Spectre may be breaking box-office records at the cinema, but another spy drama is coming to town, this time at the theatre. And while James Bond’s M has reverted to default male after seven film appearances by Judi Dench, in a new production of Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood the head of a London-based intelligence agency is played by Lisa Dillon.
First staged with Felicity Kendal at the Aldwych Theatre in 1988 near the end of the Cold War, Hapgood was initially a bit of a flop — a very rare event in Stoppard’s stellar career — but it was revised before opening in New York in 1994 where it had a much better reception.
This first London revival by Howard Davies gives us a good chance to reassess the play in a world very different from that in which it was written, but just as riven by conflict.
Just a few days before the run starts, Dillon can’t wait for the audiences to arrive. She stars as British intelligence chief Elizabeth Hapgood who is trying to find out who is the mole in her network leaking secrets to the Russians, in a story of national and personal betrayal.
"As head of the unit the finger is inevitably pointed at me. Washington are involved and they send someone over from the CIA to help me dig out what’s going wrong, so there’s a lot of pressure on me to find whoever's playing dirty."
As a "spymistress", the character of Hapgood was a new twist on a well-worn, male-dominated genre popularised by the likes of Ian Fleming, Len Deighton and John Le Carré. Dillon points out that the play was "written pre-Stella Rimington being outed as director-general of MI5, so it’s really all in Tom’s imagination.
"Back then television hadn’t made the Jane Tennison/Helen Mirren detective series Prime Suspect. Now this doesn’t seem dramatic but in the late 80s it was ground-breaking to have a woman doing this kind of work."
In fact, Dillon doesn’t see her character as a feminist pioneer. "To some extent, as a single mother with a young son and a highly pressurised job, it is a juggling act, but she does it brilliantly. I don’t think a woman in the workplace need humanising and Tom doesn’t write that story. Many men in top corporate roles have families but we don’t often see them being fathers — if only we did we might understand the whole picture a bit more.”
Set just a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Stoppard’s revisions tweaked the structure rather than the content so it has not been updated with the benefit of hindsight.
Dillon says: “At the start of the play the Cold War is alive and kicking, yet by the end it feels like it’s on the way out. I think the play is incredibly relevant with all the things that have been going on in the world recently where unfortunately the secret intelligence services are needed more than ever."
The Cold War may have officially ended with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, but this has been replaced by the current threat of Jihadist terrorism. As well as engaging with espionage and politics, Hapgood grapples with quantum mechanics and particle physics, while Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle illuminates the murky, twilit world that Elizabeth Hapgood inhabits. As always with Stoppard, complex scientific and philosophical ideas are made accessible and entertaining.
Dillon says: "Just as the act of observation itself helps to determine particle movement, in the play surveillance changes what happens, as watching out for patterns of behaviour affects the outcome. But Tom makes science poetic, and beautiful at times. And there’s an awful lot of humour in it." She has found Stoppard’s attendance at rehearsals very helpful but also "unintentionally intimidating because I’m such a big fan of his. It’s such a privilege to be in one of his plays".
Dillon can also be seen on the big screen at the moment in a small role in the film Suffragette. She has a tear-jerking scene with Carey Mulligan and Ben Whishaw in which her well-to-do character comes with her husband to take away their young son for adoption. This was done during a day’s filming in London last year while she was starring as the cross-dressing Moll Cutpurse in Dekker and Middleton’s Jacobean city comedy The Roaring Girl for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon.
Although she’s also done a lot of TV work (including the BBC’s successful Cranford adaptations), there’s no doubt that theatre is Dillon’s first love. Now 36, she came to London when she was 18 to study English Literature and Drama at Royal Holloway but left there before graduating because she won a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Since then she has worked extensively in the theatre, including an award-winning newcomer performance as Hilde Wangel in Ibsen’s The Master Builder in the West End, playing Desdemona in the RSC’s Othello at Trafalgar Studios, and acting in classic plays by the likes of Feydeau, Coward and Tennessee Williams, as well as contemporary drama, at venues such as the National Theatre, the Old Vic and the Royal Court Theatre.
In 2011 she received much acclaim for playing a drug addict in David Eldridge’s The Knot of the Heart at the Almeida Theatre, a role written especially for her. "It had a big impact on audiences in a way I’ve never experienced before. People wanted to tell you personal things about their own lives and their relatives’ stories in the bar afterwards. It was very moving, but sometimes it was so overwhelming I had to take the back door out."
If that was a highlight in Dillon’s career, she is hoping that Hapgood will prove to be another.
Hapgood runs from 4 December to 23 January at the Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, NW3 3EU. Tickets are £10-£35, available from the website.