The trips that made me: Indira Varma
From an Imperial double agent in Obi Wan Kenobi, to the vengeful Ellaria Sand in Game of Thrones, Indira Varma has made ‘formidable’ her highly entertaining trademark. As she takes on Lady Macbeth, she tells Rosamund Dean why now is the perfect time for a retelling of Shakespeare’s tale
“She’s a minx,” declares Indira Varma with a delighted laugh. The actress has played many brilliant minxes over the years, although she’s best known as the ruthless Ellaria Sand in Game of Thrones. In this case, the minx to whom she is referring is The Duchess in the new series of Doctor Who. “It’s bonkers, and great fun,” she grins. “Ncuti Gatwa does not disappoint.”
If anyone can veer seamlessly from The Duchess to Lady Macbeth, it’s Varma. She’s currently starring in a new production of The Scottish Play, with Ralph Fiennes in the titular role, which opened in Liverpool last November before touring Edinburgh, London and Washington, D.C. this year. “I was very excited and nervous when I got the role,” she admits, having worked with Fiennes and director Simon Godwin before, on Man and Superman at the National Theatre in 2015. She adds that this is the perfect time for retelling Shakespeare’s tragedy. “Particularly in the current climate, with all the huge egos and power-hungry people in the world right now. The lengths that people will go to for power is really interesting. And Lady Macbeth is so fearsome and clever, I hope I do her justice.”
Varma has previous with touring Shakespeare, and met her husband, actor Colin Tierney, on a production of Othello back in 1997. “We opened in Salzburg, then went to Warsaw, Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Adelaide, Wellington, and we ended up in New York,” she remembers. “That was insane. I don’t think they do tours like that anymore.” The couple now live in North London with their dog, Spinee, and 16-year-old daughter, Evelyn – who will surely inherit the travel bug from her parents. “I think it’s so important to travel with children from a very young age and, while I do love luxury holidays, you learn so much more about the world when you travel the way the people who live in that country do,” she says. “Even if you have a bad experience, you survive and learn through it. I’m not saying people should go out and risk their lives, but we should be less fearful of the unknown. Sometimes you can go to a tourist attraction, and you leave feeling numb because it’s as if you’ve seen it through glass. You haven’t really felt it. You’re not living it.”
From early childhood, Varma was exposed to many countries and cultures thanks to her Indian father and Swiss mother, both artists who travelled a lot. She tries to provide the same expansive experience for her daughter – school holidays and dog care allowing. “Having a dog does limit your travel,” she laughs ruefully. “We leave her with dog-sitters who she knows well, but she still punishes us when we get back.”
I was about six the first time I went to India, for my cousin’s wedding in Bhopal. My parents wanted to explore so we went for two months. We saw the Ajanta and Ellora Caves in Maharashtra, and we’d go on three-day train journeys. Dad would get off to buy chai and, when the train started moving, he’d run alongside it and jump back on. I learned about cultural differences because mum is not Indian, and this was the 1970s so it was still quite patriarchal. The men ate before the women, which mum found abhorrent. She’s quite feisty, and everyone stared at her because she's blonde and blue eyed. I remember eating from a pandan leaf plate when mum turned up and a local kid who was sitting with us freaked out; she'd never seen a white person before.
Going to Switzerland as a child to visit mum’s family was a very different experience. That was the first time I’d been to a restaurant. In India we’d go to cafes and have dosa, but Switzerland was the first time I had something like dim sum. My grandfather used to take us to this place on the Lac Léman, the lake of Geneva, where you could get deep fried filets de perche. Then my grandmother would take me to the confiserie, where I’d choose a beautiful-looking chocolate confection from the window. And I learned to ski in La Sage. It wasn’t fancy: we’d be in some old chalet, not a touristy place at all. You’d get the smell of cows, and there was no central heating. We’d use empty wine bottles filled with hot water to warm the beds.
Last year, the three of us went to Sri Lanka and it was just glorious. I’m terrible at surfing but, down in the south, they’ve got really good surf for beginners – small, slow waves. We got the chance to see elephants in the wild, and visited some beautiful Buddhist temples and caves. At Sigiriya [ancient ruins in the central province], you have to climb up all these stairs and there were Buddhist nuns, all wearing pink, climbing up there, too – looking so beautiful against the blue sky. And the food is amazing. I loved the egg hoppers in the morning, which are served with chilli and coconut. So delicious, and the curries are incredible. Sri Lanka feels like a slightly less frantic version of India.
Greece is somewhere I’m happy to go back to again and again. There are so many beautiful islands and we’ve been to lots of them. Last year we went to Skopelos and Alonissos. As a child, my mum used to take me to Greece every Easter with two of her best friends, who were also artists. We’d fly to Athens, then get on a bus and end up somewhere beautiful and random. It was always a room in some little village with one taverna and no tourists. I remember loving the moussaka and pastitsio, which is a bit like Greek lasagne.
When I was about 15, I met an Italian boy at a Swiss summer camp. He invited me to stay in his parents’ castello just south of Naples but, on my way back to Switzerland, I missed the last train and was stranded in Milan. There were no mobile phones in those days, or cashpoints. I had my return ticket but no money and, as it got later, the people in the station got scarier. Then I saw this young guy who seemed quite sweet, so I told him my predicament and asked if I could go home with him. We got a train to his village a couple of hours out of Milan, and I remember getting the giggles thinking, what on earth am I doing? His mum and dad were surprised when we turned up in the middle of the night, but they gave me his room and he slept on the couch, and I went back to Switzerland the next day. I’ve often relied on the kindness of strangers. There’s so much good in humanity. Having said that, my daughter’s 16 and I would never let her do anything like that.
Macbeth runs in London from 10 February to 23 March, followed by a season in Washington, D.C.
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