Acting the Coward

Star of theatre, film and television Juliet Stevenson shows that the secret to success is nothing more than working hard at your job. Words: Steve Cramer

Much speculation goes toward the issue of what makes an exceptional actor. Various people have posited various solutions, often involving spiritual gifts and mysterious connections with the artistic ether which surrounds us. Whatever the answer to this conundrum, in the case of Juliet Stevenson it seems to be startlingly simple. Any discussion of theatre practice with her seems to return to a few keywords: dedication, commitment and a passion for her craft seem to have lifted this performer above the ordinary. Her appearances on stage, film and television have garnered the kind of praise that need not be reiterated here, while her reputation for political commitment and stubborn advocation of various causes seems to be a manifestation of the same sharp and observant mind that she has spent years applying to performance. Given her reputation for being ‘difficult’, it seems surprising that she should talk so readily and enthusiastically about her work, and in particular, the upcoming Royal National Theatre’s production of Private Lives.

In Noel Coward’s story of a divorced middle-aged couple, Elyot and Amanda coincidentally arrive at the same French hotel with new spouses for their separate honeymoons, only to find old passions, tempered with old grudges, stirring between them. It’s a familiar enough repertory piece with any English-speaking audience, but Stevenson’s characteristic enthusiasm and intellectual rigour promises to add new dimensions to an old standard.

Coward’s views on the subject of acting, which he saw as a mystical thing requiring ‘star quality’, could not have been more different from those of the rationalistic Stevenson. Coward once remarked that you have to be born to play Elyot, in this production played by the exellent Anton Lesser, so do you have to be born to play Amanda? Stevenson laughs throatily and at length before replying: ‘I don’t know about that, but I can identify with a lot of her, and it’s

48 THE UST 9—23 Sep 1999

Juliet Stevenson

“I thought it would be fun to do this, and I’d have a ball. But, Jesus Christ, it's difficult."

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Bravo. Juliet: Juliet Stevenson in Private Lives

beautiful to play her. She’s so selfish and amoral, so untroubled by any idea of a sense of responsibility. She’s completely instinct-led.’

This kind of role, though, seems at variance with the CV of Stevenson, whose previous work in both film and theatre has seen her take on classical drama, and only the most ‘serious’ of modern work. She is at pains, however, to stress the quality of Coward’s work. ‘I thought it would be fun to do this, and I’d have a ball. But, Jesus Christ, it’s difficult. You’ve got to get the rhythms and music of the piece right, you’ve got to get into much greater depths than you might expect, but not at the expense of the comedy, which is really funny.’

So, it’s about commitment to the text? ‘The writing is the most important part of the process. A lot of actors like to throw the text out of the window, and that drives me potty. I’ve come to realise that Coward is a great writer, and this is something that’s important to me. You can’t go out every night and do a play which is just flashy effect, it’s no good doing something you don’t believe in, it’s so knackering to do that.’ It seems to sum up the paradoxes of this great performer that she works so hard on her craft in order to avoid feeling tired.

Private Lives is at Edinburgh King's Theatre, 21—25 Sep.

Stage whispers Re: treading the boards

NOW THAT THE dust of the Festival has settled, and the new seasons are opening, first the good news: Theatre Workshop has received a new SAC National Lottery Award. which will provide training opportunities for actors with disabilities. The scheme, worth £350,000, aims to address the long term problem of the failure of the Scottish theatre community to integrate disabled actors, or consider issues relating to disability.

BUT THE SAC giveth and taketh away. The last minute disappearance of Tartan Bhangras from the Glasgow Theatre listings was due to the cancellation of a show which the SAC failed to support. After the long struggle of the Pavilion to assist the New Scots Theatre in producing a show intended to appeal to both Asian and white theatre audiences, defeat was admitted, and the show pulled.


announced two important new patrons. To find out who they are. turn back to our front cover. Yes, none other than Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman will be adding their considerable public kudos to supporting what’s these days a quite thriving local theatre. There's only two degrees of separation involved here: Dundee Rep's Hamish Glen is brother of actor lain Glen, who appeared on stage in The Blue Room with Kidman. In addition, Brian Cox will be performing his Broadway hit St Nicholas on Sat 11 Sep as part of a new fundraising campaign. Phone the Rep Box Office on 01382 223530 for details.

BAD NEWS FOR Scottish Ballet, with the announcement, on 3 Sep. of the resignation of Kenn Burke, Assistant Artistic Director, who has occupied the position of Acting Artistic Director over the past eighteen months. The previous day saw the arrival of Robert North as new Artistic Director, so let's hope that marks a fresh start for the troubled


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