School of sensuality
WE’VE BEEN SEEING A LOT OF YOU lately, I say to Lorna McDevitt, as politely as I can. "It’s become a joke round here," she laughs. "‘Oh, are you wearing any clothes in this play?’"
This could have been awkward. Thankfully, without me having to bring it up, the actor knows I’m not just referring to her frequent - and very fine - appearances in recent seasons at Glasgow’s Citizens’ Theatre, where she’s done all points in between Oscar Wilde and Sarah Kane. I mean also that since the autumn she has been cast to play characters with a libido as big as their distaste for clothes. We really have seen a lot of her.
In Yukio Mishima’s The Lady Aoi she played a lusty ghost, wearing an extravagant black cape and provocatively revealing underwear. In DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little she was the trailer-trash neighbour, Taylor Figueroa, wearing nothing more than a tiara, a cartoon wig and a skimpy bikini. And in Terry Johnson’s Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick she played sexy 1960s starlet Imogen Hassall cavorting with Sid James while wrapped only in a towel.
Her performances in last year’s A Bit of Ruff season in the Citizens’ studios, where the actors are just feet away from the audience, sent temperatures rocketing. So how do you act sexy, I ask her. Is it just a question of showing up in a bikini? "You know very well it isn’t," she says. "It’s the same as acting anything. You have to feel sexy and be sexy. You have to get to a point where you feel confident. It did take work to walk into the studio wearing a bikini. I had to go home and tell myself it was fine. I was running a lot and exercising and that made me feel confident. But it was incredibly liberating. Every time you do a play, it liberates a different aspect."
Sexiness, she argues, needn’t be equated with nudity. Charismatic actors are sexy whether they’re dressed or undressed. "I think acting is just the most sexy thing. You’re completely wired, you’re buzzed up, you’re speaking beautiful words. But the problem with nakedness is that if somebody takes their clothes off everybody in the theatre stops listening to what they’re saying and looks at their body. People are interested in naked bodies because it’s not the norm. If I thought it was necessary I probably would go naked because I love the theatre and believe in it. But I can’t think of a play where I would not have a really good argument for keeping my clothes on."
The run of frisky young women - albeit more demurely dressed - continues this month as she plays the adulterous Lady Brenda in an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant novel A Handful of Dust. Published in 1934 and performed here in an actor-centred version by Mike Alfreds, the book is a comic and painful study of a failed marriage in inter-war high society. When Brenda Last takes a lover in glamorous Belgravia she has a whale of a time, but for her stick-in-the-mud husband there are tragic results. "Waugh never says how awful these people are but he lets you realise," she says. "Brenda does what she wants to do and doesn’t think about the consequences, which is what they all do because they’ve been brought up to believe the world is their oyster."
For a 33-year-old Londoner, McDevitt has a most unusual CV: here she’s been called "one of the best actors on the Scottish stage today", yet in England she is a complete unknown. All her acting work has been north of the Border.
She first starred at the Citz in 1996 when she played Lucy Harker in Dracula, and they kept on inviting her back. She was a compelling student in David Mamet’s incendiary Oleanna and turned in excellent performances in work by Clive Barker, Mae West, Edward Albee and Henry James. She toured Scotland last year in Rapture’s production of David Auburn’s Proof and, after A Handful of Dust, she takes the formidable leading role in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in another Scottish tour produced by Theatre Babel.
It’s the same story on TV. Before Christmas, she filmed her first-ever small-screen role. "Guess what it was," she challenges. I suggest River City and score a near-miss. It turns out to be Taggart. "Culturally the scene here is fabulous and it’s great to get work in Scotland," says McDevitt, her long dark hair and brown eyes giving away her Hibernian roots. "Because my parents are Irish, I’ve never felt English and that has something to do with my affinity for Glasgow."
When McDevitt is not acting in Scotland, she’s performing to another kind of audience. She did a course a few years ago and, whenever she’s between jobs, she signs on as a supply teacher. English is her main thing - she did a degree in English and drama at the University of East Anglia before honing her physical skills at L’cole Jacques Lecoq in Paris - but she’ll bluff her way through geography and history when called upon, keeping a chapter ahead of the students at any one time. These classroom performances would surely be worth going back to school for.
"I do use my performing skills," she says. "I can walk in and go, ‘Look at me.’ I have a teacher’s costume: I wear awful clothes, a black polo neck and black trousers. I have to. I can’t be flamboyant, although it sometimes sneaks out. I can use my voice to command the room and I can shut them up by reading. It’s so sweet. They say, ‘Miss, you’re a really good reader." I worked in a primary school a couple of times and they had a book called Cinderella Rap. I did all the voices and they were in a frenzy: ‘It’s the best story we’ve ever heard!’"
It’s a typical McDevitt review and an assessment that means London five-year-olds have more in common than you’d expect with Glasgow theatregoers.
A Handful of Dust is at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, 11 March until 2 April. Theatre Babel’s Hedda Gabler is on tour 16 April until 28 May.
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