“There's been a real trend of women playing 2D characters that aren't necessarily as human as the male characters we see portrayed on television and stage,” says Maddie Rice.
The London-based actor is in town to play the incredibly human, very flawed title character in Fleabag, which opens at the Garden of Unearthly Delights next week.
If you've seen the BAFTA-award-winning BBC TV series of the same name, you'll be familiar with that character. She's a salacious, charming, slightly unhinged woman with no filter; she seems to be winking at the camera as she turns the tragedy of her life into a giant joke.
The show is written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who has played Fleabag in an outrageously expressive fashion on stage and screen, and she's a tough act to follow. For Rice, the easiest thing to do is compare her to an iconic character like James Bond who changes as actors cycle through the role.
“Obviously I'm going to do it completely differently because I'm a different actor and there are bits that I connect differently with, but the character is so clear and so fantastic that I think people can go on and on playing this part. I'm just thrilled that I get to be the second person.”
As a single woman in a big city who faces her life with a sense of humour, Rice can identify with some elements of the character, but adds: “I'm hesitant to say 'Yeah, definitely' because of some of the things that she does.”
What she does is: flirt with anyone and anything (including, in the TV series, a dog), but more important is what she says. Fleabag can express opinions and emotions that many of us struggle to admit to, even to our closest friends. “She says things that you might have thought or said before to someone that you really trust but you wouldn't dare to say in a public place. That's the great thing about the show, that she's then saying it to 200 people.”
Fleabag's obsession with sex puts her in some hilariously inappropriate situations, but the show explores why it's still confronting for many people to hear a woman talk about sex in a frank and open manner.
“I think there's a real problem with women talking about anything to do with sex. There are so many derogatory terms and judgments that get put on women for being honest about sex when really, everyone's doing the same things behind closed doors,” says Rice.
“In the past it's been okay for men to say those things without getting abuse or being called names, and for women it's been harder and they're meant to be more private and more ‘feminine’ and polite. But now, I think this is changing and people are realising that everyone should have a space to be honest.”
It's not all one note though. Waller-Bridge's deft script provokes laughter through the outrageous stories before delivering devastating emotional insights.
“She's seemingly really confident and unafraid to say what's on her mind and to shock people, but then as the play unfolds you realise that these are all bits of armour that she's put on to hide the bad feelings that she has and the tragedies that she's been through.”
Technology connects us in a multitude of ways and we live in massive urban agglomerations, but modern society can leave us feeling achingly alone. It's why forging a connection is such an important part of this one-woman show. Rice plays off of the audience constantly, talking to them and eliciting responses, and sometimes these responses can be very telling.
“During the show, sometimes people will really laugh at one line and they kind of give themselves away, because that's obviously something that they've thought or said before. It's really enjoyable for me to see that laughter where it's kind of a relief, where they're thinking, 'Oh, somebody else thinks that'.”
Fleabag is on at the Garden of Unearthly Delights from February 27 to March 18. Tickets are available online.
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