Interview with Rosalind Blessed: “Please don’t be me, don’t waste time, don’t wait until you’re in your mid-thirties or forties before you start to go, “Oh sod it, I’m just going to do stuff!”

Sat in a gorgeous conservatory in Jerwood Space in Central London, writer and actor, Rosalind Blessed, speaks to Sukhmani Sethi about her self-penned plays The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People and Lullabies For The Lost. She also shares her personal experiences of, and thoughts on toxic relationships, mental health and body confidence.

So, when was the last time you were on stage?

This year I did the Guildford Shakespeare summer season – so I did Twelfth Night and Merry Wives of Windsor there and went in and did a Agatha Christie at Sonning. But Delights of Dogs [and the Problems of People] hasn’t been on stage since 2017 – so it’s been two years since we looked at that beastie! I guess it’s like childbirth, you sort of forget how quite epic a thing it is! So yeah, it was wild to be rehearsing that again; after the two years it just changes so much. It’s funny, you just get that much more of a remove – a little bit older, a few more things under your belt – and suddenly it’s all fresh again.

What brings you back with Delights of Dogs?

The thing with the DelightS of Dogs is – whilst it’s had several incarnations, I think this is now exactly how I wanted it to be. We’ve got the best director, wonderful acting partner, wonderful sound design on it. The director, the fabulous Caroline Devlin, who I’ve worked with for Guildford Shakespeare several times, she’s of my age, she’s been through marriage before – we just have a lot of shared experiences, she’s really just a wonderful person to do that with. And Duncan Wilkins, who plays Jones, is extraordinary. So we just feel we’ve got the best team in it now. It really is a delight – but let’s not do that pun!

“I had this one woman come up to me and burst into tears saying, ‘you opened a door that I had shut for 25 years’.”

It is a joy to work on, which is important when you’re dealing with such heavy  subject matter which brings me back to why I keep going back to it. It’s obvious to me that whilst it goes in and out of the public eye, domestic abuse in all its forms is as relevant now as it ever is – we haven’t really made any progress on that –  and it’s something that’s still needs to be talked about, you know, people need to be made aware of the dangers, and what the danger points are, and how easy it is to get yourself into the dangerous and toxic relationship. And, just having had runs of the show before, what is amazing to me is how many people come up to after the show and tell me their stories. I had this one woman come up to me and burst into tears saying, you opened a door that I had shut for 25 years.

I think it is far more widespread than we realise – with both of the plays, I want to get people talking about it. People don’t – there’s a lot of shame surrounding it, and people just don’t want to talk about it. There is no need for the shame. There is no need for it. So, I hope that by being honest myself, as far as possible – but with humour! Absolutely with humour; I think that the audience can sniff when you’re being disingenuous. If you’re honest with your dirty pants, then they’re willing to wash their laundry with you! Kind of gives permission for audiences to share, you know, what’s bothering them or what’s happened or…

In terms of storytelling, when you’re talking about domestic abuse, I mean maybe enjoyment isn’t the best term to be using, but what part do you find quite easy to talk about in terms of storytelling for the stage?

Well, I mean, whilst it is a work of fiction, I’ve had more than one relationship which has been – you could term as abusive – and this one focuses more – this isn’t violence – this is more the psychological effects. I think it’s probably harder for an audience to look at. I think it’s  – whilst I say you let the pressure off with a lot of humour – I think it’s quite a harrowing thing for an audience to look at really, to be perfectly honest. But having come out the other side of it myself now and being in a  completely different place, to go back and visit it isn’t as traumatic as it probably looks – it’s actually quite cathartic, I would say. And working on it – because I personally never forgave myself for letting men treat me the way that I did, and whilst I could see their reasoning, and I could forgive them, I couldn’t forgive myself…which is (laughs) – which is crazy really! But then working on it and looking at it at a distance so that it’s studying, like I would any other part, I kind of went “Oh! That probably really wasn’t my fault”. It was very releasing, very freeing really.

What is about a bond with dogs that you think is special?

The dogs feature in both plays in pretty much the same capacity as this sort of redemptive force, love and just motivation to put one foot in front of the other when life is really getting you down. I have a friend who is going through terrible struggles on all fronts of her life, she’s got a dog and she was like, “Oh my god, just going out into the woods and walking in nature!” and I was like “I know, I know – I just wrote that!” (Laughs). And I am an advocate of ‘adopt, don’t buy’, and all my dogs are rescue dogs and both the dogs in both plays are rescue staffies and they are just…just beating hearts on legs – they really are and the absolute joy of my life. But all dogs are good, all animals are good!

Do you think the unconditional love that we show dogs, and they show us, can be replicated in human relationships?

I think that’s why I keep putting them side-by-side because, you know, we have that capacity. I think looking after animals teaches us a good deal. I think it makes us better people, and I honestly do think that it improves our relationship with those around us –  it teaches empathy. At the moment…it’s a dark time, there’s no denying it and I think we’re all feeling like there is a cloud gathering over the world and animals give me some hope in there.

So these are obviously your self-penned plays – how long have you been writing for?

