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Anna Maxwell Martin

First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 21 April 2008

The show must go on. Anna Maxwell Martin must have drummed this into her head a thousand times in the days leading up to the press night of Cabaret at the Lyric, where she is playing Sally Bowles. Struck down by a virus during the rehearsal period, she was forced to withdraw from several preview performances. She returned to the musical just one night before opening night. Laura North caught up with her to find out if she's back on form.

<"The pressure of press nights doesn't usually bother me, I quite enjoy them," she explains. "But usually you feel so ready that you want to go: 'OK, this is what we've done, what do you think?' And the problem was that I didn't feel ready, I felt like I wanted another week." I'm sure that what she really wanted was another week in bed; but the show must go on. "It was a viral thing, like flu. My voice got through it but it was the rest of my body that wasn't so good; I was wandering around like an 80-year-old woman! It was very frustrating, we were rehearsing and previewing at night and really I wasn’t doing very much effectively."

Does she feel that the virus affected her performance? "Yes, massively. I mean it's a hugely energetic role. I'm not a singer and I'm not a dancer so I have to muster up everything I have to make her a performer. I'm not a performer either: I'm an actor." As soon as Maxwell Martin steps on stage, she has to power her way through the steamy Mein Herr and Don't Tell Mama dressed as a nun (who has forgotten her vow of chastity). "You need a lot of energy to do the show and what it emotionally involves. I just wasn't there, I could feel it."

"Cabaret is the only musical I've ever hankered after doing. I just wanted to play Sally Bowles"

Despite the debilitating virus, she still managed to impress the critics. The Independent's Paul Taylor judged her to be "the best and most crashingly accurate Sally Bowles to date", while Charles Spencer in the Telegraph said that her "fresh, vulnerable and idiosyncratic portrayal of Sally Bowles is the production's highlight". There were those, however, who thought she was miscast, including the Evening Standard's Nicholas De Jongh who said that she exuded "a waif-like innocence" which was at odds with the frivolity and sexual voracity of the character. "I know people slagged me for not being buxom enough," Maxwell Martin counters. "I thought, God, these people don't have food, they don't have anything. They live in a depression era of Germany and they screw people to get drink and drugs. I mean, they're not exactly going to be Ten Ton Tessies!"

Maxwell Martin also had to prove herself against the stack of brilliant Cabarets that had gone before: inparticular the Oscar-winning film with Liza Minnelli and Sam Mendes's critically acclaimed version at the ever-popular Donmar, which transferred to Broadway and made a star of Alan Cumming. One of my colleagues who has seen the role played by Dame Judi Dench, Jane Horrocks and Liza Minnelli, proclaimed her "the best Sally Bowles I've ever seen".

For many people, Minnelli epitomised Sally Bowles in Bob Fosse's film adaptation; Maxwell Martin's performance as Sally is very different. In Fosse's film, Sally is a showgirl with a powerful voice, belting out the cabaret numbers at the Kit Kat Club. She is highly strung and vulnerable but also glamorous and charming, drawing the naïve Englishman Brian (Michael York) to her like a magnet to a fridge. Maxwell Martin's Sally is a lot closer to the Berlin stories of Christopher Isherwood that the Kander and Ebb musical is based on. She too is vulnerable and highly strung but there is a stronger smell of desperation about her. Rejection is routine. When she asks Cliff (the equivalent of Brian, played by Michael Hayden) for a bed for the night, Maxwell Martin explains, "she's probably been to three other people already and they've said, 'F**k off Sally, you've been here before'." Cliff is clearly homosexual from the outset and seems to find her irritating as well as appealing. She is not the darling of the Kit Kat Club like Minnelli's Sally; unceremoniously sacked, she remains unemployed for a large segment of the show. "She's drunk most of the time, she's on drugs most of the time, she's had various abortions which means she f**ks around the whole time," says Maxwell Martin. "And people who screw lots of people aren't doing it for the sex, they're doing it because they're unhappy. If she's in a different man's bed every night it says something about how she thinks of herself, which isn’t too hot. She hasn't got very much self-respect and her choice at the end of the show is indicative of who she is."

