Frances Barber

Published April 1, 2009

Last on the West End stage as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s King Lear/The Seagull ensemble, Frances Barber returns to London in a piece she describes to Matthew Amer as “an event”.

“I feel like I’ve been pulled through a hedge backwards,” Frances Barber says as we meet during a break in rehearsals for her new play Madame De Sade. She doesn’t look it. Granted her hair is not as elegantly displayed as it is on the stage of the Wyndham’s theatre, where she is currently performing in Yukio Mishima’s play, nor is she wearing one of the luxuriously swelling gowns that cover rather more of the Wyndham’s stage than is strictly necessary, yet Barber is one of those actresses who could wear sack cloth and make it look good with the twinkle of her eye.

“It’s not easy stuff,” she continues, describing the play and explaining her worn out state of ruffled disorganisation. “It’s a very unusual, curious piece, and it’s pretty exhausting. I’ve never been in anything like it and I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a sort of philosophical debate about the devotion of a wife in terms of how far she will stand by a man who by all intents and purposes is bestial and has sexual deviant behaviour, and how she, Madame De Sade, changes her opinion as the play goes on.”

Embarrassingly, I have a bit of a crush on Barber and at the mention of “deviant behaviour”, spoken in a voice as husky as a dog pulling a sled, I have to try and control the blushing redness of my cheeks.

My dominant memory of the eminently enticing actress comes from 2004, when I saw her playing Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest opposite Christian Slater, a role in which she was eagerly dominating and brimming with a tension that dared Slater’s McMurphy to try his luck. In person, she is less intimidating and provocative. In fact, she is delightful and full of more stories than the British library. It doesn’t take long for my childish crush to be replaced with interest and entertainment in what she has to say, which is lucky, because when the subject of much of the talk is the Marquis De Sade, I’m not sure lingering adolescent longing would have helped the situation.

The infamous Marquis is central to the play in which Barber portrays a high-class courtesan inspired and enamoured by lurid descriptions of the Marquis’s bloody exploits. Rosamund Pike plays his wife, for whom devotion is the only answer to both his actions and imprisonment, while Judi Dench plays her concerned mother, the voice of morality and society.

“I know if I saw it I would just go ‘Wow! What a thing!’ because it is so peculiar. There is no question, it’s not like anything I’ve seen before”

“I know if I saw it I would just go ‘Wow! What a thing!’ because it is so peculiar,” exclaims Barber. “There is no question, it’s not like anything I’ve seen before. When they did it in Japan, their theatre is highly stylised anyway, so I imagine it was like an opera; there’s an aria here and an aria there. We can’t do it like that, so we’re trying to make these long, complicated metaphors naturalistic and hopefully tell a narrative. It’s really hard.”

It is only in seeing the piece, which Barber describes as “an event” due to its unusual nature, that I understand what she means. None of the action of the Marquis’s life is actually depicted on stage. Rather, in one room, over the course of 20 years, the Marquis’s life is picked at from a number of viewpoints, examining both his actions and the devotion of his wife. It is a dense and floridly imagistic piece into which the cast of six actresses pour their all.

It is when discussing the Marquis’s particular peccadilloes that Barber’s stories start, for she has lived a life that is a delight to hear her talk about. The Marquis wasn’t the only one to be intrigued by sexual practices of a less-usual persuasion it seems, if Barber’s reminiscences are anything to go by, though she and the rest of the cast were “hysterically laughing for the first few weeks because we couldn’t believe the sort of stuff he got up to. He was obsessed with scatological deviant sex”.

Barber recollects with pleasure and disbelief researching roles by chatting to dominatrices, and has me rapt as she tells of a trip she made with comedian and actress Ruby Wax to New York’s fetish fantasyland the Hellfire Club: “The things I saw! And it got progressively worse as the rooms got ruder and ruder and ruder until there was the rudest room which was called Heaven. I couldn’t go in there. F**k knows what Hell was like! I said to Ruby ‘I’m running off. I don’t even want to know they do this, I just don’t want to know because I won’t sleep.’ Involving animals and fish and God knows what!”

This shying away is a far cry from the crop-swishing carnal entity she plays in Madame De Sade and the other vamps we have seen her play over the years. I wouldn’t expect a little mild perversion to fluster the Frances Barber of so many performances, which, I guess, just proves her acting talent.

