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If you don’t know now, you soon will: Olivia Vinall is the National Theatre’s rising star. In 2014, aged 25, she played Desdemona to Adrian Lester’s Othello; last year she was Cordelia in Sam Mendes’s ‘King Lear’; and now she has an even more prestigious gig – the lead in ‘The Hard Problem’, the first new Tom Stoppard play in nine years.
To a lot of people, you came out of nowhere with ‘Othello’; does it feel that way to you?
‘Oh my God, not at all, because I did obscure productions for two years after I graduated from drama school. “Romeo and Juliet” in the basement of Leicester Square Theatre: you’re dying and somebody’s mobile phone is going off in your ear. It was hard.’
‘Lear’ and ‘Othello’ were huge shows – were they knackering?
‘Oh yes, I think I’ve got wrinkles from all the dying.’
And now you’re the lead in the new Stoppard play. Are you old enough to have seen much of his work?
‘The first play I ever saw at the National was a revival of “Jumpers”. I remember being completely blown away: not understanding a lot of it at all, but also feeling there were ideas being spoken about that I hadn’t heard in theatre, or anywhere.’
Details of the play are under wraps, but the hard problem is the conundrum: ‘If there is nothing but matter, what is consciousness?’, is that right?
‘Exactly, and science has no answer for that. You wonder why it isn’t being spoken about all the time, but I think scientific dogma doesn’t like the possibilities for alternative beliefs it leaves open.’
And you play a young psychologist called Hilary?
‘For me it’s all about Hilary trying to figure out whether altruism exists. Science generally thinks that we’re incapable of doing anything that’s not out of self-interest, and Hilary refuses to believe that’s true for reasons you find out in the play.’
‘Lear’ was incredibly long: what did you do during the massive gap between Cordelia’s first and second scenes?
‘I was offstage for just under two hours, which is actually enough time to fit “The Hard Problem” into entirely! This is a bit embarrassing but what I tried to do was practise my French, because Cordelia comes back as the queen of France, it sounds so… I am embarrassed.’
‘The Hard Problem’ is at National Theatre, Dorfman, until May 27