After a three-year hiatus, Victoria Hamilton returns to the West End stage in Twelfth Night. The much-lauded actress talks to Matthew Amer about the pressure of expectation and the pleasure and pain of working with Michael Grandage.
It can’t have been easy being labelled the ‘next Judi Dench’; being compared to one of British acting’s most respected and loved icons has many burdens and brings with it a weight of expectation. But if actress Victoria Hamilton has ever felt any of that pressure, she has never let it show. Instead she has consistently turned out high-quality performances on both stage and screen, from her award-winning turn in Peter Hall’s production of The Master Builder early in her career, to her quirky take on a role that could so easily have become a pantomime baddie in BBC costume drama Lark Rise To Candleford.
Having spent three years away from the stage, the longest break from theatre of her career, Hamilton is making her return in the second of the Donmar West End productions at the Wyndham’s theatre, Twelfth Night, amid a cast of spectacular pedigree that also includes Derek Jacobi, Ron Cook, Samantha Spiro, Indira Varma and Zubin Varla.
Though Hamilton’s reputation and past performances mark her out as among the elite of Britain’s acting sorority, she has not a jot of arrogance about her, instead suffering a touch from a lack of belief which she claims is symptomatic of all her fellow professionals. “Every single actor thinks they’re about to get found out; every single actor thinks this job is their last,” she says as we chat in a white, soulless room at the Jerwood Space, where the company is rehearsing. “It doesn’t matter how successful you are, most of the really good actors I know are convinced they’re about to be found out and convinced that the work’s going to dry up fairly soon, regardless of the fact that they’ve been working non-stop for 15 years, because you never really lose the understanding that we’re in a profession where 98% of actors are out of work at any one time.”
“You never really lose the understanding that we’re in a profession where 98% of actors are out of work at any one time”
To an outsider, this view seems a touch pessimistic. Since Hamilton first broke onto the acting scene in Peter Hall’s 1995 version of Ibsen’s The Master Builder, winning the Critics’ Circle Award for Best Newcomer in the process, she has been hot property, both on stage and screen. Her commitment to spend the early years of her professional career immersed in classical drama saw her develop into a performer who could be compared to the greats of the previous generation, and has brought her success on both sides of the Atlantic. But that development, according to the elfin actress, is far from over: “I think acting, as in any profession… at its best there should be a constant sense of apprenticeship.” With that in mind, her time spent working with Jacobi on this new production has been particularly thrilling: “half of you feels like you’re going to rehearsal,” she smiles, “and the other half of you feels like you’re going to a master class”.
Though Jacobi is the face on Twelfth Night’s striking posters – the theatrical knight is currently staring down at passers-by across the West End and on many a tube escalator – it may have been Hamilton who was always in the mind of director Michael Grandage when he began to piece the cast together.
The pair are regular collaborators. This is the fifth time they have worked together since the Almeida production of The Doctor’s Dilemma in 1998. “Some people in life you instantly click with,” says Hamilton, and Grandage was one of those. He brings out the best in her, so she returns to work with him time after time. It was “two or three years ago” that he suggested Hamilton should tackle the role of Viola, just as he was cementing his place as one of the West End’s most sought after directors and his calendar was becoming distinctly full.
“The reason I love working with him,” Hamilton explains, “is it’s the most challenging situation for me to be put in. There’s something about working with him, for me; it’s not always easy and laid back and relaxed, because that isn’t how a rehearsal room should feel. A rehearsal room should be great fun and have a sense of joy and excitement in it, but it should also be difficult, it should also be tough, because that’s the only way you improve as an actor. What he does is, he says ‘You know that thing you do really well? Don’t do it. I want you to stop doing that and find something different to play.’ It makes you improve as an actor. It’s terrifying and you can hate him for it at moments, but it always, always improves your performance.”
“It’s terrifying and you can hate him for it at moments, but it always, always improves your performance”
Hamilton’s last performance in commercial London theatre, Suddenly Last Summer, which saw her nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award, also came under Grandage’s watchful gaze in 2003, though she also appeared in the National Theatre’s Once In A Lifetime in 2005. Since then she has worked exclusively on film, in productions including Wide Sargasso Sea, comic-drama The Time Of Your Life and the BBC’s hit costume drama Lark Rise To Candleford, which returns to the schedule this winter.
