As Tara Fitzgerald prepares to return to the stage, she tells Caroline Bishop about revisiting Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and her renewed passion for her profession.
Five years ago at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Tara Fitzgerald appeared in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House as the famous heroine Nora, an intense and physically demanding role that Fitzgerald terms “the female Hamlet”. Now, after a three-year break from theatre, she is back on stage in a new production of the same play, but in the supporting role of Christine.
It is not often an actor plays Hamlet before Laertes, and it says something of Fitzgerald’s unstarry, ego-free nature that she was willing to play a supporting role to Gillian Anderson’s Nora in this latest production. Yet the attraction is clear. Zinnie Harris’s Edwardian England-set version of the Norwegian playwright’s classic also stars Toby Stephens – with whom Fitzgerald has often co-starred on television – and Christopher Eccleston alongside Anderson and is directed by Kfir Yefet at the Donmar Warehouse, currently one of the hottest venues in London. It wasn’t an opportunity Fitzgerald was going to pass up.
“It’s a luxury really to go again at a play,” Fitzgerald tells me when we meet during rehearsals for the production, hinting at a certain desire to improve on her previous experience of the play. “Often what you feel as an actor, it all comes to you the moment you’ve finished it, and there’s an element of that; I thought, I’m curious to look again.” Then there were the more obvious draws: “I really admired Gillian and I thought it was a great opportunity to work with her, and I was really interested in Kfir and what he had to say about it, and also what Zinnie had done with the text.”
Anderson’s Nora will undoubtedly be very different to Fitzgerald’s, but the two productions feel separate enough for Fitzgerald to avoid comparing herself, she says, while coming at the play from the point of view of Christine – Nora’s sensible, mature childhood friend – rather than the play’s childlike heroine “actually sheds some light on what I experienced before”. Not that she wouldn’t have wanted to have another go at Nora, if asked: “Well I might, you know,” she shrugs, “that wasn’t the premise of this; that wasn’t the deal.”
She hasn’t been on stage since Agatha Christie thriller And Then There Were None in the West End in 2005, and Fitzgerald has been enjoying being a part of a rehearsal process once again, as well as having the opportunity to learn from her co-stars in this enticingly juicy cast. “It seems very even-handed, we’re all coming from quite different places which is quite good for the piece,” she says. “It does need quite big people, even though it’s a small space. The piece has got something of the epic in it, that’s what he was hoping to achieve to make a sort of modern tragedy.”
“I feel good that I kept my integrity. I didn’t in every way, I’m not a saint”
Written in 1879, Ibsen’s tragedy centres on young wife Nora, who is infantilised by her marriage to a condescending, oppressive husband. There are few playwrights, feels Fitzgerald, who write for women “so brilliantly” as Ibsen, which was another reason she was eager to revisit the play. “His understanding of what women wanted or thought or secretly desired or were capable of in that setting, in that time, is quite extraordinary,” she comments.
The play, which pre-dates the height of the women’s suffrage movement in the UK, turned Ibsen into a somewhat reluctant champion of feminism as his heroine famously makes the decision – highly controversial in its time – to leave her children behind as she deserts her stifling marriage. Though Fitzgerald does not consider herself a feminist, working on the play has made her “become very conscious of it and I am very grateful to them [the suffragettes],” she says. “I’m conscious of the fact that there’s still not equal rights. This is a strange thing that’s been occupying me; we’re still not really equal. We may put in the same but we’re not.” The fact that a 19th century playwright is still heralded as one of the best writers of women’s roles seems to support this view.
Thankfully times have moved on enough that theatregoers no longer walk out of the play in disgust at Nora’s decision, as happened in Ibsen’s day. However, A Doll’s House still has the ability to deeply unsettle, says Fitzgerald. “A woman leaving her children is still, I think, shocking. I still think society has a problem with it, I don’t think that’s changed.”
As such, she feels any radical updating of the drama – like German director Thomas Ostermeier’s version at the Barbican theatre in 2004 – is unnecessary. “You don’t have to play around with Ibsen too much, the shock value is still implicit, but if you highlight certain things it really contemporises them.” She has found it interesting to compare Harris’s version for the Donmar with Bryony Lavery’s for Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Harris, the actress says, retains the provocative and ambivalent flavour of Ibsen’s work that she admires so much. “I think the way he explores things is brilliantly ambivalent, he’s not afraid of the paradoxes in life, which a lot of writers are; they like to have it all neat and tidy and I think human beings like to have it neat and tidy.”
