The role of Hamlet’s mother Queen Gertrude is not the happiest of parts, but the woman who is occupying it at the New Ambassadors theatre is one very happy lady, delighted to be back on stage in the West End in such a meaty role. Caroline Bishop went to meet Anita Dobson, whose varied career has encompassed soap superstardom, pop chart success and a Laurence Olivier Award nomination, and finds a woman who feels very lucky indeed….
At the New Ambassadors theatre several people are in the throes of dying on stage. Dramatic exclamations float through the wall to the stage door, followed by rapturous applause and a flurry of activity as several men in tights and black velvet bloomers come up the stairs backstage, helmets tucked under their arms, heading for their dressing rooms.
It’s a Thursday afternoon and the matinee performance of Hamlet has just finished. Shakespeare’s epic tragedy is a tad long, and the afternoon’s show has run on a bit, so the cast have less than two hours before they’re back on stage to do it all again. Nevertheless, Anita Dobson is all bright-eyed and cheery when she bustles into the circle bar five minutes later, having swapped her Elizabethan gown for a grey suit and a black fedora, perched at a jaunty angle atop her auburn hair. She may have just been through the emotional trauma of finding out her husband killed her ex, her son’s gone mad and she’s just been poisoned, but Queen Gertrude is on top form. “It’s wonderful for me to be doing Shakespeare in the West End. That really is a real privilege,” she beams.
"Steve is just a poppet and enthusiastic to a complete extent – he couldn’t be more excited"
It’s the first time that Dobson has been in a Shakespeare production since her early, pre-Eastenders career, and she is delighted to be doing so as part of English Touring Theatre, a company she describes as “really, really delightful”. The production, directed by ETT Artistic Director Stephen Unwin, has come into the West End following a national tour, something the 56-year-old actress was none too keen on when the role was first offered. “My first reaction was ‘oh touring, oh dear!’ [but] I said if anyone’s going to offer me Shakespeare I should at least meet them! So I went along and had lunch with Steve and he’s just a poppet and enthusiastic to a complete extent – he couldn’t be more excited,” Dobson gushes. The nice lunch and the enthusiasm obviously did the trick, because Dobson accepted the part and is very glad she did, particularly now she’s back at home in London. “It’s been lovely to be at home with it. I don’t think any of us were expecting it to go into the West End, it was a great surprise, a nice one… not that I hated touring, but it is quite hard being away from home, especially when you get older and you’ve got family. So it’s great being able to go home at night and keep your life ticking over.”
Relaxing at home after playing in Hamlet must be particularly lovely, given the intensity of the play and the emotional depths that Dobson must descend into as the mother of the anguished prince. Though the diminutive actress comes across as positive, happy and very much enjoying life, she talks about the emotional demands of the role in such a way that it’s clear she must be drawing on painful experiences of her own. “You go through life and things happen to you, you lose a parent or you lose a child or something awful happens and you get ill – grief is very tiring, it can put years on you,” she pauses, contemplating. “I think you have to connect to where your pain level is. People talk about the abyss – looking down into the deep well of ‘what if there isn’t anything after death?’, ‘what if I die a painful excruciating death?’ If something awful has happened to you then that delves into that black hole. Some people understandably don’t want to look into the abyss. I think plays like this are [about] people who are standing on the edge of the abyss looking down.”
Playing such a role can help you deal with a painful experience, she continues: “I’m not suggesting that you should go and seek pain – but if it’s there then of course you’re going to tap into it. I think if somebody has loss in their life and they’re talking to you and you too have had loss, it helps you understand their pain better.”
Dobson seems to have a very philosophical, worldly-wise outlook on life, as if, unlike her character, any painful experiences have long since been put behind her. She has a warm, friendly manner and talks about the younger cast members Ed Stoppard (Hamlet) and Alice Patten (Ophelia) with a motherly fondness. Despite the subject of the play, ETT is a very happy company, says Dobson, before adding, rather dramatically: “All of them without question manage to come in with a lightness in them and then they throw themselves into the abyss.”
"Plays like this are about people who are standing on the edge of the abyss looking down"
It all sounds rather painful, but Dobson herself seems perfectly able to teeter on the edge of the abyss during a performance and then be as chirpy as can be afterwards. If anything, it puts her in the mood for a party. “I find if you’re doing a musical or a comedy, your brief is to make people laugh, which is great, but that’s tiring in another way and you want to be serious when you come away from it – read books, look at serious plays, be quiet. When you do Hamlet your other side is being fed, the side of you that wants to dig into that deep, dark place and experience that huge sweep of emotion, so when you finish you want to go out and have a good time!”
