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Melody Grove - The Iliad

When Melody Grove stepped onto the red carpet with Mark Rylance at this year's Olivier Awards a couple of weeks ago, the clamour of attention aimed at her co-star in Claire van Kampen's play, Farinelli and The King, made her forget that she too was up for a gong. While Rylance was up for best actor in John Dove's production, which transferred to the west end following a run at the Globe Theatre, Grove was nominated for best actress in a supporting role, having played Isabella Farnesse, the wife of Rylance's character, King Philippe V of Spain.

While Judi Dench eventually won the award on a shortlist that included Michelle Dotrice and Catherine Steadman, such a taste of the high life has fed into Grove's current role in Chris Hannan's new stage version of Homer's epic poem, The Iliad. In Mark Thomson's production – his last as artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh - Grove plays two parts. She describes the first, Andromache, as “earthbound and feisty.” It is the goddess Thetis, however, who rings familiar celebrity bells for the twenty-six year old.

“She's a bit like Jackie O,” says Grove, who plays the mother of Achilles as a woman dressed for eternal mourning. “The gods and goddesses are like film stars, living like they're in Cannes. They're very glamorous, and there was a moment going into rehearsals on Monday the day after the Oliviers where I thought that this goddess world is really like the red carpet world.

“The whole red carpet thing is so ridiculous anyway, because the dresses you wear and everything that goes with that have nothing to do with the work, but when Mark was there on Sunday it was the first time he'd been seen in London since he'd won the Oscar, and it did feel like Achilles returning from war.

“We stepped onto the red carpet, and it was a tunnel of sound, with everyone shouting for Mark. People were crazed. I don't think he'd ever known anything like it, but he's on that Oscar, Spielberg circuit now, and once you're on that there's no going back, is there?”

While Rylance's reported casting in Spielberg's upcoming feature, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, following his Academy award win for Bridge of Spies, seems to confirm this, Grove is forgetting again that she too was at the Oliviers for a reason.

“Oh, yeah,” she giggles when reminded of this. “But because Mark gets so much attention I forgot, and when I heard Judy was nominated I just thought there's not a chance that I could get it, so I made it okay with myself that I was just going to have a nice time and not worry about anything else.”

After such headiness, diving straight into The Iliad the day after the awards might have been an anti-climax. As it was “It was lovely coming back to rehearsals after all that. I'd just been working with Stellar Quines on The Air That Carries The weight, and was coming back to The Iliad, so there was no time to have post-show blues or any kind of build up to the red carpet, so it was a joy to come back and to throw myself into learning all of these wonderful songs we're doing and learning ancient Greek.”

Such devotion to the cause bodes well for Hannan's take on Homer's mythological epic.

“Chris has written such a fabulous script,” Grove says, “and he's really owned the poem. It's so sparky, alive and contemporary, but like Shakespeare there's no sub-text, and everyone just does what they feel. Claire McKenzie has written these big, clashy discordant songs, and Mark Thomson is in a really exciting place. Because he's leaving you feel like he's letting loose because he can, and he seems very inspired.”

This is the first time Grove has worked with Thomson at the Lyceum since he cast her as Gwendolen in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest not long after graduating from what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Grove's early work included a one-woman play, Room, at the Arches, which was overseen by writer Abigail Doherty and director Lu Kemp. She worked with Doherty and Kemp again on a piece called 1000 Paper Cranes before being spotted by Thomson. Grove went on to appear in Wilde's play again in Belfast, playing the same part in a very different production by Graham McLaren.

“Gwendolen was a sex pest, basically,” she says of the contrast between the two productions. “It was so kind of naughty. We did it so everything they talked about was about sex.”

Grove returned to the Lyceum to appear in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, which is where she first worked with Dove.

“It was because of John that I got to audition for Much Ado About Nothing, which Mark [Rylance] was directing at the Old Vic, so it feels like it all started here, at the Lyceum.”

Grove grew up in Kent, where she was exposed to theatre from an early age by way of her father, a musician with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, and her storytelling mother.

In such a fertile creative atmosphere, Grove found herself creating her own stories, utilising props from a dressing up box she shared with her brother, Reuben. Grove would spend hours on her own, playing a teacher she had invented, complete with a register which she'd take each day.

“Mad, isn't it?” she says. “I just loved being other people.”

While Grove pursued acting, Reuben became a writer and director, and assisted on Rylance's production of Much Ado.

“I begged him to get me an audition,” Grove says, “but he wouldn't budge, and said I had to go through the proper channels. He didn't even tell Mark that we were related.”

Grove was cast as the maid, Margaret, in the play, anyway.

Either side of Much Ado, Grove went on to take over the title role in David Greig and Wils Wilson's reinvention of border ballads, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, produced by the National Theatre of Scotland.

“That show was a delight,” she says, “just learning all of those folk ballads and going on tour with such remarkable musicians as Aly Macrae and Annie Grace. There's nothing that makes me happier than singing and being in a band.”

With this in mind, Grove has joined Melody and The Mutineers, a band which also features her father. Coincidentally, Grove took over from Edinburgh-born actress Madeleine Worrall, who was the original Prudencia Hart, although the pair have never met.

Grove has also formed a musical alliance with MJ McCarthy, the composer and musical director of Grid Iron's show, Light Boxes, which she appeared in. The duo played together at this year's Celtic Connections festival.

“The work that MJ and Aly do is priceless,” she says, “that way they can be so receptive to an actor and just feel it.”

Beyond such contemporary concerns, Grove expresses a desire for more classical fare.

“I think I might be getting too old to play Nina in The Seagull,” she says, “but I'd love to do it.”

In the meantime, The Iliad allows Grove a more god-like demeanour.

“The gods represent that thing about the way luck falls,” says the woman who has just walked her first, though probably not her last, red carpet. “It's about fate, and how ridiculous that fate can be.”

The Iliad, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, April 23-May 14.
www.lyceum.org.uk

The Herald, April 19th 2016

ends

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