BY the end of Mike Bartlett’s new play at the Crucible Studio, office worker Isabel has driven her unfortunate colleague into the ground with her verbal insults and chicanery. She is truly a nasty piece of work and Eleanor Matsuura is relishing playing her
“It’s not just she’s a brilliant woman character because there aren’t that many around these days but she is really quite dark and driven in a very ruthless way and her code of practice, the way she views the world, is kill or be killed,” she says.
“You never get to see characters who are so deliciously ruthless and you certainly don’t see women characters like that.
“Women are being represented better nowadays and their voice is being heard but I think a lot of people don’t want to see a character who is without redemption or sorrow. Isabel has no redemption or sorrow, she believes she is in the right and will not be apologetic in any shape of form. My challenge is to get the audience to...sympathise is not the right word, but to believe she has a point and to think, actually I can see it from her point of view. Maybe she is speaking the truth, however ugly or brutal, however much it’s not what they want to hear. If I can do that with what Mike has written so brilliantly I will have done my job.
“That’s the thing about bullies they are so delightful. She’s got some cracking points and she is very smart and very funny, though she’s not very nice.”
The actor has never had direct experience of office politics but believes that hardly matters.
“I have had a lot of crappy jobs although not in an office but actually the rituals and the structures they put in place they could be in any kind of job,” she believes. “It could be in a school it could be the new cast of a play – the patterns and human nature that Mike’s observed are people getting together with something to achieve.
“There’s a competition – win your job, win respect, be the most popular – those structures exist everywhere, I imagine. People often think acting is different – and it is – but then I will speak to friends who are bankers or lawyers and realise it is not that wildly different, the sort of cut-throat nature of it and personal politics. We are all human and have desires.”
Matsuura has just finished a run in Jacobean tragedy The Changeling at the Old Vic and is enjoying the contrast. “The Changeling is also a pretty brutal play with themes of sex, revenge, death, love. It’s not a light play at all but what has been gorgeous about this is that my character in The Changeling was very low status and suffered a lot of abuse – molested, killed, really the bottom of the pile, and to come from that to play a character like Isabel has been bloody brilliant. As an actor I suddenly get to be on top and that’s really nice. I am the perpetrator not the victim which is quite lovely, though what Isabel does is not lovely.”
So what kind of roles does Matsuura usually play? “I often get prostitutes or a high-powered bitch in a suit,” she replies. “I think that’s indicative of women’s roles but that’s what’s good about Isabel she is not just a high-powered bitch in a suit. She’s certainly a bitch in a suit but she is not high powered, she could be anyone She is so well written it is a gift.”
Matsuura is currently on our TV screens in Channel 4’s Utopia - in another businesslike suit as a high-flying civil servant. I’ve done loads of things like Dr Who and Extras – that was the big thing for me I was in the Ben Stiller episode playing the producer’s wife, a high-powered American – I play a lot of Americans – and there was this whole scene about Chinese-Japanese being the same thing. I am half Japanese and got to lambast Ricky Gervais.
Bull runs at the Crucible Studio until February 23.