This balancing act comes from experience, as Dobson is quite used to playing roles which require great emotion. She was Laurence Olivier Award-nominated for her role in Frozen, which transferred from the Birmingham Rep to the National in 2002. In this she played Nancy, a mother whose 10-year-old daughter is abducted and murdered by a serial killer, a role which was “a gift of a part,” according to Dobson, who knew as soon as she read the script that she wanted to do it. “I know that sounds trite but it was an absolute privilege to do it both times we did it. I thought there’s going to be women who have been through this nightmare and I’m the person that’s been chosen to represent them. It was really important in that way.”
The run at the National coincided with the murder of Soham schoolgirls Holly and Jessica, which, horrifically, made the play even more relevant. “It was kind of apt but its hideousness was even more highlighted,” says Dobson. “The pain was so awful but there was never a day when I ever felt I can’t go through this again. I just thought there’s a queue a mile long of people who would love to play this part and there are women out there that have lived it, and you are the one that’s going to do it. It was always just an amazing honour.”
She frequently says how honoured and lucky she feels she is with the roles she’s been given, and likewise with the life she leads with husband Brian May, of legendary rock band Queen, in their London home. The pair married in 2000 after having already spent 12 years together, and once collaborated in the form of Dobson’s 1988 album Talking Of Love. But these days May would rather see his wife doing more weighty stuff. “He’s very deep, my husband; he’s quite intellectual,” she says. “I think he finds it satisfying to see me do [Hamlet]. It takes him on a bigger journey.”
However, Dobson herself is all for a varied life. She enjoys comedy and musical roles, having starred in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Chicago and The Vagina Monologues, and has had numerous TV roles on shows such as Holby City, The Bill, Casualty and New Tricks. “I love the constant challenge, the variety,” she says. “I find it harder to stay with one role for too long. I find it fun that I did Hamlet last year and then went and did a beautiful, scatty, exciting Christmas show and then I came back to Hamlet again – I find that very pleasing.”
This desire – and ability – to play many different genres comes from her parents, who exerted opposite influences on her. “My father was very eloquent and very patient and thoughtful and he loved Shakespeare, and my mother was nutty, mad, very quick-tempered and Italian in her emotions. She was funny, she sang a lot, and we used to go ballroom dancing together. So I think I got that love of music and making people laugh from her, and I get from my father the deeper, more intense side – and I like the feeling of being able to employ them all.”
"Angie has become kind of iconic now, I’m very pleased to say"
Perhaps it is this versatility that has enabled her to have a successful career since leaving the role she is best known for nearly 20 years ago – that of Angie Watts, wife and sparring partner of Dirty Den, in the soap Eastenders. Coincidently, it is Eastenders’ 21st birthday on the day we meet. Dobson was invited to the party, but of course, she’s at the New Ambassadors looking into that abyss when Pat, Pauline et al are downing their champers, which seems to say it all. Refreshingly, Dobson is not at all reluctant to talk about the role that she could understandably be completely sick of being asked about. Instead, she recognises it as the role that “cracked me through” and got her known as an actress who had been “jack of all trades, master of none” prior to the soap. The downside is that becoming so recognised meant it took some time after she left before she was offered other roles. “It probably was about three to five years before people started to a) believe that I wasn’t going back and b) to think it’s enough time now that people will accept me doing other things. It was a slow process, but I was lucky again, I went back to the theatre and I did get some really cracking roles, so I suddenly found myself busy and off on another little journey having to prove to everybody that I could do all the things that I’d been doing before!”
Now she talks about the part that made her name with affection. “Angie has become kind of iconic now, I’m very pleased to say. But it’s 20 years down the line since we first did Eastenders, and I’m amazed and thrilled that they still talk about her the way they do. I also feel that people now can make the differentiation between [me and her], they can still love Angie but they can also like me as well – well hopefully!”
Gertrude is certainly a long way from Angie and that top-four single Anyone Can Fall In Love (sung to Eastenders’ theme tune). Though diverse, Dobson is happy with all her past career decisions, in characteristically positive fashion. “Sometimes I have looked back and thought I should have done that, but I don’t think you can live your life like that,” she says. “I just love working. I work quite a lot and I’m just a very lucky woman really.”