It is quite a leap from 21st century spy to 16th century queen, but it is a leap that Miranda Raison is taking – finds Matthew Amer – with the help of golf.
Golf, it has often been said, teaches us many things; practise makes perfect, perseverance pays off, throwing a tantrum in a public place at the age of 30 only makes you look stupid. But I am surprised to be discussing such topics with former Spooks star and current Shakespeare’s Globe performer, Miranda Raison. She doesn’t strike me as the golfing type. Maybe it is the lack of Argyle sweater or that most golfers I know don’t have striking wide blue eyes you could lose yourself in for days.
Raison also believes in the self-improvement aspects of golf, that the sport will “do my character the world of good. All the things I’m not good at in golf, I’m not good at in life, like not choking when the going gets tough.”
It is odd to think that pressure has such an effect on the actress, and not just because she spent nearly five years as a member of the BBC’s crack MI5 team in Spooks. No, I find it odd because surely if you crumble under pressure there are easier ways to make your return to the stage after six years away than playing Anne Boleyn in two pieces at Shakespeare’s Globe.
She could have chosen a venue with a roof, for example, so that projecting her voice over wind, rain and low flying aircraft was less of an issue. She could have chosen a slightly smaller venue or a smaller scale production. She could have chosen a venue where the audience sits still in a darkened auditorium during the show, rather than wandering around, standing up and sitting down again in plain view of all the actors, exposed by the sun and the house lights.
“All the things I’m not good at in golf, I’m not good at in life, like not choking when the going gets tough”
“The honest truth is,” she explains, “had something come up that was a part that I wanted to play, that was somewhere that was a good venue but was a bit more discreet, I probably would have done that, but this came up and I met for it and was offered the role as I was walking back over the Millennium Bridge as I was leaving the theatre.”
In keeping with the Globe’s regular use of ensemble casts appearing in more than one production, Raison is playing the infamous Tudor queen in both Shakespeare’s Henry VIII and the UK premiere of Howard Brenton’s new play Anne Boleyn.
Though this is the first time Raison has performed Brenton’s work on stage, she is an old hand at bringing his words to life. The playwright regularly writes for Spooks and, in fact, wrote the four episodes that saw Raison’s character Jo Portman, introduced to the long-running series. Though she is adamant that her casting was in no way predetermined, she admits that it might have helped that she and Brenton had crossed paths before. “I’m pretty sure that had Howard said ‘I don’t know about that’, that would have affected John [Dove, the director, who cast Raison]. Luckily he did like my stuff on Spooks.”
Not content with the extra tests of the venue, Raison increased the pressure by playing one of English history’s most iconic females. Behind Queens Elizabeth I and Victoria, you would be hard pressed to name another British historical woman with such an aura around her life. “You’ve got all these societies for Anne Boleyn and they are, a lot of them, very knowledgeable people who are very passionate about her,” Raison tells me. “That’s very intimidating if you focus on that, so I could only focus on Howard’s Anne. I think that’s quite a major thing really.”
“‘Is it true that she had three tits?’ No, she didn’t!”
Much of Brenton’s creation is drawn from Eric Ives’s biography, The Life And Death Of Anne Boleyn, a book to which Raison has also turned in her research. There are some key differences between Brenton’s view of Henry VIII’s second wife and Shakespeare’s: “Howard loves her and, I think, Shakespeare doesn’t like her at all.” As for Raison, she keeps a more open-minded view: “Apart from what there is evidence of, we can’t know anything, we can only suppose it. I don’t know if she was particularly beautiful, I think she was someone that people found mesmerising. People talked about her eyes a lot, not that they were the most stunning eyes, but that she caught people in her gaze and she absolutely was unwavering in that. She was obviously strong and courageous and charismatic. She might have been a complete cow; she might have been saintly and wonderful. She might have just slept with Henry in her life; she could have slept with a whole court in France. You can only deduce.”
