From its initial season as a fringe play, Fleabag has grown to a global phenomenon. Kirsten Krauth talks to Sian Clifford about playing sisters with Phoebe Waller-Bridge
The shock of the first season of Fleabag was that it shocked me. As Fleabag talked her way through anal sex and masturbated to Barack Obama’s democratic vision, as she accused her sister Claire of shitting in the sink and let us in on their tawdry sister secrets and crimes against feminism, I wondered what strange and exhilarating planet I had landed on.
For those who had seen the stage play, which went darker and deeper, the television show was perhaps not such a shock. Premiering in a small venue at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013, the play has toured internationally, including Off Broadway and Melbourne, and writer/actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge is about to embark on her final performances of the character in London’s West End. The play will hit movie screens on September 12, when Fleabag will be broadcast through National Theatre Live from the West End. From monologue to collaboration, the theatrical impetus of the show infuses every element of the tv adaptation.
By season two, I was prepared for the worst (best). While many second seasons have been accused of not living up to the first (Killing Eve, for instance), season two moves beyond expectations to a place of joyous refinement: a television series built on absolute precision. It’s a show that rewards repeated viewings: the plot framing, the use of refrain and clever wordplay link back to season one, and the performers’ comic and dramatic timing are brilliantly poised. While much of the focus of season two has been on the new romance between Fleabag and Andrew Scott as the (Hot) Priest, Fleabag’s developing relationship with sister Claire is also beautifully reinforced, a blend of brutal intimacy and humorous denial.
I talk to Sian Clifford about playing Claire — a performance nominated for an Emmy this year — and her earlier role in Vanity Fair.
On dream sisters
Like Claire, Sian is a fast thinker and rapid talker. When she speaks about the show’s writer and lead actor, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and the Fleabag cast and crew, the script even, she is effusive and passionate. There’s a sense of loyalty, as if she’s talking about family.
She met Phoebe 16 years ago at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and became “very dear friends” from the first day. “We always had a fantasy to play sisters. We always talked about it,” she says. When Phoebe set up DryWrite — an associate company at Soho Theatre that first produced the stage version of Fleabag – Sian appeared in pretty much all of Phoebe’s shows; if she wasn’t in them, she was watching. “We were always big supporters of each other’s work and the highs and lows of this very challenging career.”
‘I don’t plan it. I always try to really feel into the energy of a character and then embody them.’
While Phoebe wrote the part of Claire with Sian in mind, Sian was doubtful she’d get the chance to play the role in the television series. The character’s first incarnation was in a sketch Phoebe wrote in 2009. “So, it was a character and an energy that I was familiar with,” she says. While the BBC were keen to get a higher profile name, Phoebe was adamant: Sian still had to audition.
“Oh, I was terrified. Phoebe was absolutely convinced that all we needed to do was just to put it on camera and they would say yes, and I thought I’d just been rubbish,” she says. “I remember coming home that night and I messaged her and said, ‘Listen, I know that was awful and I don’t mind if it doesn’t go my way.’” Even after she did the read-through and started the series, Sian was sceptical that she’d really landed the role and kept waiting for it to be stolen away from her, questioning herself. “Oh God, are they going to pull it away from me, out from under me?”
What’s most striking about Phoebe’s script is its constant play with language, exploring what can and can’t be expressed between women, especially sisters. Claire and Fleabag have contradictory impulses. They say one thing and mean another; they talk at cross purposes. Sian remembers the first time she read the entire script for the first series, the night before the read-through. “I thought it was the best thing I’d ever read in my life,” she says, “and I remained thinking that — until I read season two.”
Sian makes special mention of Phoebe’s real-life sister here, Isobel, who composes the series’ music, but also sees Phoebe as a composer. “The script is watertight, the holy grail, and I will honour every single dot and cough, because it is perfect when you read it,” she says. “Whenever she decides that something isn’t working, it’s always rhythmic. She’ll go away and she’ll come back — she’s always looking to make it funnier or punchier. She’s just constantly wanting to make it the best it could possibly be, and I think given the opportunity, she’d probably never stop!”
Like many other artists, Sian says that she and Phoebe have learned a great deal about the series since it’s been finished. “It’s funny, after the first season, the response then was overwhelming, and it’s obviously even bigger for the second one,” she says. “I remember Phoebe and I, we suddenly looked at each other and we were like, ‘You know what? We never once discussed how to play those sisters’. We just knew. We never, ever, contrived any of it. It was just there.”
On family dynamics
Sian sees the collaborative process as a highlight of her work on the series, gleaned from many years of working in theatre with actors like Phoebe. “We tried to get exactly the same team from season one to season two, because we really are a family, and we’ve worked so hard to make this and create it,” she says. “We wanted to celebrate everyone and keep them involved.”
Season two begins around the dinner table in a restaurant with the family we know intimately (Claire and Fleabag, Bill Paterson as Dad, Olivia Colman as Godmother, Brett Gelman as Claire’s husband Martin) with the addition of one new character — The Priest. When I ask her how they treat a new actor, Andrew Scott, Sian laughs. “Well, we bully them until they do exactly what we want!”
Andrew’s extensive stage experience – including a four-hour Hamlet (watch the BBC broadcast) – and his unique ability to translate words on the page into gesture and emotional punch gives an edgy tension to the new series. “I knew Andrew a little bit socially, because Phoebe and he worked together a long time ago in a show Roaring Trade at the Soho Theatre, which is where Phoebe first performed Fleabag,” she says. “Our characters are definitely much more embedded in the second series, but that’s a natural organic kind of development that happens. And to throw that kind of catalyst into the mix of that family dynamic was just so much fun. Brilliant. Just brilliant. Loved it.”
