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Juliet Stevenson

Published 11 February 2009

As one of the UK’s leading actresses, Juliet Stevenson’s relationship with the stage is surprisingly uneasy. During the short time we spend chatting it becomes clear that the Laurence Olivier Award-winning actress is torn when it comes to working in the theatre, writes Matthew Amer.

That it drags her away from her family on a daily basis tears Stevenson apart, but there is also a deeper, more individual turmoil that niggles her. In the past, this discomfort may have contributed to the stage fright that has tormented the actress.

That stage fright is conspicuous by its absence when it comes to Stevenson’s current project, Duet For One. We don’t spend long analysing why this might be, for fear of freeing the caged beast, but it is quickly apparent that almost everything about this production at the Almeida theatre is as perfect as it could be in Stevenson’s eyes; the character, the play, the co-star, the director, the theatre, all were exactly what Stevenson was looking for to bring her back to the London stage.

“It’s a mountain, it’s a big climb every night, but I do love it,” she says of Tom Kempinski’s play in which she portrays virtuoso violinist Stephanie Abrahams, whose whole life is shattered when she contracts multiple sclerosis. Across the course of six sessions with a psychiatrist – played by Henry Goodman – she moves through stages of reaction to what has happened in her life as the therapy pushes further into her troubled history.

While the play is a two-hander, the focus is most definitely on Stevenson for the majority of the stage time; she passes through denial, mock-happiness, anger and aggression as Goodman’s Dr Feldmann tries to tease her back from the brink of self-destruction. Watching the emotion and pain pouring out of Stevenson is draining as an audience member; to personally go through it eight times a week must be devastating.

“The most interesting work is often the least well paid, that’s just the reality in our business”

It is, Stevenson confirms, both physically and mentally, though this is also partly down to her commitment to family. Having performed until 22:00, made the journey home and run the adrenalin out of her system so that she can sleep, Stevenson is up in the morning to take the children to school. “At about 16:00 or 17:00 I start to feel sick: ‘Oh my God, how am I going to do this? How am I going to get there? Where is the energy going to come from?’ But then, when I get out there, she [Stephanie] sort of takes over in some way. The stage is a funny thing; things happen to you on stage. You can feel exhausted at 18:00, and at 20:00 on stage the energy is flying.”

Though she is very much the driving force of the show, Stevenson cannot entertain the notion that it is anything other than a collaborative production, a team effort. Of her co-star, Goodman, she says: “I think he’s done brilliantly with the role, because he has made this character his. There’s a real human being in there – faults and passions and feelings and idiosyncrasies – yet his job is to focus on the other person. I think he’s supreme; what he’s done is really fascinating with this character. He’s neither over personalised it, nor is he playing it as just a cipher.”

Similarly, when describing life at the Almeida theatre, Stevenson admits that she sounds a little like “a PR exercise”, describing it as “very happy, very motivated, very looked after.

“It just makes all the difference really,” she continues. “It’s extremely badly paid, but wherever they can they make up for it by trying to look after you. I love that feeling, that sense of collaboration, people happy to be doing what they’re doing. There’s no whingeing, no interdepartmental rivalry or bitching or power games, no stupidity, just a very very creative, collaborative atmosphere.

“The truth is,” she tells me, moving from the positives to the negatives, “that the most interesting work is often the least well paid, that’s just the reality in our business. It’s a bit comic when you think we’ve both been working for 30 years, me and Henry, and we’re being paid something near the Equity minimum, but that’s the nature of subsidised theatre, it’s always struggling to survive.”

The daughter of a teacher and an army officer, Stevenson trained at RADA before embarking on a stage career, working extensively with the Royal Shakespeare Company as she built her reputation as one of the most talented and versatile actresses of her generation. Performances in Measure For Measure, Troilus And Cressida and Les Liaisons Dangereuses marked her out as a talent to watch. Her talent transferred to the screen with her performance in Truly, Madly, Deeply, opposite Les Liaisons Dangereuses co-star Alan Rickman, which announced her to the world. Films including Emma, A Secret Rapture and Bend It Like Beckham have only built on her reputation.

“The phrase post-Feminist has always struck me as comic. What are we post?”

