The Lady in The River

by Natasha Wolff | January 12, 2015 5:43 pm

When The River came across the pond, most of the London production of playwright Jez Butterworth’s latest work—including leading man Dominic West—was left behind. That wasn’t the case for Laura Donnelly. The Irish-born actress has the distinction of being the only player to appear in the show in London and on Broadway, and audiences in both places are better for it.

Here, Donnelly, who has also appeared on The Fall and stars in the hit series Outlander, discusses taking her role on the road, working alongside Hugh Jackman and the special treatment that comes with being a Broadway star. 

You appeared in both the London and New York productions of The River, but it wasn’t an easy journey.

It was something that always seemed to be ahead of me and not graspable, so I stressed for a couple of years bringing it over here. It began whenever I auditioned for the play in London, and I immediately got along really well with Anne, our director, and I loved every minute of doing the show over there. It was fantastic and when we finished that—we just did a three-week run at the Royal Court and I guess the plan—the plan was always to bring it somewhere else. There was always chat of that, but I certainly wasn’t turning down jobs to hold off for something that wasn’t happening yet. Then Hugh came and said he wanted to do it and it just made sense to bring it to Broadway, and then, because Hugh had casting approval, I knew I was going to have to re-audition for my part, and audition for him, and read with him, which of course was really nerve-racking.

Did you change what you’d previously done for him?

What I did was revisit it before I went in. I very briefly flipped through the text before and that was it.  I just thought I’ve had all the work that I’ve done behind me—it’s in there somewhere—and if I just go in myself and just let things come in fresh, then it will hopefully feel that way for me. I think that did the trick.

 How has performing it on Broadway been different than the first incarnation?

Well, for a start, we have a much bigger audience. We only played to about 85 people a night at the Royal Court, so I thought that that might have an effect on the intimacy of the play because it is a very small, intimate piece; a lot of people have described it as a piece of chamber music. I was curious how that might translate to a bigger audience, but what that has done is make it all the more intimate because of the configuration of the space. 

Your run on Broadway ends the first week of February. Is it off to another city with the show then?

You know, I’d absolutely love to bring it back home again, do it back in the U.K., because so many people didn’t get to see it there. That would be something I’d be keen to do, but I also have episodes of Outlander. That comes back in April and will be running through the spring.

That’s a nice balance—something theatrical and dramatic and something with a sci-fi twist.

Outlander is so vastly different from what I’m doing right now, and that’s the kind of career I’ve always wanted. It’s the career I’ve always worked toward. I really want variation more than anything, and I’ve always liked changing between film, TV and theater. I’ve been quite lucky and have managed to do some really, really different projects, so the way it’s gone for me is perfect.

With only a few weeks left for The River, are you getting the full Broadway experience?

Definitely! And I love it. It feels like it really is the best version of what I could have because through Hugh we’re getting to meet a lot of interesting people who are coming to see the show and being invited to different events.  The interest in the show has just been phenomenal, and there are things like going across to The Palm after for one of their famous martinis or going to Bar Centrale. I’m there a lot after work.

Those are tough places to get into. Is it easier when you’re in a show?

It is, yes.  They’re very lovely to you. They’ll give you their number and then you can phone them to book a table. I think if you go at the start of the week it’s a lot better. From Wednesday on, it gets rather busy. 

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