Mary Stuart's Rudi Dharmalingam interview - 'Acting gave me an opportunity to express myself'

Robert Icke’s inventive staging of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart proved another hit for the Almeida last year, the centrepiece being the actress to play the central role being decided by the flip of a coin on the night; Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams would share the roles of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I.

Rudi Dharmalingam plays Mortimer, the nephew of Mary Stuart’s custodian. We spoke to him about his path into acting via table tennis, going on tour with The History Boys and taking Robert Icke’s production to the West End.

Before you took up acting, you were quite sporty as a child weren’t you?

I was a table tennis player and a chess player. I think table tennis was a bit cooler than chess, though, it had more street cred. I started table tennis when I was seven and, all of a sudden, I was training with a coach three or four times a week. I went to tournaments and training camps all over the country. I’ve carried the discipline and structure I had as a child playing table tennis through to my work as an actor.

How did you first get into acting, then?

Because I wasn’t hugely academic, I was looking for something as a teenager that I could use that commitment and fire I had from table tennis, and I stumbled across drama. I was quite an introverted child. My mum was always telling me to speak up because I was quite reserved, but drama gave me an opportunity to express myself under imagined circumstances. That gave me a lot of confidence.

GCSE Drama was the only subject I was getting As in, and it was the only thing I thought I’d be able to do. I was looking for a handbook or manual on how to be an actor. I found a book called An Actor Prepares by Stanislavski. I’ve based all of my work around him to this day. That book gave me a structure and a sequence of strategies to utilise in order to create a performance.

Do you still use those techniques in your work now?

Absolutely, things like emotion memory. In the play, Mortimer discovers Catholicism by accident, and he’s seduced by that world. The first time we did it at the Almeida, I didn’t get the time to do as much research into Catholicism as I wanted to. I met with a local priest and had a chat with him which was amazing. It was always nagging at me that I had no real memory to draw upon.

This time round I had a bit of time, so I got a cheap flight for and visited the Vatican and Basilica and experienced it for real. It was something I felt compelled to do. When I walked into those places, my heart skipped a beat. It’s made it easier to draw upon memories that induce real emotions.

I would imagine it was easier to draw on memories of being as school when you were in The History Boys

It was.  That was my first proper acting job. I was 22 and understudied for Dominic Cooper, then I got asked to go on the world tour. We went to Hong Kong, New Zealand, Sydney and then I went on for about three weeks in New York. After that I didn’t work for a while. That’s the thing with this job. There’s no career trajectory. The History Boys was certainly a pivotal moment.

Photos from Rudi's trip to Rome

How has it been bring a show like Mary Stuart from an intimate space like the Almeida to a grander one like the Duke of York’s?

It’s taken a bit of calibration. At the Almeida, we had seating around the entire circumference of the stage. You’re actually able to play all around you, but at the Duke of York’s, it’s end-on. We’ve all had to slightly adjust our technique. The challenge of working in a conventional space is to maintain the authenticity of what you’re trying to say, and to share it with people who have paid to see the story.

You’ve worked with director Robert Icke at the Almeida before, do you enjoy working for him?

He is extremely talented and able to look at scenes in ways I would never have been able to envisage. He asks for commitment. You have to be prepared for long hours. I guess me and Rob have a similar work ethic in that way.

Your character becomes infatuated with Mary Stuart. Does your performance differ depending on whether it’s Juliet Stevenson or Lia Williams in the role?

Naturally, it’s different because you have different actors playing different roles, but it’s not like we have different versions of the role. The intentions are still all the same. Lia has a different energy to Juliet. They’re two different actresses, both extraordinary performers. But essentially, the root of the work is still exactly the same.

Mary Stuart is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 31st March.

Mary Stuart Tickets are available now.

Looking for the best seats...