Hamilton admits to having no idea how the softly spoken rural drama would be received when they were filming series one, but she was always aware that it rubbed against much of what constitutes ratings-winning, boundary-pushing television in the 21st century. She describes the literary adaptation as “like the TV version of The Archers.” Those seven words may, in fact, summarise exactly why it went down so well. “You switch on and you know that you’re not going to see graphic violence, you’re not going to see graphic sex, no-one’s going to swear, it’s just the story of people’s lives really.”
Based on Flora Thompson’s autobiographical novel, the creation of Lark Rise saw writer Bill Gallagher add a little flesh to the bones of Thompson’s story, giving bit part characters greater storylines and creating an ensemble piece where everyone in the village is integral to the series. This evolution did not just happen on paper, however, and Hamilton, best known for single dramas rather than series, relished a rare opportunity to build a character over time. The interesting thing for her, she says, was how she could tell what Gallagher appreciated about her take on Ruby Pratt. “I know what I’ve done that Bill likes,” she explains, “because he’ll go ‘Right, I’ll have that characteristic, I’m going to write that up more.’ Every episode I get a script and think ‘Ah, that’s where you want me to go with her.’”
The decision to take more screen roles in recent years was not premeditated, in fact Hamilton is convinced there are far more roles available to her on the stage as an actress in her late 30s than there are on screen. The reason she has been absent from the West End recently is merely that the right projects haven’t come along. Having spent 15 years building her reputation in the industry, she now has the confidence to trust the voice inside her that tells her to turn down roles that look ideal but don’t feel right, the roles that everyone else thinks are perfect for you, but of which you are unsure. “When I haven’t,” she says reticently, “and I’ve taken a job because everybody else has said it will be great for my career, inevitably that’s when I’ve not had a great time.”
“When I’ve taken a job because everybody else has said it will be great for my career, inevitably that’s when I’ve not had a great time”
There is something paradoxical about Hamilton. She simultaneously looks too young to have been acting professionally for 15 years but feels like she has been around for much longer. She has wisdom beyond her age, but still doesn’t quite trust her own talent. If another young actress fresh out of drama school had been picked to lead a Peter Hall production after only a couple of appearances at the Orange Tree theatre, and had subsequently been showered with praise, it could have gone straight to their head or seen them crumple under the pressure placed on their still wet shoulders. “In a strange way,” Hamilton explains, “the fact that somebody has gambled on you is what gives you the confidence to play the part. The most extraordinary thing is someone showing that much faith in you. When you’re 23, it’s everything in the world that you possibly want, so you just grab it with both hands… You never stop trying to do that.”
Stepping back onto the West End stage, working again with a director who forces her to stretch her limits and alongside actors of Jacobi’s standing, this is just what Hamilton, the eternal student, is doing once more. Yet she has not neglected to pass on her own knowledge either.
The 2001 West End and subsequent Broadway production of A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg saw her work with Eddie Izzard, then more famous for his brand of randomly rambling stand-up comedy than for his acting prowess. “Stand-up comedians working with straight actors can be very, very difficult, because stand-up comedy is stand-up comedy, it doesn’t mean you can act.” As with Grandage, the pair immediately clicked and Izzard was quick to admit that he didn’t know what he was doing, but desperately wanted to learn. With Hamilton’s help he did just that, impressing the more experienced actress with his commitment and talent: “[Acting] is a very frightening thing if you’re not used to it, because it is about emotionally bringing up life experiences that you might want to forget. It’s about dredging inside of you for emotions that you remember and can recall and use that aren’t pleasant a lot of the time. He really went there emotionally.”
Hamilton seems to find it easier to see in Izzard what many people, critics and audiences alike, see in her performances time and time again on stage and screen. I haven’t heard her called the new Judi Dench for some time now; not because her star has fallen, but because she is now considered the only Victoria Hamilton.