Matthew Amer grabs a couple of minutes with the hectic star of Mrs Klein and Spooks, Nicola Walker.
Nicola Walker is in a rush. The actress, a London stage regular also familiar to millions of fans as intelligence operative Ruth in TV’s MI-5 drama Spooks, is half way through her day of rehearsals for Mrs Klein at the Almeida theatre. Having enjoyed a rare bird’s eye view of the stage during the morning’s technical rehearsal, she is snacking and talking to me on the phone while preparing for the first dress rehearsal this afternoon. “We’re half in and half out,” she mumbles apologetically through a mouthful of food. “You’ve got one leg in the trousers and one out; that’s what it feels like at the moment.”
The production had a small setback earlier in its rehearsal period, when Kate Ashfield left to be replaced by Zoe Waites. As the play only uses three performers, losing one third of its cast could be seen as problematic and may have contributed to this rush to have the show ready. Walker, happily, doesn’t think so. “It isn’t as terrifying as it sounds,” she says of Waites’s position, speaking from her own experience, having joined the cast of the Donmar Warehouse’s A Lie Of The Mind just 10 days before it opened in 2001.
That production, however, did not feature so small a cast. Working as a trio, Walker says, makes rehearsals more intimate, but brings with it additional problems: “In the first week I thought, ‘Oh my God, there’s nowhere to hide.’ There’s nowhere to slack off. There’s no sneaking off to make yourself a cup of tea. In a cast of 10 or 15 you can keep a low profile, you can keep your head down and have a director not take that much notice of you for the first week or so and find your feet. But when there’s three of you, there’s absolutely nowhere to hide. You have to concentrate, which I’m not used to.”
“Some of the things she says are so extreme to a normal person’s ear. I just felt quite a lot of rage”
Her list of recent theatrical credits would suggest otherwise, among them David Hare’s Gethsemane and Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, neither of which could be breezed through without paying attention.
It was her Cloud Nine director, Thea Sharrock, who asked Walker to work with her again in Mrs Klein. It is the third time they have worked together following the National Theatre production of Free in 2002. The chemistry between them as director and performer must work for Walker to want to revisit it, I suggest. Returning to a director you didn’t enjoy working with, Walker tells me, “would be masochism beyond the point of sanity”.
The Almeida’s production of Mrs Klein, the first major UK revival of Nicholas Wright’s play since it premiered at the National Theatre in 1988, finds Walker playing Paula, the assistant to the real-life admired and controversial psycho-analyst Melanie Klein. A refugee from Hitler’s Berlin, her arrival coincides with a bitter confrontation between Klein and her grown up daughter Melitta, who has followed in her mother’s imposing footsteps and also studied psycho-analysis.
Psycho-analysts arguing sounds like it could be a heavy evening of suffocating intellectual debate, but Walker corrects me. “It is these intellectuals locked in together for a night, but the rage that comes out of these three women that have these huge brains; they’re all reduced to something very animal by the end. As a result it’s incredibly funny.
“You know that feeling when a night just starts to go really really bad. If you trace your steps back through what was said and what was done and how much whiskey was drunk and when we started opening that strange Scotch at the back of the cabinet which no-one’s ever touched; you could plot your way back and maybe work out how the evening got quite so messy, but it’s too late. It just spirals.
“These three women, they drink a lot and they smoke a lot and they are brilliant on their subjects, but they’re not quite so great at looking at themselves. You have these three women all just holding up a mirror to each other and it just gets really messy.
“I promise messiness,” she concludes. “It’s a very frightening night in a good way.”
“Clare Higgins’s standard line about what the play is about,” Walker continues, “is it’s a play about a pair of breasts; one’s good and one’s bad.” Walker’s co-star’s chest-based description is a reference to arguably Klein’s most famous theory about children moving through a stage in which they only recognise polar opposites; good, bad and nothing in between.
But Klein’s theories, though important within the world of psycho-analysis, are less well known in the wider world than those of Freud or Jung. “I had to do quite a lot of reading,” admits Walker, “and quite a lot of it is impenetrable because she didn’t write for ordinary people like us, she wrote for other academics. So we’ve had some fantastic people in who’ve given their time and come and talked us through the Kleinian camp and the Freudian camp and where the two diverged and met.”
As a mum, a lot of Klein’s theories made Walker very angry at first. “Some of the things she says are so extreme to a normal person’s ear. I just felt quite a lot of rage and quite suspicious of the whole thing.” With the help of the experts who have been educating the cast, she has found a way through the dense psycho-babble and now, “I hate to say this, but I can see the wisdom in a lot of what she says, and I find myself trying not to shout so much at my child in the last three weeks.”
With that, Walker tries, in the most polite and hectic of fashions, to draw our brief phone conversation to a close and charge off to wolf down some food before, I have no doubt, scampering into the rehearsal room a little out of breath, probably finishing a mouthful of lunch.
Very sweetly she repents at the last minute and asks if there is anything else I want to ask. I quickly mention Spooks, the long-running spy drama in which Walker played Ruth for four series before leaving to have her baby. She is one of the few departed cast members not to go out in a blaze of glory, sacrificing themselves for the good of humanity or killed at the hands of a despicable counter operative.
“When there’s three of you, there’s absolutely nowhere to hide”
The series is due back on television screens later this autumn and a brief glance at Walker’s CV gives away the fact that Ruth is alive and well and back on MI-5’s radar.
“Well, I’m not meant to say,” she utters tentatively, before crumbling under the least invasive of interrogations – what would her screen colleagues say? – “I am, yeah. My Dad knows, so everyone probably knows,” she says as she gives away this top secret information like a free CD with a Sunday paper.
She sounded excited talking about Mrs Klein. She sounds even more excited talking about Spooks. It is easy to hear how much affection she has for the show and the company that makes it. “It has been thoroughly enjoyable. I hope the storyline goes down well.” Her defences are stronger against any more interrogation about the upcoming series, and she counters by feeding me fake storylines before giving away her cunning ploy with laughter.
As she makes another half-hearted attempt to refuel before the dress rehearsal, there is one last chance to discuss Mrs Klein. “As an audience member, you are in the position of voyeur and as a result, I think you make some pretty definite judgments about all three of them. It’s constantly changing; you’re in Mrs Klein’s corner for a period of the evening and then she does something so outrageous you find yourself completely flipping and you’re with her daughter.
“It’s been a real education. I started off actually being quite angry about a lot of what she said and did, and now, probably because I’m turning into my character, I’m falling in love with her and her views… which is probably good as that’s what I’m meant to do in the play.”
With a final giggle Walker actually does have to go. I put the phone down and imagine her sprinting back towards the rehearsal room, desperately trying to inhale a sandwich as she runs.