Brave New Worlder: Abigail McKern on family connections and life lessons

Brave New Worlder: Abigail McKern on family connections and life lessons

23 September 2015

Our Brave New World cast interview series kicks off with Abigail McKern, who plays Linda and various ensemble parts. This is Abigail's third time working with director James Dacre and second time appearing at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, where her actor-mother Jane Holland trod the boards in the 1950s. Here, Abigail also shares life lessons from her late father, actor Leo McKern, with whom she co-starred in three season of television's Rumpole of the Bailey. For more on Abigail's previous credits visit the Brave New World cast page

Abigail McKern as Linda with William Postlethwaite as John the Savage in Brave New World


You were at Northampton last year working on A Tale of Two Cities with Brave New World director James Dacre. What was that experience like? 

James Dacre always manages to put together people who really get on well, and in fact, I was lucky enough to have two old friends in the Tale of Two Cities company. We did quite a lot of historical research about the French Revolution, and one of the most enjoyable things about that rehearsal process was having a large supporting company of local people who gave the project added depth. The local company members worked incredibly hard and were totally committed to the production. And James made them feel totally involved and vital - not just like "extras".


How would you describe James as a director?

I have worked with many, many directors over forty years. You get the mad, the genius, the bully, the ineffective - all of which, as an actor, you have to adapt to! All actors have their favourites and James is mine. His attention to detail is extraordinary, and his vision carries you through some very demanding times. He sets the bar high - he will not settle for less than the very best he can achieve. He also has great respect for the actors’ process and is patient and kind. This is the third time I’ve worked for him.


You also have a family connection, via your mother, with the Theatre Royal in Northampton. Can you tell us more about that?

Sadly, my mother has dementia so I can’t ask her about it now. But I remembered that she had told me she worked as an actress at the Royal Theatre as a young woman in 1951, before I was born. One afternoon last year, when I was rehearsing A Tale of Two Cities and wasn't needed for a few hours, I took myself off to the Council Archives.

They brought out boxes and boxes of old theatre programmes, and I put on a pair of white dust gloves and pored through them. I was delighted to find five programmes that featured my mother. She played Jill North in Random Harvest, Ruth in Blithe Spirit, Stella Tabret in The Sacred Flame, Jane Blake in The Isle of Umbrellas and Rose in Love in a Mist, all directed by Lionel Hamilton. I never saw my mother acting as she gave up when I was born. I wonder if anyone is alive now who saw those shows?


Abigail's father Leo McKern in Rumpole of the Bailey


Your father Leo McKern, of course, was also an actor, with whom you worked. Why did you want to become an actor yourself?

I grew up in and around film sets and theatre dressing rooms and the fascination of it does get into your bones at an early age. So many of my acting friends also have parents who were actors. You get addicted to travelling and working with new people on every job you do.

My father was very successful so I was impressed by the glamour of it all - meeting iconic people like the Beatles and Sean Connery and having Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Sellers come round to your house for tea! My father was very careful to warn me, however, that you have to be tough enough to be rejected over and over again, watch your friends become hugely successful while you might be left behind, and be prepared to do many non-acting jobs to survive while you’re out of work.

"My father warned me: you have to be tough enough to be rejected over and over again and watch your friends become hugely successful while you might be left behind"

He also suggested that if I really wanted to learn my craft I should work backstage first. I was a Stage Manager for three years before I trained as an actor. I only worked with him twice - once onstage at the Sydney Opera House and for a couple of years on Rumpole of the Bailey for ITV. I hope to act well into my eighties - as long as I can remember my lines!


What do you think are the most important lessons you learned from your parents about acting/the profession?

The most important lessons my parents taught me were: not to take myself too seriously - acting is hardly saving lives - and to be self-reliant, hard-working, punctual and honest. My father never believed acting could be "taught". He never went to drama school (I did) and always said: "It's instinct - you've either got it or you haven't, there's no mystery. If you haven't got an imagination and a desire to communicate, forget it!"


Why did you want to accept your role in Brave New World?

The reason why I accepted Brave New World was to work with James Dacre again. Also, I’m a big science fiction fan and I've never done a piece like this before. New experiences are what life is all about!


How familiar were you with Aldous Huxley’s novel before this job?

I read the book when I was a teenager, but I didn't reread it during rehearsals. Once it's a play, you have to go with the adaptation and bring that to life. But I know other members of the company feel differently.


One of Brave New World's simulated sex scenes, with Abigail centre


Why do you think now is a good time to stage Brave New World? And why should audiences come to see it?

I think Brave New World positively sings out to today's audience. Aldous Huxley (and his contemporary George Orwell) managed to predict so much of our modern world. It is incredible to think he wrote the story over 80 years ago. Just the other day, there was a newspaper front page all about making "perfect" babies in laboratories.

"The play makes your think about how we are living our modern lives and whether we are losing important connections with a more natural environment"

During rehearsals, I saw a huge Coke promotion on Waterloo station urging everyone to BE HAPPY. In Brave New World, "Everyone is happy now" (or not!). Most people I speak to after seeing Brave New World say the play does make them think about how we are living our modern lives and whether we are losing important connections with a more natural environment.


The mother-son relationship in the play between your character Linda and William Postlethwaite’s John the Savage is a crucial one. How would you describe it?

I'm really enjoying working with William Postlethwaite. I think he's excellent as John the Savage, and although Linda is a small part, it is vital that we see her as she is so utterly different from the other "perfect" women in the play. She is not a particularly good mother, and her mind is damaged by drink and drugs. Yet John is still so loyal and protective of her, and he’s devastated when she dies. He’s an only child and they are both outsiders so they are very reliant on each other, even though she is stupidly cruel to him and selfish much of the time.


Any anecdotes from rehearsals?

Rehearsals were extremely intense as we had to get such a huge amount done in a short time. I was really thrilled by how quickly the company bonded. Well, considering we were writhing about together on the floor doing simulated sex on day three, we had to! The day Dawn King, our writer, brought in a fabulous huge cake with the Brave New World poster perfectly done in icing was great fun. We were able to briefly stuff our faces before going back to work.


Brave New World premieres at Royal and Derngate, Northampton, where it runs from 4 to 26 September 2015. It then tours to Edinburgh, Blackpool, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Wolverhampton, Darlington and Bradford where it concludes on 5 December.