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Janet McTeer

First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 18 April 2008

Religion, power, a belief so strong that one is willing to die for it: these are themes that have never been more pertinent than they are today. They are also the central themes of Mary Stuart, currently previewing at the Apollo, a play written by Frederick Schiller in 1800 about events of the 1500s. Matthew Amer met Janet McTeer, who plays the eponymous heroine, to discuss everything from war to wetsuits.

Mary Stuart is the second of Schiller’s plays to make it onto Shaftesbury Avenue this year. It follows Michael Grandage’s highly-acclaimed production of Don Carlos and, following strong reviews of its own during its first incarnation at the Donmar Warehouse, is set to follow in Don Carlos’s much-praised footsteps.

Adapted in this version by Peter Oswald, Mary Stuart focuses on the dramatic relationship between the estranged royal sisters Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I; one an imprisoned Catholic, the other sitting on the throne as a Protestant. The play is a mixture of fact and fiction – the climatic meeting of the siblings at Fotheringay Castle is entirely of Schiller’s imagination – and focuses more on the politics of imprisonment, religion, power and the most volatile of relationships than the day to day events of what actually took place. Though its themes are timeless, the play has also taken on a greater relevance since the attacks on London on 7 July: “Before that it was already a pertinent play, but since we’ve had that, somehow it seems even more prescient.” McTeer refers particularly to one character, a young man who “is willing to die for [Mary] and for Catholicism. You just think ‘My God, nothing’s changed in four hundred years.’”

Phyllida Lloyd’s staging of Mary Stuart has already drawn many a compliment from the West End’s steely critics, with costume and creative effects two of the most talked about aspects of the production. These choices actually grew from the dramatic triumvirate of Lloyd, McTeer and designer Anthony Ward, who found themselves in New York simultaneously and took the time to “hash out” the finer points of the upcoming production.

One such ‘finer point’ saw the Donmar Warehouse, best known for its intimacy rather than epic effects, pulling off a minor theatrical coup by creating a rainstorm on stage for the pivotal meeting between Elizabeth and Mary. While Mary has no shelter from the drenching storm, Elizabeth can remain dry as a bone-in-a-bodice under her umbrella. Although the original idea came from the New York trio, no-one is entirely sure who suggested it: “Anthony seems to think it was my idea and I seem to remember it being Phyllida’s idea. Anyway, it was someone’s idea!”

Whosever idea it was, it was not just to make the production look pretty. Though it is both technically and theatrically clever, it is not effect for effect’s sake: “The idea that she couldn’t be any lower when the Queen comes on just seemed so unexpected and brilliant, and much nicer than her running around smelling flowers which is all a bit more romantic and girly.” McTeer, in her very down-to-earth, northern-rooted kind of way, describes the final effect as “A bit more ‘get your kit off and get soaked.’”

Brilliant, unexpected and theatrically spectacular though it may be, standing in a heavy rainstorm eight times a week with nothing to protect you from the elements, probably wouldn’t be recommended by the local GP. As McTeer explains, “however hot the water is when it goes into the tank, by the time it hits you it’s quite cold”. Going from cold to hot and hot to cold, and standing around in wet clothes every day –twice a day for matinees – is about as good for your health as drinking a couple of litres of Thames water every day. Although McTeer avoided any major illnesses during the Donmar run, which was in summer, the Apollo season, on the other hand, runs through the winter months! Fear not, though, actress fans. There will be no need to protest outside the theatre about the producers’ treatment of stage-dwellers, as the production team have invested in an ideal solution. Underneath her Tudor frock, McTeer will be sporting a new three quarter wetsuit!

"Get your kit off and get soaked."

Though McTeer spends her time on stage dressed in period costume – over cunningly concealed snorkelling gear – the other members of the cast are suited and booted in modern political dress. Out go the ruffs and in come the power-suits. It would be fair to say that the two styles of dress wouldn’t normally go together – Sir Francis Drake probably wasn’t dressed in Armani. McTeer though thinks “it’s absolutely brilliant, once you’ve got over the initial shock of ‘he’s in a suit and she’s in a Tudor frock’: these two women were iconic figures. They didn’t choose to be queens; they were born to their position. They had no choice. There’s something about having a uniform, rather than a nice Nicole Farhi outfit, that is iconic.”

