This week we catch up with actress Alexandra Aldrich as she prepares for her role as writer Katherine Mansfield in ‘The Rivers of China’ premiering at Theatre Works on May 20.
As Alexandra explains, Katherine Mansfield led an extraordinary life as a writer of short story fiction. At age 19 she left New Zealand for the UK where she became friends of writers such as D.H. Lawrence and Virgina Woolf. She travelled throughout Europe, had various lovers, including her husband, editor John Murray who she left twice. She suffered from tuberculosis, a disease for which she sought various treatments, including the care of Georges Gurdjieff – where our story begins.
After years of struggle, Katherine Mansfield sadly passed away from tuberculosis at age 34.
Alexandra shares her thoughts on preparing for the role and how she has been captivated by the wonderfully complex character of Katherine Mansfield.
Tell us about your early investigations into the real Katherine Mansfield.
Katherine Mansfield was a fantastic woman. Quick witted. Sharp. Inquisitive and brave. Daring. Passionate! A woman who wore black to her first wedding, had many wild and passionate affairs with both men and women, was a true romantic sole with a strong desire never to be tied to anywhere or anything – except the ones with which her heart was given – she was a fabulous bohemian and true woman of the new age. Katherine Mansfield was wonderful, complex, and a giant contradiction!
Born and raised in New Zealand and educated in London, and always on the move, she was always an outsider, a bit of a stranger and thus became a brilliant observer. Sometimes friend, sometimes rival with the likes of Virgina Woolf and D.H. Lawrence, she was often loved, then hated, then loved again within those literary circles. People found her wildly funny, a brilliant storyteller and an astonishing writer, but an unnerving social chameleon. Fiercely intelligent, she was always in search of new experiences and new people to explore and be. I absolutely LOVE her!
Have your initial impressions of the play on the page changed during the rehearsal process?
Absolutely. Alma de Groen has written a super interesting piece. Her writing has allowed us to explore a great deal of underlying complexity in the relationships she presents. It’s gold. It’s got a kind of a modern Chekhov sensibility to it somehow – so it’s an actor’s dream! I definitely had not realised just how beautiful and strange and funny it was until we got on the floor.
The play traverses two stories – Katherine Mansfield’s 1922 Paris and a Hospital ward of a dystopian present. We’re now at the fun stage where we are beginning to weave these two seemingly separate narratives together in the space. It’s fascinating how the worlds speak to one another.
The relationship between the mystic Gurdjieff and Katherine is one we will never fully know; how has working on the text with Rob Meldrum helped to form your ‘reality’ of this time in her life?
Working with Rob is the best! If he decided to become a mystic I would definitely follow him!
From what we have uncovered so far, I can totally understand how people were so enamored with this glorious bald mustachioed, well-dressed, enigmatic unpredictable Mr Gurdjieff. His thick Russian accent, unwavering gaze (when you can get it), and strange methods of treatment make you feel both terrified and lost, and in the greatest care and in just the right place – all at once. He’s definitely perplexing and enticing…
What or who stimulates and inspires your work?
On this project, I am currently trying to channel some kind of inner Frank Underwood… or maybe it’s Claire… and maybe that’s just in daily life? Anyway, the Underwood’s mixed with some kind of wounded bird – That sounds absolutely ridiculous! We’ll see… Like all things Katherine Mansfield, it starts off seeming simple, but unravels into something unexpected.