Yet Stevenson, with her wealth of experience and unblemished reputation, voices a familiar complaint about the entertainment industry; as she gets older and more complex, the roles she is offered invariably move in the opposite direction. “Uninteresting, dull and two dimensional” roles, Stevenson confirms, are rather more in abundance for women over the age of 40 than the kind of roles that test and challenge an actress.

This is why she is relishing Duet For One so very much, and why she chose this production to test her relationship with the stage once more. Stephanie, she says, is “a great character because she’s huge. She’s gone on a great journey in her life; struggling as a child and then had this extraordinary talent and has forged this amazing career as a supreme violinist and turned herself into a diva no doubt, then is struck by this illness, so she’s sort of unravelling. There’s a huge amount to look at and to explore, and a lot of range to play.”

It is, she says, like a female King Lear in the range of emotions it allows her to engage. In being so, it is a rarity in an industry so unforgiving to aging women. “The phrase post-Feminist has always struck me as comic,” she says with a wry laugh. “What are we post? There’s so much still to be looking at and so much to be focused on and to improve and to work on in terms of any sort of balance. I think that it is an industry still very dominated by men in positions of creative power or influence, and they will put on plays that they recognise and they may very often be where there are male heroes and male protagonists and so on.”

It is not just the roles available that work against many actresses, but also balancing the dual role of worker and mother. For Stevenson, balancing these two positions was and is a nagging thorn in her side, a constant cause of pain and irritation. “It’s tough,” she says, audibly sinking within herself. “It’s very tough on family life, going out every evening. The kids come back from school and shortly after I’m leaving the house. I find that agonising every day. It makes me sad. I feel I’m walking in the wrong direction as a mum. It’s hard for them, it’s hard for all of us, that’s why I don’t do it very often. But I have to do it sometimes, because it’s at the heart of what we do, really, theatre. It’s like coming home.”

In reality, “coming home” is too clear and concise a description of Stevenson’s feelings for the stage. I ask her if, when the children are older, she will do more stage work. Her answer: “Maybe… maybe”.

“I find it agonising every day. I’m walking in the wrong direction as a mum”

This is not the answer of an actress who has to be held back from the stage, whose every waking moment is about live performance. There is a reticence, an unease, about her thoughts of theatre. “Lots of me doesn’t want to be prancing around, brightly lit on a stage in front of lots of people I don’t know,” she explains. “I’m quite a hermit really. But part of me absolutely does want to be up there with some amazing human soul to be inhabiting.” Though, she says, good theatre is a wonderful experience, “when it’s unhappy or it’s not good, it’s just agony to be out there”.

Good theatre, agony and Stevenson seem to go together. Her current, universally acclaimed performance is as a woman teetering on the edge of the abyss, while her 1992 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress came for her performance as a former victim of torture in Ariel Dorfman’s Death And The Maiden. The production was “an amazing eye opener”, says Stevenson, who, moved by the experience, continues to support charities helping torture victims and people seeking asylum from oppressive regimes.

As Stevenson talks, it is with a soft, often unsure tone; her sense of quandary can be heard in her voice. The softness turns quieter still as we talk about Anthony Minghella, the hugely talented British writer/director who died in 2008. To Stevenson, who he directed in Truly, Madly, Deeply, he was both a colleague and a friend.

“It seemed particularly outrageous of fortune to take him away,” she says, still noticeably struggling to come to terms with his loss. “The incredulity has been immense.” Yet when she talks about Truly, Madly, Deeply, it is with warmth and affection, slipping in and out of the present tense to describe Minghella’s “amazing talent. He’s the best fun in the world. He knows how to work really, really hard and have great fun at the same time. He generated the right atmosphere every day for whatever was required of the scene we were shooting; he managed to pull everybody into the heart of the piece, whatever bit of it we were shooting at any particular time.”

Of the projects she has enjoyed working on, the common theme seems to be the sense of community, of teamwork and of all pulling in the same direction to achieve a goal. Maybe it is symptomatic of a character drawn in different directions by different passions and fears, that she is happiest when this turmoil is not present. Then again, I am not a psychiatrist and Stevenson is not a patient… not off the stage anyway.

MA

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