Be warned, watching the new production of Hecuba at the RSC is largely a harrowing business (see review,goo.gl/mxpUhN ). But there is one beguiling component that brings a strange kind of solace to this Ancient Greek story of infanticide and the atrocity of war: song.
A human voice punctuates the rhythm of the play; the plaintive songs add a comforting lament to the unspeakable horrors that unfold. Owner of that amazingly powerful vocal is local-born singer and actress Lara Stubbs. I meet with her during a lunchbreak after opening night to chat about the play and her work.
“The play feels very relevant, what with Syria, the refugee crisis and the situation on the Gaza Strip,” says Lara. “Marina [Carr, the playwright] has completely brought it up to date and tells a very human story.
“All of us found ourselves watching the news everyday and inevitably drawing parallels,” says Lara when I ask her how harrowing a project it is to be involved in. “It is upsetting but it’s important that people think and talk about these things. It’s not just a Greek tragedy — Erica [Whyman, the director] and Marina have worked hard to make this a timeless production.
“My character Xenia is voiced mainly in song,” continues Lara, “and it’s been an interesting journey. During rehearsals I split my time working with Erica and the company and working with composer Isobel [Waller-Bridge].
“Initially we didn’t know what would be the appropriate emotional soundtrack to go with this fabulous new play. It was very much a process of trial and error; we explored Bulgarian, Turkish and various types of Arabic and classical music.”
Explaining that the lyrics are not of any particular language, Lara says: “We wanted the music to not necessarily be related to any country — to evoke different things for different times in the play. Sometimes I’m just singing place names.”
Lara, 32, was brought up in Alcester. She attended Great Alne School and Alcester High before studying performance at Stratford College and then the Webber Douglas drama school. Her “very supportive” parents still live in Alcester; while her younger sister, the artist Soraya Fatha, lives just outside Shipston, and granny lives in Haselor.
Lara explains that her mum trained as an actress before becoming a writer and her dad, who is from Lebanon, is a civil engineer. From the age of ten, Lara spent summers in Lebanon, when it was stable enough. “We have a lot of family out there,” she says. “Beirut is an amazing city, a real party culture; it has a beach and it’s a fun fashionable, lively and vibrant place. It made me think of Troy… the fact that it is an amazing place that is taken over and destroyed — that really sung out to me.”
She describes the family home as being full of music while she was growing up. “I’ve always loved the jazz classics and blues: Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Etta James. But I was also absolutely mad about Whitney Houston,” giggles the chatty and easy-going actress.
“I used to singalong at the top of my voice!” Luckily, as it turned out, she also listened to traditional Lebanese music. She explains: “For the Hecuba audition we were asked to prepare something bluesy, and maybe something folky or Arabic. At the end I just threw in a snatch of a Lebanese love song I knew — and they went ‘Yes, that’s the sound!’ I heard the same day that I had got the part,” she beams, recalling the moment. “There’s something very special about working in the place you grew up.”
It was a teacher, Mrs Jeffrey, who Lara is still in touch with, who first spotted her amazing vocal ability. “I was about five singing a hymn when she flagged up to my parents that I could sing. From then on I got given solo bits in school plays and I decided performing is what I wanted to do — before that I wanted to be an astronaut,” she laughs.
In her professional career, Lara, now London-based, has done everything from musicals (she is an associate artist at comedy a capella group Barbershopera) to voicing cartoon characters (for Officially Amazing the kids’ TV show) and a lot of stage and West End shows, although not Broadway… yet (“I would love to do Broadway!”).
The actress, who started out joining local children’s theatre, Playbox, where she met fellow Hecuba cast member Edmund Kingsley (“We’ve known each other since we were 11!” she says gleefully), is clearly doing very well in her career. I wonder, as our chat draws to a close, if she has any advice for younger local would-be performers?
“It needs to be something you are sure you want to do because it’s hard work and a funny sort of industry,” says Lara thoughtfully. “If you feel it’s what you really want to do, then join all the clubs and go to extra classes — get out there and give it a go!”