It is talent that places her happily among a noticeably small number of actresses over a certain age – Barber celebrated her 50th birthday last year – that continue to pick up work. The scarcity of these roles has hit the headlines recently and while Barber is not struggling at the moment, this lack of representation for older women, particularly on television, is a source of some confusion. “What I can never fathom with the controllers,” she begins, “is that they seem to be aiming their series at a 20-something audience and I think [in my 20s] I was out all the time, I never watched telly. The people who watch the telly are in their 50s and 60s, and the only women that are reflected really, of that age group, are in the soaps, they’re in Corrie or EastEnders. I really don’t understand the logic behind that. Very occasionally you’ll get a drama with Julie Walters, but mainly it’s young gorgeous girls and young gorgeous boys, and I go ‘well, your catchment group is out clubbing; they’re not going to sit and watch this.’”

“The things I saw!”

I could point out that maybe the recession is hitting the younger viewers and forcing them to stay in, maybe they are the very audience with money in their pockets and few responsibilities who advertisers want to catch, or even that maybe older viewers want to see young gorgeous people on television, but, frankly, I don’t want to argue with Barber, I just want to let her tell some more stories. I could listen to them for hours.

Another such story surrounds King Lear; a tale of tragedy with a happy ending. Well, Barber’s version is anyway. In 2007 she began rehearsing and previewing the Royal Shakespeare Company production of the famous royal tragedy alongside Chekhov’s The Seagull. Her old friend Ian McKellen played the disintegrating king and she played Goneril. Yet while in Stratford, before the show had even opened, she suffered a debilitating injury.

“That was a nightmare,” she says of the injury and the long recovery period. “It was an absolute nightmare.” The accident itself was traumatic enough. An unobservant tourist knocked Barber off her bike and into the path of a truck. Spinning round she fell squarely on her knee, though was diagnosed only with bruising and continued performing. A week later her knee ligament audibly popped during a performance as it ruptured, forcing the RSC to cancel press night and leaving Barber immobile.

“Ian looked after me,” Barber says, referring to Lear himself, McKellen. “He literally looked after me; carried me around and put me on the loo. I lived with him for the rest of the run. If anything came out of that that was a good thing it was my great friendship with him.”

A friendship with McKellen, it seems, has more perks than an industrial coffee maker. Once Barber had recovered enough to return to the show, though with her leg in a ski brace to prevent her from twisting the knee which was pinned to aid its recovery, the show’s tour took them to New Zealand and America where, when they weren’t performing, some of the cast were having the time of their lives. “Gandalf opens all doors,” Barber beams. “It really was a trip of a lifetime.”

“Gandalf opens all doors”

Among their exploits was a trip to the home of Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson, which is littered with memorabilia from his films and is “like a theme park for a big kid with a lot of money”. This included dinner in the home of Bilbo Baggins, which was transported to Jackson’s garden following filming.

In America, McKellen hired a tour bus to take eight cast members on a road trip from LA to Colorado for a week. In New York they met Lauren Bacall. They partied in the Hollywood hills. The experience sounds like a one off, but you can bet Barber has a host more stories of other exploits that I just don’t have time to hear. I have already been informed that I am running short on time when it felt like I had just started.

Since finishing in the King Lear/The Seagull double bill, Barber has focused on television work and is set to open the new series of Jimmy McGovern’s The Street, playing Bob Hoskins’s wife in episode one. It is a part she described as her dream job. But then, she also rather adored her cameo in Jonathan Harvey’s BBC2 comedy Beautiful People and lights up when she talks about the fabulously theatrical teacher Miss Prentice, a character that brought her rather a lot of attention on a recent trip to see La Cage Aux Folles. “I was absolutely besieged by people,” she laughs. “I was with Derek Jacobi; they didn’t notice him. He was fuming. He said ‘I can’t believe it; you’re just besieged by every gay in town.”

Madame De Sade, though, is the first stage work she has undertaken since the knee injury and she feels “like a young foal at the moment; suddenly I’m able to leap around like I used to”. Not that the role involves too much pirouetting and prancing, more crop-swishing and conveying a state of physical ecstasy beyond the realms of ordinary folk’s imaginations. Exhausting it may be, but that is more to do with the effort the actresses are putting in to make this very different style of piece a success. But that is just how Barber likes it: “I hate theatre when you see the poster and you go ‘I think I’ve seen it. I love it when you go ‘I’ve got no idea what this is going to be like.’”

That statement leaves Barber as a strange theatrical parallel to the Comtesse de Saint-Fond her character in Madame De Sade; both women thirst for newer, greater and more exciting ways to derive pleasure, but where one uses sex, the other longs for an ever more invigorating performance.


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