‘I can’t comment on Claire as a character. I find it very difficult, because I love her.’
The restaurant scene is the first time the Fleabag actors are reunited after season one, and Sian remembers it as “extremely challenging” to film. It was a real restaurant, underground in Covent Garden, and it was baking hot. “It seems seamless when you watch it, as though it would have just been one long scene with these tiny cut-outs, but it was written as these little moments,” she says. “For every single one we did different set ups. That’s why there are so many angles and that’s why you get so many different relationships between everyone round the table … I love it. But it was tough.”
One of the strangest notes in the scene is when The Priest mentions that his brother is a “paedophile”, directly linking — and in a weird sleight-of-hand dismissing —priests and sexual abuse (in an interview Phoebe reveals that the original word here was “cunt” but the BBC asked her to replace it). When I ask how much the actors stick to the script and how much Phoebe throws in new ideas on the day, it’s clear that it’s not a case of clever improvisation. “All changes are very precise and deliberate, and always better. You would never question it,” Sian says. “The whole speech that I have about positivity, that was pretty fresh on the day. Phoebe said something like, ‘I feel like we need to give you more about this.’ That was quite a late addition, but a lot of that episode remained as it was from the outset.”
On character and conviction
One of Sian’s first lines as the formidable Martha Crawley in the TV series Vanity Fair is “I am never wrong”. This parallels Claire’s pitch for perfection, the way she measures success in husbands and degrees and Burberry coats. Sian’s characters are studies in desperate desires stilled in the body, expressed not in words but in an almost unbearable tension beneath the surface. When I ask her about this ability to wring comedy out of anger and suppressed emotion, she says she finds the question hard to answer. While she appreciates comedy as all about timing, she doesn’t see herself as a technical actor.
“I don’t plan it. I always try to really feel into the energy of a character and then embody them,” she says. She brings it back again to the scripts. “[Claire] is the easiest … and the most joyous part I’ve ever had to play. Similarly, with Martha Crawley, actually, which was such a stunning script. When a character leaps off the page like that, it’s just a gift as an actor, because it does just wash over you … Everything in there — from their intonation to their punctuation to the stage directions — is informing you so fluidly with where to take the character and how to play it.”
While other actors talk about acting as a façade or pretence, it seems clear for Sian that the opposite is true. She is so attached that she finds Claire hard to analyse. “I can’t comment on Claire as a character. I find it very difficult, because I love her. She is not, I would say, the most self-aware person, and so I can’t judge her for those things,” she says. “As an actor, I will always approach from a place of empathy and complete conviction in that human, that however they see the world through their eyes, is all that I am here to honour.” I suspect this loyalty is one of the reasons viewers are so attached to the characters in the series and find it hard to accept the series is ending.
Sian’s response and approach to characters is always embodied; when she reads a script, it resonates in feeling her way through to the person. “I know when a character is right for me to play, when I can feel them in my body. I’m about to play someone who’s a real person, which I’ve never done before.” When I ask who, she’s hush hush. “I can’t say who it is, I’m afraid. Not yet. But I can feel her in my body already, and I have noticed it, that my body and my face change when I think about her.” If she reads a script and she feels she has to force herself into their body, she declines. But Claire is effortless to play. “Striking the balance between anger and humour, I give all the credit to Phoebe and she gives all the credit to me, but it is all there in the script. It’s all written, every moment, beat and breath. She dictates it, and it’s very, very easy to then perform that.”
On taboo territory
One of the most compelling aspects of Fleabag is the continuing conversations it encourages, the philosophical dilemmas it offers. Miscarriages, conversion, what makes us desire, even lustful, the tensions between feminism, leadership, sexuality and appearance, the erotic undertones of confession and the church as sensual space — all are dissected by the characters and viewers. When Paloma Faith admits to Andrew Scott on the Graham Norton couch that she has masturbated to episode five, female desire — yes it can be fresh and funny — comes front and centre, finally, to contemporary culture (Killing Eve is similarly fascinating).
Sian’s response and approach to characters is always embodied; when she reads a script, it resonates in feeling her way through to the person
The opening scene in the restaurant, in which Claire has a miscarriage in the toilet is memorable for its blend of over-the-top punch up action and considerable sentimental restraint. “It’s been really emotional for us, because the miscarriage story is based on something that happened to a friend of Phoebe’s. Initially there were people saying, ‘No one would ever do that. You would never go back to the dinner table’, and then it was revealed that, actually, that’s exactly what happened”, Sian says. “It was a business lunch. It was someone who basically didn’t want to cause disruption, and never should a woman dare to cause a rumpus like that.” She is pleased that the show’s depiction of miscarriage — “which is unbelievably common, and people don’t know that because it’s not spoken about” — has contributed to the start of a conversation that will take down that taboo.
Along with miscarriage, all taboo topics have a comic edge on the show, and nothing is off limits. Like sisters everywhere, Fleabag and Claire talk about farts and breasts and fannies and shitting and sex and penises (even though Claire can’t say the word). For Sian, while the series might be over, it’s all a valuable by-product of working with Phoebe. “There are so many conversations happening right now that have been needed to be had for a very long time,” she says. “I’m optimistic about where it will lead … even though they are difficult conversations, an open dialogue on these things will ultimately connect us more as humans and hopefully lead us to a much better place.”
Sian Clifford has been nominated for an Emmy (Best Comedy Supporting Actress) for her performance as Claire in Fleabag (season two, episode three). Fellow cast members Olivia Colman and Phoebe Waller-Bridge are also up for Emmy awards and the winners announced 22 September. Fleabag season one is available on ABC iView. Both seasons are available on Amazon Prime.
The West End production of Fleabag screens in Australia via NT LIve from October 11. Bookings