Um…well, I suppose now a little over… ten years. I started off when – I’ve told this story – when I was at university, it was part of the course that you had to write a little 5-minute play. And honestly? It was so bad. Mine was garbage! It was unactable, just awful, awful. Nobody could act it – it was like ten thoughts in every line. It was just a really bad knock-off Beckett meets…Oh I don’t know, but it was just awful.  So, I just went “Oh, I can’t write – that’s fine!” I said “I’ll act! It’s fine”. And then…yeah…ten-fifteen years ago now – life gets very muddy when you get to my age, honestly – I started writing sketches, comedy sketches through this group. I was just like “oh, just dip my toe in the water”, and I loved it! I really enjoyed doing that and then-  must be doing that a few years – and then I went “Oh I really want to write something that I care about or I feel needs to be said and having a little more life experience under my belt, I then went back to what they tell you at school which is, write what you know. You know really basic things. And so I did, which was in the first instance Delights of Dogs – which is –  I knew how amazing dogs are…Oh god, dogs…just are the best. When I’ve found things incredibly difficult in my life, as people do – you know, I’ve suffered from all sorts of mental health problems and my dogs really see me through that. You know, reason to get up in the morning, and – you know, they have to be fed, they have to be walked, have to get up and take yourself out of yourself and start looking out and not like in-in the murk all the time. So, wrote about that, wrote about my problems in relationships – that was the first one – then when I put that down, I was like “Ooh now what? Ooh mental health! Ooh I’ve got a bag full of stuff to write there!” I’ve had all sorts of – you know a problem? I’ve probably had it! Let’s write about that.

Do you adapt the writing of your character to your experiences, or do you adapt yourself to the character?

Well, it’s a little bit of both. For Lullabies [For the Lost] I wrote very specifically for the actors in the show. So, it’s a mix of their voice and my experience, so it’s kind of moulded to fit them. I just have the most wonderful cast and the most incredible collection of friends and weirdos in my life whom I’m incredibly proud of. I try to mould something that – to really showcase them and make them shine, and majority of them are speaking things that I have dealt with. My character, who is the one dealing with bulimia –  which I’m happy to say, well not happy to say! (laughs) I’m happy to tell is something that I have struggled with enormously over the years…enormously. I don’t even look like I have it, that’s the galling….um – and social anxiety, that I think most people will have to a certain extent.

There’s some panic attacks in there…but there’s also two stories that are not from my personal experience; one of which is  –  a good friend of mine told me their experience of having a miscarriage and what their experience of that was like and it’s- it’s not good. And that is one of the ones, again, we don’t talk about anywhere nearly as much as I think it needs to be – we don’t share, we don’t know, we don’t have the support group that is really strong for that yet. And also, you know, just…her particular experience of when it happens and being told. “Oh well, you know, it’s very common”. But it’s not common to that person (taps finger on the table), they’ve never experienced that, and it is devastating. So that was one story where I felt like really needed to be out there.

And the other one that I was highly passionate about, was one of the greatest reasons for me writing this play in the first place, was a friend of mine from school, we had reconnected after…after many years…thirty years or something. And she just told me her experiences of being sectioned and in-and-out, in-and out, in-and out of this eating disorder clinic for anorexia – just unbelievable conditions that she experienced in there, just the failing system…and a friend of hers has just died last week, again. I mean this is just happening now – we haven’t got this right; we just have not got this right. So, I just couldn’t believe this story that she was telling me so I said, “do you want to – do you want me to tell this story?” She was like “Yes! Yes, let’s get it out there”. So I just sat – as we’re doing now – sat with like a – recorded an interview with her and just told me how it was and with barely a few tweaks, it’s almost like a verbatim account of one day in the eating disorder clinic. It is not a pretty story, I’ll tell you that.

What sort of relationship are you hoping to build between the audience and the stage? Are there any stories that you’re hoping they’ll see themselves in or, are you hoping to just leave them with a greater awareness of these different stories people around them may have?

I think both of them. It’s an intimate space the Old Red Lion, where the show is – it’s a nice intimate space anyway, and I write in an intimate, almost voyeuristic way. I mean, in Delight of Dogs there’s actual – it’s not one of those we’ll draw you up on to stage and make you live participate – it’s not interactive in that sense, but there is direct audience address and you almost feel complicit and involved in that. So, I guess it sort of depends where you are in life. I would imagine, with Lullabies For The Lost, because there are eight different stories, the audience will see themselves in one or two  – I would be amazed if they didn’t themselves in any, if they don’t then hat’s off to them, they are sanest person I know! (Laughs) But I would imagine there would be something for everyone to sort of relate to within that one. With Delights of Dogs, I think either people can recognise past experiences or they might get a red flag about maybe something that’s bothering them right now, or of a friend – maybe they just sniff that their partner is too controlling – I don’t know, these are dangerous situations and it’s worth keeping an eye on it. But, if you have no touching point on it, I think it’s an intriguing story, I think it’s involving whatever way you look at it.

You’ll be performing with your mum, and your dad is the executive producer – what’s it like working with your parents?

