Claire Bloom has been getting down the gym in preparation for her latest role, as the sprightly Lily, a widow who has retired to Florida and fancies learning to dance, in the play Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks, which opens at the Haymarket on 29 November. Fresh from a three-hour dance session with co-star Billy Zane, Bloom tells Caroline Bishop why having fun in rehearsals is something of a new experience…. In its combination of elements, the British premiere of Richard Alfieri’s play Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks could well appeal to a very wide audience. The two-hander stars a charismatic young film star making his West End debut – Billy Zane – and a veteran stage actress infusing the show with old-school grace – Claire Bloom; and it is choreographed by Craig Revel-Horwood, who has made a name for himself as the ‘evil’ judge on Strictly Come Dancing, the TV show which can take the credit for the resurgence in popularity of the art form this play is all about – ballroom dancing.
On this cold and bright November day the trio has just returned to the rehearsal rooms in Regent’s Park after a break for lunch; they’ve spent the morning going through one of the dances in the play, which follows young dance teacher Michael’s attempt to teach a sprightly, widowed retiree, Lily, to dance. Bloom, as Lily, is the lucky woman who gets to dance with Zane’s Michael, and she’s thoroughly enjoying rehearsals: “It’s such a pleasure! Everyone knows how to waltz and foxtrot, but it’s different when they are choreographed. I’ve always wanted to learn the tango, and I hadn’t, so we’re doing that, and the first thing is cha-cha, which is not the kind of thing I’ve ever done. It’s great fun for me, wonderful, very invigorating, and it makes me feel well,” she stresses the word.
The diminutive actress does look well, and much younger than her 75 years. As an actress who has played some of the most emotionally intense characters in drama (her favourite “without hesitation” being Blanche Du Bois in the 1974 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Piccadilly), it comes as a refreshing change to find herself in a light-hearted comedy for the first time. “I’ve always wanted to [do a comedy], but no one’s ever asked me to do one! I’m not complaining, I’ve done wonderful plays, and some of them have had a lot of comedy built into them, but I’ve never done a comedy,” she says.
"At first I thought, ‘God, I’m enjoying it, what’s wrong?’"
Consequently, this time Bloom hasn’t put herself through the emotional wringer like she normally does when rehearsing a part. Unlike roles she’s occupied in plays by Shakespeare (including Ophelia and Gertrude in Hamlet, Juliet in Romeo And Juliet and Viola in Twelfth Night, among many others), Ibsen (Nora in A Doll’s House and Hedda in Hedda Gabler) Chekhov (Mme Ranyeskvya in The Cherry Orchard) O’Neill (Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night) and Williams (Blanche in Streetcar), there’s little “psychological delving” in Alfieri’s play, says Bloom. “The people are who they are, rather than the convoluted parts that I’ve generally played.”
“I’m used to going through such agonies in rehearsal and beating myself up,” she continues, “and I haven’t had any of those things in this. And I think that’s probably the way this kind of play is supposed to be, that you don’t go through angst and tearing yourself apart because it’s got nothing to do with the work at hand. So it’s rather a new experience for me. At first I thought, ‘God, I’m enjoying it, what’s wrong?’ but the fact is it’s probably a good thing – I hope so!”
Part of the enjoyment comes from working with Billy Zane, with whom Bloom says she had an “immediate” rapport, partly, she says, because of his Greek roots – “I have a little house in Greece and love being there and love the Greeks and everything about their culture, so I was predisposed before we met, I thought ‘ooh he’s Greek, it’s going to be ok.’”
Zane could be forgiven if he were to feel over-awed by the long and illustrious list of leading men that precede him in Bloom’s career, on stage and on screen. That list includes Charlie Chaplin, in the film that made her name, Limelight, in 1952, Richard Burton, Yul Brynner, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Rod Steiger, who became her first husband, Martin Shaw in A Streetcar Named Desire, as well as being directed by Tony Richardson in the 1958 film Look Back In Anger. Many of these working (and personal) relationships (including her troubled relationship and marriage to Philip Roth) are documented in her second autobiography, Leaving A Doll’s House. Of that period, Bloom says: “The flowering that happened with Olivier, Richardson and Gielgud I don’t think would ever happen again. It was just one of those times where there were three of the greatest actors that have ever lived working together.”
Though she was talented enough to act alongside such theatrical royalty, Bloom is modest enough to say “that’s not the point, I got to see them”. She adds: “It was a very heady, wonderful time. You couldn’t wait to go again [to the theatre], you couldn’t wait to get a ticket in the upper circle or whatever it was I went to in those days. I would go to see plays again and again. That was a very great time, I don’t know if that can ever really quite come again.”
Her enthusiasm for the medium of theatre – watching it as much as performing it – comes across throughout our chat. She reels off a list of actors she currently admires, including Jeremy Irons, Ralph Fiennes, Helen Mirren, Harriet Walters and Kevin Spacey “who I think is probably the best actor in the world”. Great acting, she says, is rare “but when you do see live great acting it’s incomparable”.
"There wasn’t the competition there is now. You just had to do your work seriously and well."
Regarding her own career, she’s philosophical about the things she’s done that she’s less proud of – mostly on TV and film – saying: “I’ve done some I’m very, very proud of and some that I’m certainly not. But I also don’t think it matters. I’m a working woman. People remember the good things and don’t even see the bad.” She’s pragmatic in saying that some television jobs she took for financial reasons, whereas “a play you never do [for that reason] – firstly you don’t know that you’re going to get any [money] because it might not run, and secondly it’s too big an investment of time and enormous energy, so I’ve only done things I’ve wanted really to do.” Incidentally, screen work that she is proud of includes the 1985 series Shadowlands, for which she won a BAFTA, and the role of Lady Marchmain in 1982’s TV miniseries Brideshead Revisited, once again with her old flame Laurence Olivier.
Though her later career has combined theatre with television and film, when Bloom started out, pursuing an acting career was more straightforward: “There wasn’t television and there was very little film. So I think it was easier in the sense that you knew what you were going to do – go into the theatre or not!”
She thinks to be a young actress at the beginning of her career now would be “terrifying”, particularly because of the emphasis on image. No doubt Bloom, who was known for her good looks, would fare well, nevertheless she says: “I think there’s so much more that goes into it for young people – publicity, everyone has these bodies that are more beautiful than the other, long wonderful hair, and then you’ve got to be a good actress.” When Bloom started out: “It was nice to have good looks but… there were many more opportunities as there were many more theatres doing straight plays. There wasn’t the competition there is now. You just had to do your work seriously and well.”
These days, she adds, what with the proliferation of musicals, it’s harder to do a serious play, especially on Broadway, where Bloom has frequently trodden the boards. But the West End still has a “great spirit of theatre”, and London, she says, is where she feels happiest – after many years living in the US, she exchanged New York for Fulham three years ago in order to be nearer her daughter (opera singer Anna, with first husband Steiger). All in all, it seems a happy time for Bloom, and very apt that she should at last be doing a happy play. “It’s light and charming and witty and with a lovely actor,” she concludes, “what more could I ask?”