In the end, she chooses the Kit Kat Club over the prospect of being a conventional wife and mother. "She wants to live and die in that club," says Maxwell Martin. "And she wants to end up, probably, in a disgusting drug-and-booze-fuelled heap within in a year, dead in that burning club. And she knows that's her fate and she's resigned to it." The Kit Kat Club, the centrepiece of the show, turns a darker shade of black under the direction of Rufus Norris, then man who brought us festering family secrets in Festen (at the Lyric) and husband-eating ogres in Sleeping Beauty (at the Young Vic). Norris replaces the vaudeville of Fosse's film with a seedy kind of underworld, presided over by James Dreyfus's malevolent Emcee. "It's not just about enjoyment, that club," says Maxwell Martin. "It's also about the fact that people are really f**ked up in this club, like Sally is, addicted to drink and drugs." The chorus members look like they have come straight from the Torture Garden fetish club, dressed in leather costumes which expose as much flesh as they cover. Sexual liberation – and exploitation – is incorporated into the choreography by Javier De Frutos; the dancers simulate sex, grab crotches, slap bums and swap genders.

"I was wandering around like an 80-year-old woman"

The artistic team did not say, "Let's try and be really dark", says Maxwell Martin; the darkness was drawn from reality. "The vision always has to come from truth and I think that did come from what they researched about the time and the clubs. After the First World War, Germany was a terribly impoverished place, crippled by reparations." 1930s Berlin fostered a permissive attitude where sexual experimentation and cross-dressing was tolerated and thrived. "I think that the clubs were about freedom, expressing yourself and letting yourself go, and the expression of nudity. If you see the pictures, it's just very out there. People just didn't wear much in these places."

They certainly do not wear much in Cabaret and sometimes they wear nothing at all. This is not a major surprise as choreographer De Frutos is famous for representing the naked body on stage, usually his own. Maxwell Martin, however, manages to keep her clothes on. "An opportunity never came up for me to take them off! If it was necessary for the story telling then I would have done it but it wasn't, so it didn't happen." The entire chorus disrobes just before the end of the first act, whilst a youth sings the hope-filled anthem Tomorrow Belongs To Us. At the end of the song the wholesome boy turns round to reveal a swastika on his arm, a sight more shocking than the sea of naked flesh.

The chorus undresses again at the end of Act Two, with a greater impact. Throughout the show, the rise of the Nazi party has been hanging over the club, and the relationship of Fraulein Schneider and her Jewish fiancé, like a sulphurous cloud. The Nazis promise purity and prosperity but deliver acid; violence rains down on Berlin, generated by a desire to suppress anything that does not fit the Aryan blueprint. The final scene is haunting: a naked and vulnerable chorus huddles together under what looks like falling snow. "The nudity at the end also then refers to the end, because that was about lots of people going naked into a gas chamber," explains Maxwell Martin. With this explanation the snow could be the human ash that resulted from the chambers. For most of the play, nakedness suggests eroticism, a sign of sexual confidence and liberation; now, chillingly, it means death.

Starring in Cabaret is a new experience for Maxwell Martin. Her only other performance in a musical was as Hildy in On The Town while she was training at Lamda. "Cabaret is the only musical I've ever hankered after doing. I just wanted to play Sally Bowles really. I've always thought of it as a play with music," Maxwell Martin says, before adding that she would never choose to do a musical because she is not a good enough singer. I suggest that there is more room for expression in the songs precisely because she doesn't belt them out. "That's because I can't!" she laughs. "I had to use whatever I had to do a bit of acting!"

