There aren’t many actors around these days who can boast a talent so versatile that they can be playing Shakespeare in one breath and the ultimate evil in the universe in another. Not even pint-sized theatrical behemoth Dame Judi has spanned those two extremes. Diana Quick has. The award-winning actress returns to the London stage this autumn as Peter Hall’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell transfers to the Garrick, following a tour and a hit season in Bath. Matthew Amer met Quick to discuss the production and all things malicious.
Diana Quick is multi-talented. Not only is she award-winning on stage, she has voiced an Oscar-winning short animation, written and directed for television, translated the work of Simone De Beauvoir and is currently researching a book about her ancestry. The old Oxfordian – Quick was the first female president of the Oxford University Drama Society – cannot, however, talk and eat pumpkin seeds at the same time. Such an ambitious trick would not normally be attempted by even the most ambitious of ventriloquists, and Quick proves why. However, the consummate professional that she is, she recovers from a near death experience by dragging the interview straight to the point: “So, the play”.
You Never Can Tell opened in August at the Theatre Royal Bath, to a rapturous reception from both audiences and critics alike. Quick plays Mrs Langfrey Clandon, a mother who has single-handedly raised her three children abroad before the family return from their 18-year exile, only to bump into the father they left behind. While the kids dream of a romantic reunion, Mrs Clandon’s thoughts are only for the abusive relationship she thought she had escaped from forever. Also resident in Torbay are an impoverished dentist, an omniscient waiter and an eminent QC, all of whom contribute to the hilarity of Shaw’s comedy.
Somehow, before this summer, Quick had managed to entirely miss the work of Shaw out of her bulging professional repertoire. No Candida or Pygmalion for her. In fact, the theatrical back-catalogue of George Bernard Shaw had not entered her life “since I was a schoolgirl, when I played ‘The Man’ in Arms And The Man”.
The draw of Shaw attracted Quick to the production, as did the plot itself, which Quick describes as: “A good story, well told; and not irrelevant today”. The relevance Quick refers to comes from the situation her character is in. Having left behind an abusive relationship, Mrs Clandon has struggled to raise three children as a single parent. She has raised her children to be independent and formulate their own ideas and beliefs; a very modern idea for the 1890s, when the play is set. She has also had to support herself for nearly two decades, which Quick finds “quite attractive, as somebody whose always worked and kept [herself]”.
Issues of parenting and the effects of broken families remain central to the plot, though they are balanced by the humour of the piece. It is, after all, a comedy. After Quick accepted the role, director Peter Hall confided that he thought Mrs Clandon was “one of the great undiscovered or unappreciated comic roles”. The comic aspect is clearly precious to Quick, who makes a point of balancing straight plays with more laughter-inducing fare. It has been a while since she took to the stage in a comedy, but she is glad to be bringing smiles to faces once again. She admits that for her, “in the end, the greatest thing is making people laugh”.
Aside from the opportunity to hear chortling from the stalls once again, and to dabble with a playwright previously untouched by her in the professional sphere, the opportunity to work with theatrical giant Peter Hall added to the pull of the production. Not only is he one of British theatre’s most successful and respected directors, but he is also “passionate about Shaw”. Hall’s approach to the production is different to that which Quick has been used to in recent years, when she has worked in contemporary drama. In contrast to the approach to new writing, where Quick has seen the emphasis placed on getting a psychological feel for the character and situation, Hall’s approach makes the text of ultimate importance, with everything else built from it. Quick gives the impression that Hall has a definite view of how he would like the production to be, that the world could fall apart and his attitude would remain resolute: “You feel you’re in safe hands.”
Peter Hall’s hands must have been comforting, as, even after many a year in the business, Quick still feels nerves when starting a new project: “At the beginning of a play you always feel nervous. It doesn’t matter how much you like the project, how much work you do in the rehearsal room, in the end, it’s only when an audience sees it that you [know whether it is a success]”.
Quick, like many actors, feels that the audience is key to a play: not a passive entity watching the to-ing and fro-ing on stage, but an active and essential cog in the theatre machine: “Theatre is a two-way thing. It doesn’t exist in the rehearsal room; it only exists when there’s an audience to receive it”. Her endearing view of acting grows out of this idea: “I think your job as an actor is to try and meld a bunch of people, who’ve all come from different places and for different reasons to the theatre that night, into an audience”.
Quick exudes warmth as she talks about bringing a group of individuals together as one audience, all joined in a common goal. Hearing her speak in such a way, you can understand why she has stayed in the business for so long. Yet with such an illustrious career behind her – Quick has worked with companies including Shared Experience, the RSC, English Touring Theatre, and at theatres including the National, Old Vic, Bristol Old Vic and Royal Court – Quick is not one for reminiscing over high points: “I don’t really look backwards, I tend to be much more in the present and hope it can continue”. She will, however, take a moment to talk about her time in English Touring Theatre’s production of Ghosts, for which she won a Theatrical Management Association Award for Best Actress. Unlike some in her profession, Quick does not dismiss the award as a trifle to be consigned to a dusty box in the attic, but is quite happy to celebrate her achievement: “I was absolutely thrilled to bits! It’s not why one does it, but it’s like a great big extra pat on the back, and jolly nice too!”
And so to the subject of ultimate evil, possibly the most metaphysical part Quick has ever had to play. The pinnacle of badness was not played on stage, but was instead a voiceover job for an animated version of Dr Who starring Richard E Grant as the intergalactic-problem solving timelord. “The great thing about those voiceover things is it’s only your voice; you’re not worrying about if your frock fits or if they can hear you in the upper circle.” Quick has to stifle laughter as she talks about the process of playing supreme nastiness – “that was quite challenging” – but, it would seem, there is not much call for actors with the ability to tackle such philosophical challenges: “I haven’t been asked to do any more evil since!”
With no evil on the horizon, what will Diana Quick do in the near future? Are there any more ideas or emotions that she could personify? It would seem that this is not on the agenda. What we may well see, though, is Quick taking on another playwright that she has so far missed, Chekhov – “I’d love to do those” – and the possibility that she will take to the stage as Egyptian asp-hater Cleopatra next year: “but we’ll make an announcement about that when we’ve found our Antony, I think”.
Being so multi-talented – Quick also has a book in the pipeline, about her forebears in India – what question would she ask if she was the interviewer? “I’d ask ‘Are they going to give you a lovely, comfortable dressing room when you get to the Garrick?’ So I could say ‘Yes, I do hope so.’ And I hope they’re thinking of it now!”
You Never Can Tell is currently previewing and opens on 7 November.