Raison is pretty certain, though, that most of the myths about Boleyn are absolute fantasy: “She spent a lot of time in France. She wore particular fashions and she brought in this fashion of [long] sleeves. She was one of the front runners of fashion in this country, obviously, as the queen had a big influence, but somehow that gets turned back to front and it becomes that she brought in this fashion, she started wearing long sleeves, because she had six fingers.” Brilliantly the six fingers rumour is not the most outlandish assertion that has been put to Raison since taking on the role. That is reserved for an even more ludicrous claim: “So many people have said to me, ‘Is it true that she had three tits?’ Some people have an extraneous nipple – I doubt she had that either – but who have you ever heard of with three tits? No, she didn’t!” she finishes, exasperated.
The Globe’s call came at just the right time for Raison who had realised, after a productive few years cultivating her television career – starring in Spooks, C4 comedy Plus One and ITV comic drama Married Single Other – that she had reached a now or never moment in her career. For years, while the screen work was coming in, she had been afraid to take a stage role for fear that the scheduling would clash with her TV commitments and would rub her regular employers the wrong way. That could have been the case this summer, had the expected second series of Married Single Other not been cancelled. “There comes a time when you’ve just got to take a leap,” she says. “I’m not going to live in fear; people will make things work if you really want to do it, but it’s hard because everyone’s conditioned to be in fear of where the next thing is coming from.”
It may be something of a comfort, then, that she is still on good terms with the team at Kudos, the company that produces Spooks. The prolific TV production company – which also counts Ashes To Ashes, Life On Mars, Hustle, The Fixer and Plus One among its stable of shows – has a habit of remaining loyal to its actors, with Keeley Hawes, Robert Glenister and Daniel Mays among a number of performers to have appeared in more than one of the company’s shows.
“[Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo] may as well have been the most brutal Lars von Trier film. Another actress and I actually spent a whole night just crying”
It was, however, Raison’s decision to part company with Kudos and leave Spooks. To her mind her character had grown as far as she could without overlapping with Hermione Norris’s character Ros. Fittingly, and tragically, it was Ros who was forced to shoot her young protégé while she restrained a terrorist. “By the time I left,” Raison says, “it was time to go, but I absolutely loved it and I learned a lot. You can see when somebody’s getting restless, so they could see that I was ready to spread my wings a bit and they were fine with it.”
Judging by what she says about this and other projects, it seems there are very few people she is not on good terms with. There is, however, at least one. Though she doesn’t name him, it is not hard to deduce that US film comedian Rob Schneider is not among her favourite people. She appeared alongside the regular Adam Sandler collaborator in Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, a job she describes as a “hideous, hideous moment and a great lapse in judgement on my part”.
“The whole thing was ridiculous but [the script] read quite funnily,” she says, explaining how she ended up working on a project that was “regrettable from start to finish” in the first place. “There are just some people who are just not very nice. It’s difficult to say much more than that, but I’ve never come across that sort of ego before. People always say comedy’s a serious business, but I’ve worked with comedians who are very funny and who don’t make life seem too difficult. For how it felt, it may as well have been the most brutal Lars von Trier film. Another actress and I actually spent a whole night just crying.”
Even from this most unpleasant of situations, Raison finds a silver lining; a lesson never to act in such a fashion. “I’ve never walked off a set and felt ashamed of my behaviour or felt like I’ve been a destructive force,” she says, “and I hope I never do.”
That is proper golfing talk. In the face of adversity, pressure and emotion-jangling taunting, golfers don’t throw their clubs or scream – well, most of them don’t – they hold their decorum and rise above it. Both of Raison’s grandfathers – former Captains of St Andrew’s and Aldeburgh Golf Clubs – would be proud. “I got my first birdie recently, which was great,” she smiles. “I thought, if I miss that putt I really am going to have to kill myself.” She didn’t crack under the pressure then, or during the Globe’s press nights; looks like the golf is already working its character-building magic.