The other woman, Elizabeth I, is played by Harriet Walter, another actress who, like McTeer, is held in very high regard in the West End. When McTeer first got involved with the project, very early on in its conception, she was excited to get Walter involved as well: “If you’re lucky enough to get the kind of roles I do, it’s not often you get a play that’s got two whacking great big parts for women in it! If they’re doing a Duchess Of Malfi, they cast me or they cast Harriet; they don’t cast both of you.”

McTeer is clearly enjoying the current production. Though the effects, costume and cast thrill her, the excitement that tingles in her voice expresses a real love for the play itself. “It’s a fantastic translation; it’s very alive and very bright, and yet not colloquial. You can feel that the first half is exciting and it’s good drama, but then the second half happens and it all kicks off! It suddenly becomes more naked, somehow.”

Born in 1961, it was in 1997, at the age of 36, that McTeer hit arguably the high point of her career so far. Having opened in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in October ’96, she collected an Olivier Award for her performance at the 1997 award ceremony, before transferring to Broadway, where she subsequently won a Tony. All in all, she played the testing part of Nora for over a year, a stint which took its toll on her tear ducts: “I thought ‘If I have to cry again I’ll kill myself’ I don’t think I shed a tear for a year.”

"The second half happens and it all kicks off!"

The New York run of A Doll’s House also drew McTeer to the attention of independent filmmaker Gavin O’Connor, who saw her promoting the show before being stunned by her stage performance. Having met O’Connor for a drink, McTeer was cast in the lead of no-budget film Tumbleweeds. McTeer admits, “It was more successful in America than it was here”, but her performance won her a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination, not that the awards particularly bother her: “The whole thing was just silly. All those awards are a bit silly, aren’t they? It’s quite funny if you’re English, because we take them all with a bucket of salt really; we’re always a bit embarrassed to go ‘I’d quite like to win that award’. The Americans are very: ‘Oh my God! Is this the most exciting day of your life?’ I just thought ‘no, not really. It’s good fun and you get to see everyone on the carpet, but frankly, get a grip!’ Hahaha!”

McTeer laughs heartily about awards, wetsuits and being soaked on a daily basis, but on the subject of acting as a profession, she is actually very serious. The rise of celebrity culture may have fooled many people into the belief that anyone can get up and act, but McTeer sets her stall out firmly against this: “What I do is a craft. The idea that you can just stand up and do it… Just because I have an affinity for something doesn’t mean I have the skill to do it well and sustain it. It’s belittling! I trained very hard, and I still work very hard to train myself, to be the best that I can be in the roles that I’m doing.” McTeer is also very vocal about the importance of training: “I think if you’ve got a talent, you can act. Anyone can do that. But I think learning how to use your body so that your body is different in every role, or learning how to use your mind, or how to approach a part, or, if it’s on stage, how to sustain a role so that the fiftieth performance is as good as the second or third; you need to learn those things.”

It is clear from talking to McTeer that she loves acting. Maybe she doesn’t like everything that goes with a career in the public eye, but the bones of the job, the research – “I always think that’s part of the fun of my job” – and the performing – “I love the intimate stage” – obviously bring her a great deal of pleasure. However, the lure of horticulture, blossoming flowers and compost may one day drag her away from the stage: “I sometimes think maybe I’ll give it all up and be a gardener! I’m a bit of a garden freak. I’ve got an allotment. I grow loads of veg; it’s brilliant!” Surely she wouldn’t really leave the audiences’ applause for the great outdoors? “Undoubtedly. I’ll go ‘I’ve had enough!’ take six months off and start doing my garden. Then one day I’ll get bored of that and want to go back to work again! Hahaha!”

Mary Stuart opens at the Apollo on 19 October, and is currently booking until 14 January 2006.

MA

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