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 ( 9 April to 30 September

Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower