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‘I like atmosphere, spirituality and personality’ Camille O’Sullivan talks to Rhyannon Styles

Sublime storyteller Camille O’Sullivan is best known for her eclectic, award winning cabaret spectaculars, interpreting the songs of David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and many other sadly departed 20th century icons to wide-eyed audiences around the globe. An Olivier award winning performer, Camille fearlessly revolves between genres, drawing strength from her Irish blood and Weimar education, alighting theatres, spiegeltents and silver screens with her melancholic humour and unique non-classical voice.

From 13-16 September she appears amongst a landscape of pianos and falling snow at the Barbican in Woyzeck in Winter, a combination of two dramatic masterpieces: Büchner’s Woyzeck and Schubert’s Winterreise.

Rhyannon Styles: How does it feel when you’re collaborating in a large theatrical piece compared to performing your own solo shows?
Camille O’Sullivan:
I’ve always loved performing in somebody else’s vision, especially in a theatrical sense. It’s a relief that I’m not carrying all the weight on my own shoulders for a change. When you’re by yourself you can become a control freak, so it’s good to let go of that, to make sure you’re not pulling the same tricks as you do in your own gigs. I can’t be Camille O’Sullivan the singer, like I am in my shows. I think that’s quite a natural knee jerk reaction to pushing yourself forward as a performer, but it’s quite scary also.

Rhyannon: Did Conall Morrison’s direction allow you to push through that fear and move forward?
A good director will find something in you that you didn’t know you had - I’ll always leave myself open for that. Conall said to me, ‘You’re very reserved’ and I thought, What?!? I think as an actress I am, and I probably am. And I think that’s why I’m so bonkers on stage, I’ve got this reserve in me and I need to go the other way. I don’t notice it in myself until I’m in the rehearsal room with a director who’s going ‘wow!’

Rhyannon: Was performing and singing professionally always something that you wanted to do?
Singing came out of the blue for me, I trained as an architect, not as an artist. For many years I struggled trying to find my singing voice. I once tried to have a singing profession, and an opera singer said ‘Don’t do this to me’ and I was like ‘Don’t do this to me’, because I’m not that type of singer, although I love those songs.

I’m not from the world of classical training, I didn’t learn about melodies, key changes and chords. I like atmosphere, spirituality and personality, my performances are conversations with the audience and breaking down the fourth wall. I feel very lucky that I didn’t get trained, because I feel all my training has happened in-front of an audience.

Rhyannon: How did you eventually find a style of singing you were comfortable with?
The space between lyrics, storytelling, music and performance has always excited me. When I lived in Berlin I saw people performing Sprechgesang (spoken-singing) and I was instantly attracted to exploring this form. I’d heard Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen use their voices in similar ways, so I began using spoken-singing to communicate my voice. That form of expression makes total sense to me.

Rhyannon: Saying that, you’re now singing a classical score by Schubert, how does that feel?
I didn’t really know Schubert’s music, and it’s always quite a delight when you think you know music and then someone introduces you to something and you’re like - I’ve just fallen in love with a new thing all over again!

The music runs like a river though the whole show, and you always feel like you’re on this connecting boat. It really has a hymnal, simple, beautiful and haunting piano playing. We do this lovely thing where speech might be happening and then suddenly you get this flash of song and dance. What’s interesting for me, is that most of my fellow performers on stage are incredible actors but not necessarily singers. I love that it’s not done in a classical way. It’s done in a very real way and I think the music just heightens the emotions of a scene.  

Germanic stories have a tendency to be quite brutal, but these songs really lift the hardness with moments of light and joy. It really makes sense of that play and it softens the edges of Woyzeck.

Rhyannon: In Woyzeck in Winter you play Marie, how did you begin to imagine who she might be?
Marie is an older woman, so I thought about what can I bring to that. For me it’s about emotion, it’s always about something I feel, like sadness or happiness. Every action is three dimensional, people aren’t just good or bad. I bring charisma, a flash of fearlessness and moments of madness. My interest lies within unravelling that character, and exploring how she interacts with the other characters.

You only find out how that works when you are in front of an audience. We just spent a week in Galway, and it’s becoming even clearer now. It’s only from living that character on stage that you find these things, the little nuances in the performance.

Rhyannon: Do you enjoy the boundaries or playing a specific role?
I realised very early on that I liked fantasy in my life. I think my real life is on stage, and my own life is not reality half the time. I love feeling in control on stage, even though I do feel really out of control sometimes. For me, the beauty in performing is how you as the performer bring the character to life, and your responsibility to perform that to the best of your abilities.

Rhyannon: How does it feel running around a set made of 103 pianos?
I would pay alone just to go on that stage and stand amongst those pianos. When they say in the script, ‘a landscape of pianos’ that’s what you get, it’s really magical. There are little gaps between the piano’s where you can wait before your next scene, and then it begins to snow on stage, and you’re watching this from behind and it’s really beautiful. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

Rhyannon: What do you enjoy about performing this work?
Being a performer and realising I thought I knew what I was doing, and then realising there’s always more to learn about yourself - it’s always an education.

It’s not just about you stepping up and doing your piece, it’s about being part of a whole with all these people who are trying to make this happen. That crazy journey we’re on makes sense when we’re collaborating. I think it’s always amazing when you get a little email asking if you want to do a show, and you think, what’s that going to be, and then suddenly you’re in the Barbican going - Oh my god, no pressure!

Camille is performing in Woyzeck in Winter at the Barbican from 13-16th September.
Presented by the Barbican
Co-produced by Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival
Co-commissioned by the Barbican
Supported by Culture Ireland


Use code 86394 to get 20% off best available seats in the stalls. This offer applies to both £35 and £30 tickets on all performances from 13–16 Sep.
£3 booking fee per online transaction, £4 by phone. No fee when tickets are booked in person. Subject to availability.