“I found a wonderful therapist and I am in a completely different place now and whilst I’m not saying I’m cured – I definitely still struggle – I don’t think it needs to be a life sentence.”

Well, I love working with my parents, I don’t find it at all – we don’t step on each other’s toes, you know; it’s never been like that. I think we’re all just fans of each other – so sad isn’t it? But I think we are, we genuinely all get a kick out of each other’s work and really admire each other as artists. Otherwise, we wouldn’t choose to work with each other. I just wanted in Lullabies, where my mother makes her appearance – it could have left the audience feeling quite negative when in actual fact I know from my personal experience I think there are things that you can do, and I think they can be positive, so I wanted a character to bring some light into the piece. I also wanted to show a variety of ages as well…wise words of wisdom from an older woman, I figured my mother would be the best person for that because I used to follow her around when I was a kid, and just like watch her own stage and she was genuinely my inspiration for wanting to become an actor; she is the most extraordinary artist, supporter of text and art…and my dad is – he’s just so supportive and particularly with Lullabies , we’ve both struggled with mental things. He wrote in his book – The Dynamite Kid – he wrote about a breakdown that he had when he was a young man and I think that when he saw an early read-through it just really chimed with him, he wanted to support it, he wanted to really get involved and get behind it. Because he knows the struggle is real and widespread. It just really nice to have parents that are that supportive and are that on-board.

With Lullabies For The Lost, it’s about these eight souls who come together to share their stories, the title is sort of – “lullabies” sounds very sweet and cherubic and yet has this very dark, almost oxymoronic element attached to it.

Yes I know, I keep doing this! I keep on putting out these really sweet titles and then like traumatise my audience. Actually, I think Lullabies For The Lost – there is some gentleness in there, it’s not quite as…it’s bittersweet, it’s tragicomic. I think it’s an entertaining piece and there is care, love and support in it, which is a bit like a lullaby. They’ve kept themselves trapped in a limbo of their own making, so there’s a certain sense of them keeping themselves asleep…I mean it’s a bit of a stretch – if anyone gets that from the title I’ll be amazed!

I think trying to escape limbo, it’s still quite a powerful metaphor – in what way does it reflect on your own personal experiences?

Has writing these plays been cathartic or relieving in any way?

I would say it is with both of them. With my character in Lullabies For The Lost, it’s a bit of a rage, really, against how much my life has been wasted worrying about my shell and my outside appearance, what could I have achieved it I hadn’t just…and I’m sure it’s built in! I mean, I grew up in the days of Miss World and The Dollybirds and honestly, I think we were taught from a young age that the way a woman looked was more important to her worth than and value than anything else! I mean, sod her intellect, sod her talent or even how kind you are or anything of that kind. It was your worth, you were really  judged on the way you looked –  no wonder we end up with eating disorders! And I do think it’s just terribly clever, it keep us silent, it keeps us distracted, keep us bitching at each other for god’s sake! Though I know that, I understand it, I’m still – you know, I put on weight last year when someone close to me was ill and I still catch myself thinking, “At this size, should I really be getting on the stage?” This is what the play is about! I still find it a struggle, it’s so deeply rooted in there.

And you were saying that having your mother on stage is like having this wiser, older woman – so, do you think for a young, female audience, that it’s important for them to be able to see these shared experience amongst women of different ages?

I do! Last year, a friend of mine who is a student – I went along to an open day and did this speech and I was like “Please don’t be me, don’t waste time, don’t wait until you’re in your mid-thirties or forties before you start to go, “Oh sod it, I’m just going to do stuff!” Please don’t let it distract you, don’t swallow the lie!” It’s so easy to waste years and years of your life getting stuck in patterns and overwhelmed by…you know – talk about it, it is possible to get help, it is possible to move forward in your life. As a student, I wish had more of this chat when I was younger, I have to say.

Do you think that we’re doing enough yet, particularly for younger woman?

I don’t, I’ve got to say, I don’t. Let’s draw a line in the sand! Like – it’s stupid – I haven’t been on holiday for a really long time and, as you do, you’re in your swimwear, you’re basically sat around in your pants, looking at other people in their pants! And you never do this. And, okay there’s a few more images in advertising now with different body shapes, but I’m looking around and there’s a variety of people, a variety of people! And I’m not saying bigger is better, smaller is better – I’m just saying we only see one flavour. And what is that telling people? No, I don’t think we’re remotely doing enough yet and if anything, it’s more insidious because  – I’m not saying anything new here – but you get bombarded by social media and false images – it’s all doctored, and it’s all filtered, and it’s all bullshit! So if anything, it’s harder

What are the messages that you are wanting to leave with the audience with on both of these plays?

I do want to leave the audience with a feeling that you are not alone. You are not broken; you are not wrong and there are other people who are out there for you.

Lullabies For The Lost will be on at the Old Red Lion Theatre from 7th – 31st January 2020. Get your tickets here.

The Delights of Dogs and the Problems Of People will also be on at the Old Red Lion Theatre from 8th January – 1st February 2020. Get your tickets here.

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Theatre Editor

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