here, she talks about her love of theatre, her screen roles and returning this ‘universal love story that celebrates the human race in all its glorious messiness, confusion and joy’ to live audiences…

How does it feel to be performing The Greatest Play in the History of the World to audiences again? It’s wonderful. I loved the play before but it feels so unbelievably relevant now with its themes of loss, isolation, and connection. I think (hope) it’ll take on a new depth of meaning as we come out of lockdown, even though the play isn’t about the pandemic and pre-dates it by years.


What has happened to you over the last year as an actor? What projects have you been involved in?
I’ve done quite a lot of radio, including a series and a documentary about significant birthdays, as well as a couple of episodes of Pick of the Week. I’ve done lots of podcasts, panel discussions and Q and As with young and emerging artists. And drama students. And a short film and a big six part series for BBC1, The Pact. I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to have managed to carry on working throughout. I feel very, very lucky.


Why was it important for you to take the show on tour now?
It just feels like the perfect show to bring socially distanced audiences back into regional theatres. It’s a tiny delicate thing but with huge themes.


You work quite considerably in TV and also film. What do you love about theatre, why is it important to you specifically and how does it differ from TV?
I love the immediacy of theatre, the sheer comfort-zone-busting, seat-of-pants LIVENESS of it. The connection with the audience.


You’ve starred in Russell T Davies’s “Cucumber”, in “Broadchurch” and in “Coronation Street”, some of which have been roles which present a challenge. What attracts you to a role?
I love things, as a performer, and a viewer/audience member, that make me think and feel. Things that have something to say about our world, stuff that starts conversations. I’ve been dead lucky in my career to have played a lot of parts that fall into that category. They don’t have to have massive issues attached (although a lot of the roles I’ve played have…) but I like interesting, flawed characters. Who doesn’t?


The Greatest Play in the History of the World was written for you by your husband Ian. Will you partner up again in the future?
We’re chatting with the Royal Exchange in Manchester at the moment, about a project that’s a bit open ended and organic, so we’ll be working on that next I think. We keep trying to get telly things away but to no avail as yet!


The show has been adapted for this tour in light of the pandemic. Can you explain a little bit more about that?
There was a lot of interacting physically with the audience in the original piece, lots of messing around with people’s shoes, which was a lovely part of the show, but alas, not possible in the age of social distance! We’re also going to much bigger spaces so that the audience can have safe space in the auditorium, so that will change the tone of it I reckon. But it’s exciting. It’s good to have to visit it afresh, and people who haven’t experienced it before won’t miss what they never saw. I think (hope) it will be fresh and bolder for the reboot!


What’s next for you following the tour?
The Royal Exchange project with Ian. And I’m looking forward to making stuff with Take Back, the little theatre company I co-run in Manchester. We have had a long time to think about and plan some exciting projects and we can’t wait to get in a rehearsal room and start making stuff again.

What are your experiences of some of the places that the production is visiting?
I’m so looking forward to York, such a beautiful city, full of history. I know it least of all the great northern cities, so I’m going to take full advantage of my week there and really explore it. I was in Hull for the Contains Strong Language Festival in 2017 as part of the City of Culture celebrations, reading passages about Hull and by Hull writers for a special live event for Radio 4 with Jeremy Irons. I absolutely loved being in the city that weekend and can’t wait to come back. Hull Truck is this mythical place in my mind after seeing so much stuff there over the years. Scarborough is one of my favourite places in the UK. I have an old photo of my Mum and Dad on the cliffs above the North Bay and one of me, newly pregnant, having a cup of tea on the seafront in 2001. I’ve never been to the SJT though, and cannot wait.


So there you have it! “The Greatest Play in the History of the World” played the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, from 18-22 May. Next up is York Theatre Royal, 1-5 June; and Hull Truck Theatre, 7-12 June.

Q&A via Steve Pratt.

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