What could be taken as a criticism is one of the greatest strengths of the production. The lyrics, when performed by a cast who are actors rather than singers, are as powerful as if they were spoken. When Shelia Hancock sings So What?, a good-humoured acceptance of adversity, her wavering vocals express the immunity she has developed to disappointment and her instinct to survive. This instinct later prompts her to break off the engagement with her Jewish fiancé because of the trouble it would bring to her door. Maxwell Martin flirts outrageously in Mein Herr, reeling in the punters as she ups the tempo; her boarding-school elocution in Don't Tell Mama gives a hint of her previous posh existence – Mummy thinks she's touring Europe with school chums, you see; and Cabaret is a blistering realisation that her life is exactly that and will never be anything else.

Rather than having a CV brimming with musicals, Maxwell Martin's is full of fantastic dramatic roles, collected like a magpie with a desire for shiny objects. She appeared in Tom Stoppard's trilogy The Coast Of Utopia at the National before taking the lead role of 12-year-old Lyra in the adaptation of Philip Pullman's extraordinary His Dark Materials, capturing the energy and maturity of the girl without resorting to child-like behaviour. She has appeared in the film adaptation of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love and in BBC1's phenomenally successful Doctor Who, where she starred in an episode called The Long Game set in the year 200,000. Simon Pegg, her co-star, apparently made her laugh hysterically throughout filming before they were both killed off by being "pelted with bits of polystyrene that had been coloured in red", a mode of death that reminds her of the original low-budget series. "People are mad fans, aren't they? Most autograph stuff I get is people still with Doctor Who things," she laughs.

"An opportunity never came up for me to take my clothes off"

Her big break, however, came with BBC1's serialisation of Bleak House. She played Esther Summerson, the lead role opposite so many prominent actors that it would take far too long to list them all, but includes Gillian Anderson, Charles Dance and Timothy West. Moreover, it won her a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in 2006. I watched a couple of the half-hour episodes at the time and found myself intrigued but confused, as if I had just turned on Eastenders for the first time. "People called it soap-like but I don't think it actually was," Maxwell Martin argues. "That was the format that Dickens did it in originally and that's nothing to do with soap, that's about keeping an audience entertained. And with a costume drama, as we all know, they can get long and turgid and boring. Bleak House had a very definite beginning and end, and very little in the middle because it was only half an hour. It kept you really hooked. A lot of people did the marathon DVD sit down."

I was one of those people; after buying the DVD set I watched religiously until the end. Completely hooked, I finished the marathon at 4:30 in the morning after a loud and intoxicated flatmate made sleeping impossible. Summerson is a sweet, modest and mature young woman, a million miles away from the debauched Sally, although possibly sharing some of her insecurities about self-confidence and identity. She does not know who her parents are and it emerges that her mother is in fact the wealthy Lady Dedlock (Anderson). The kindly old man who is her guardian, John Jarndyce (Denis Lawson), falls in love with her, as does the handsome young doctor Allan Woodcourt, who she is in love with.

I tell Maxwell Martin that I always find myself rooting for the inappropriate relationship. She asks if I wanted Jarndyce and Esther to get together and as I nod my head she laughs raucously, "Oh my god, my friend said that! I love my lovely Richard Harrington who played Dr Woodcourt. But Denis is lovely as well. A lot of my friends just said 'I kind of wanted you to be with him'. I think it's because Denis was so wonderful in that part and you felt for him so much, I think that's probably why." I suggest that it may be something to do with the allure of the older man, to which she replies, "Mine's 50 love, so I can't say anything about that!" (Her partner is the South-African born Roger Michell, director of the film Notting Hill and Honour at the National, in which Maxwell Martin appeared.) Is this a sign that she would have ended up with Jarndyce in real life? "Well Denis isn't really my type, no. Well, possibly. But they weren't passionately in love with each other, whereas her and old Woodcourt, love across a room; that was in true Dickens style."

Back at the Cabaret, Maxwell Martin has returned to top form and is now "loving it". With the virus firmly behind her, she has been able to concentrate on her performance. Since she was able to gather such exceptional reviews whilst in the grip of a three-week virus, it is tempting to imagine what she'd be like on a good day. At any rate, she can safely add Sally Bowles to her shiny collection of great dramatic roles. em>LN


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