“His understanding of what women wanted or thought in that setting is quite extraordinary”
Ibsen may well have approved of Fitzgerald’s casting then, because there is a certain paradoxical quality to the actress that makes her admirably hard to neatly categorise. There was a time when she seemed on the cusp of taking the conventional path. After appearing in 1994 film Sirens – which included a much talked about nude scene leading to the dubious accolade of making FHM magazine’s 100 Sexiest Women in the World list – Fitzgerald was on course to be the next British darling of Hollywood. And then she wasn’t. Out of choice, Fitzgerald took a u-turn, retreated to Britain and pursued a career in television drama and stage that has kept her hovering around the edges of the limelight rather than in its full glare.
“I wasn’t comfortable taking that route. I just didn’t feel at home there,” she says of her time in LA. “I think had something come along that I really, really felt good about then I would have done it; it almost became a sort of political choice, but actually it wasn’t, it was just I didn’t really get on with it.”
The nudity tag hadn’t helped, and she admits to a certain youthful innocence there. “You go to drama school and you have a training and you’re not really trained for all that, it’s not something that you anticipate. I also think I was finding my feet, you’re sort of learning on the job. The nudity thing, I was very naïve about that and I really realise that now, that I didn’t realise it was such a problem. Like people endlessly talking about it, it was just like ‘oh my God, are we ever going to be able to talk about anything else?’ and then you find you can’t, you’re stuck talking about this thing which is nothing to do with acting.”
So she left LA behind and forged a career in the UK and Europe, where she says she feels “much more free” than she did Stateside. Her work following Sirens couldn’t have been more different, including acclaimed Britflick Brassed Off and playing Ophelia to Ralph Fiennes’s Hamlet in the 1995 Almeida theatre production that transferred to Broadway. “I stuck to my guns if you like. I feel good that I kept my integrity. I didn’t in every way, I’m not a saint,” she smiles, “but I can’t really force myself into things that I don’t feel comfortable in.”
“A woman leaving her children is still, I think, shocking. I still think society has a problem with it”
Her career over the past decade has been suitably free and indefinable, incorporating period drama on television, a Czech film, leading roles on stage – Antigone at the Old Vic, Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire in Bristol – and supporting roles on screen, recently The Virgin Queen and the 2006 BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre.
At 41, the actress still has the high cheekbones, delicate features and husky voice that attracted the attention of the lads mags in her 20s and her name is well-known, yet she is not the box office draw or the leading lady that she might have become. She says of meeting director Yefet for A Doll’s House: “He is unusual in that he knew some of the things I’d done.” It seems a strange, rather self-effacing thing to say, yet I know what she means. The average man on the street may well know who she is but might not be able to name her recent credits.
Except, perhaps, for one in particular. Given her career to date you might not expect the free-spirited Fitzgerald to tie herself into an ongoing television series, but with Waking The Dead she has done just that. She plays pathologist Eve in the BBC psychological crime drama, a meaty yet unglamorous role which has her “mostly talking about maggots or a ballistic problem”. She loves it. “I think it’s age and it’s all sorts of things, but I never thought I’d enjoy being in a regular series as a regular character but I actually, I’ve found it really satisfying,” she says.
As she heads into her 40s, much talked about in the media as being the age actresses encounter a dearth of good roles, Fitzgerald seems to be thriving. She is not unaware of the issue, yet perhaps her reluctance to package herself as a conventional star has saved her from those dangers. “I think actually there are quite a few good character parts and perhaps there aren’t so many actors [of my age], you know, is the positive way of looking at it,” she smiles.
Why that should be is not something Fitzgerald can answer, especially as she has no intention of leaving the profession herself. By contrast, she is currently fuelled by a “renewed passion” for her work. “I feel it’s a brilliant thing to be able to do,” she says. “I’m fortunate because I actually love what I do. You begin to take that for granted over time and actually not everybody has that. And if I’m allowed to do it then it’s amazing to have that. It’s really lucky.”