In conversation: Private Lives’ Toby Stephens and Anna-Louise Plowman

Published July 25, 2013

There’s something so intriguing, almost taboo about a married couple playing a married couple. As an audience member the line between reality and fiction becomes harder to define, the division between truth and performance seemingly blurred.

It is, of course, all a mystique of our own sordid invention. To Toby Stephens and Anna-Louise Plowman, who are in precisely this position, there’s no such dramatic ambiguity. They should know; this is the second time they’ve played newlyweds Elyot and Sybil in Noël Coward’s classic comedy Private Lives. The first time in Chichester last autumn proved so popular with audiences that the production, with its entire cast that also includes Anna Chancellor and Anthony Calf, transferred to London.

Coward’s tale of former lovers Elyot and Amanda who meet, five years after their divorce, while both on honeymoon with new partners, has a special place in the lives of the cast. Stephens’ parents Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens previously starred in a John Gielgud-directed production alongside Calf’s mother-in-law Polly Adams.

From outside the production the links and relationships make it feel full of fate and fascination, yet both Stephens and Plowman barely raise an eyebrow of concern, as we discovered when we met…

How is the show going?

Plowman: It’s going really well, which is great. We have to really appreciate this because it’s not often that you’re in a show where the audiences are so thrilled to be there. You can’t take it for granted.

Does it feel different returning to the production?

Plowman: What’s amazing about it, and this shows you what an extraordinary play it is, is how you still find things in it. When that’s still happening, you know you’ve got an amazing piece of writing.

Was it a conscious decision for you and Toby to work together?

Plowman: It was a conscious decision. We’d sort of avoided it. We’d always thought we won’t do theatre together because it can be tricky, but this just seemed to be perfect for us and we wanted to produce stuff together.

What sparked the idea that you’d like to produce [the pair are co-producing the London transfer]?

Plowman: It’s about control. Actors have very little control over their work and what they do. We’ve got three children [Eli, six, Tallulah, four and Kura, two] and inevitably you think it’s great to do theatre but one doesn’t make really enough money doing that if you’ve got a family. So we thought “What can we do to try and see if we can be a bit more involved in what we do?” This is not something new and unique. Actors used to produce and manage their work.

How is it playing a married couple?

Plowman: I think if it had been Toby and I playing Amanda [played by Chancellor] and Elyot, I don’t think either of us would have wanted to do that. I personally think that would be very difficult for us at this point in our lives with three little children. Why would you do that? It would be quite hard, because you’d have to explore a lot of things about love, which you could do with another actor who’s not your husband or wife. I think one has to look after one’s personal private life and I don’t know if I want to do that on stage.

What do you think each other’s best acting qualities are?

Stephens: The parts of Sybil and Victor can become caricatures; I think what Annie Lou brings is a real person who changes from someone who’s very naïve at the beginning to somebody who’s beginning, perhaps not in the best way, to become sophisticated. It’s a beautiful transition, a very seamless one.

Plowman: Toby has a way of making the language sound like it has never been said before and I know whenever I work with him he is always in the moment. That’s an amazing skill to have and to watch. People say “Toby must have made up some of that.” He hasn’t made up any of it, he’s made it sound like it’s never been said before and he’s made it seem easy, and that’s the most difficult thing. People say “He’s playing himself.” Toby’s not playing himself, he’s created someone who’s very relaxed and is entirely that person. That is really hard to do.

Stephens: It’s funny, that thing of making something seem like it’s in the moment, it is a hard thing to achieve, but also for an audience they don’t see the effort that’s gone into it because it seems effortless. I think if you’re an actor you get it, but I think if you’re an audience member – which is exactly right – they don’t see how difficult that is. It’s like an illusion. What I love about theatre is when I forget I’m watching a play and I suddenly just react in a human way. The lines become blurred between what’s reality and what isn’t. The trick of that is to make people forget they’re watching a play and feel they’re in a situation.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or routines?

Plowman: Toby always has a shower before every show.

Stephens: I really like being relaxed when I’m on stage. I hate feeling tense and anxious, so I try and have a shower before every performance just because it relaxes me and gets me to a stage where I feel ready for it.

Plowman: I like to have a perfume for every character. I find a smell.

Stephens:  At least we smell nice.

Plowman: I gave Toby a smell for Elyot. We’ve even got Anna onto having a smell too. We all smell really nice.

How has working together been?

Stephens: It’s been great. Even though you’re together, with kids you actually rarely talk to one another because everything fits around the children, so it’s actually very nice having time together. I suppose there was the slight anxiety between the two of us that it might be difficult, but it hasn’t been at all.

Plowman: I think it’s partly because of the people we are; Toby and I are not jealous or competitive of one another’s careers. That would be ridiculous.

Stephens: I have to say what has made it a lot easier are the other cast members. Anna and Anthony have no problem with it at all. I imagine in a cast that’s so hermetic, it could actually be quite odd, but it’s been really easy. There is a separation between what we do on stage and our private lives.

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