When Anna Volska was offered a role in Campion Decent’s new play, Unholy Ghosts, she says she was terrified. The reason seems improbable, but in fact Volska, once such a regular, has not been seen on a stage for nearly 10 years.
She even doubted her ability to memorise the text, and is now wary of jinxing herself by boasting she has succeeded. “I really had been quite anxious,” she recalls, “until a whole lot of people said it was like getting back on a bike. And it is! But it does need a particular kind of energy, which is not like doing anything else.”
Volska last appeared on stage in a Bell Shakespeare production of A Comedy Of Errors that toured to the UK’s Bath Festival. After that she did some directing, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice for Bell Shakespeare, and while she enjoyed the experiences she decided that ultimately the responsibilities of directing were not for her.
So why did she stop acting?
“You have to be very fortunate to get good writing for old ladies!” she replies, and laughs contagiously before adding, “Quite seriously. In fact I was thinking as I was driving to work today about the wonderful list of older actresses that we have: Helen Morse, Kate Fitzpatrick, Gillian Jones, Jane Harders, on and on, and yes, we’re sitting and waiting. Get on with it, you writers! We have stories to tell!”
Decent’s play autobiographically depicts a son (James Lugton) dealing with the death of his mother (Volska) and father (Robert Alexander). Despite the subject matter Volska says that the rehearsal process has been fun: “I remember Judi Dench saying a long time ago, when she was doing that very famous Macbeth with Ian McKellan, that those rehearsals and even the run itself was silliest time she has ever experienced in the theatre. Doing horrifying things on stage or being in a sad play makes you so silly off stage. Perhaps you do that to counter what you’re doing on stage.
“But I hope that people won’t find it a sad play, because it is about a middle-aged man dealing with the end-game, as it were, of his parents. It’s something that many, many of us have experienced, and it might be cathartic for people to watch.”
Volska, the wife of John Bell, lost her own mother five years ago. “I think everybody has had some kind of experience like this,” she says, “or if they haven’t they will!” Her character dies in the course of the play, with the final scene set in heaven. “So you could say it ends happily,” she quips.
Unholy Ghosts: Stables Theatre, August 27-September 20.