Lisa Dillon: The roaring girl who is a match for any man

She has starred with Benedict Cumberbatch and Chris O'Dowd, but Lisa Dillon is puzzled that she is less famous

There is a notice on the door of the RSC's rehearsal room instructing ladies to wear bodices, bustles and skirts for all Roaring Girl rehearsals. Next to the notice is a rack over which said items are slung seductively. I wonder for a moment whether the notice applies to lady journalists as well as lady actresses before deciding reluctantly that, even if it did, the petticoats were made for people somewhat taller than me.

As I enter, the actress Lisa Dillon is midway through flooring, verbally and physically, a strapping young man at least a foot taller than her. She's not wearing a bodice or a bustle or even a skirt (perhaps she's too short too?). Instead, Dillon prowls the floor in a Sherlock-style overcoat a with a top hat, roguishly aslant. She looks incredibly cool. But then, as Dillon explains, Moll Cutpurse, the character she plays, is incredibly cool. "I think it possible," she says, "the audience may leave saying: 'Moll is the coolest woman I've ever witnessed on stage.'"

Moll Cutpurse is based on the real-life Mary Frith – a cross-dressing, pipe-smoking, brothel-keeping, pickpocketing, parrot-keeping, mastiff-breeding extrovert born sometime in the mid-1580s. If this were not enough to make Frith extraordinary, she has a good claim to being the first English female to appear professionally on stage. She used to perform at the Fortune Theatre, entertaining audiences with her music and banter.

Frith was one of the rare people to receive folk hero(ine) status in their own time, and in 1611 Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton made her (albeit slightly whitewashed) the heroine of a play. Legend has it that Frith herself was in the audience of the first night and gave the epilogue. Dillon calls Frith "one of the most uncelebrated female icons in history".

It has been one of the greatest challenges of the play, says director Jo Davies, to find the voice for the "roaring girl" – a woman who is equally, "sexual, political, personal, playful and individual". But it is this voice that appeals to Davies, that of an early 17th-century heroine "who doesn't want to get married… and follow the usual line of protocol for a woman of the 1600s". It seems to her that even today "there's a great deal of expectation on women that they will grow up and get married and have children". Anything else, Davies believes, "is seen as a rather pitiable path".

Unsurprisingly, given sexism is such a theme of the play, it becomes the theme of my conversation with Dillon. She has acted with Benedict Cumberbatch in three plays and in her first ever television job (Cambridge Spies) she had the big role, while Cumberbatch had a minor role as a journalist. She has also starred alongside Andrew Scott and Chris O'Dowd. "When you look at the leading men who I've played opposite, it's quite extraordinary the way in which their careers have taken off."

While Dillon admits she has not always made the most commercial choices, she still think it helps to be male: "At every point in those productions, I've matched them critically, I've matched them with size of role, I've matched them with audience enjoyment, so..." So what else could it be, is her silent question. Is there a little bit of her which would like to have the celebrity status of her former male co-stars? Dillon places her head to one side as she considers the question. She is clearly trying to be as honest as possible. "Well, it probably comes from a place of ego and vanity. Yes, I'd like to be on the inside."

Then Dillon gives herself a shake and finishes, Moll-like, defiantly upbeat, "No. The inner-circle can keep their inner-circle and I'll keep playing characters like Moll!"

'The Roaring Girl', Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (www.rsc.org.uk) 9 April to 30 September

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'