“More Vodka, please” goes up the shout. The shoes have come off. The feet are tucked under the star on the sofa in the press office of the National Theatre. The umpteenth liquorice roll-up has been smoked and as it’s a Friday evening a second double seems entirely reasonable after a long week and only the second complete run-through of her new play, Battle Royal about the marriage between George IVth and Caroline of Brunswick which opens on December 9th. The PR obliges and the conversation about Greek tragedy, because of her huge success on Broadway earlier this year with Sophocles’ Elektra, and Caroline continues, punctuated by much amusement and the throatiest of laughs, somewhere between Tallulah Bankhead and a much rougher sandpaper.
Talking to Zoë Wanamaker is fun. After a while you realise that she has a certain bag-lady quality about her. Despite being physically neat, her mind is a laundry basket of thoughts and she swears a lot, the f-word being her emphatic of choice. In an hour and a half she is as passionately in favour of Mamma Mia, for being gloriously tacky and fun, as she is not of some well-know (nameless) actress she heard on Woman’s Hour recently. “’She was saying ‘The trouble with young people today is that they have no sense of language…. blah, blah, blah’. No. No. No. No. You just sound like a f***ing a***hole. You sound…you sound like an…. old fart. You sound like, and I hate the word a, luv-vie.” She pronounces the last with deliberate distaste. “You sound so precious”. Wanamaker is anything but precious. She is frank, committed and like her father Sam, whose sheer cussed resolution is witnessed for eternity by the stone and wood of Shakespeare’s Globe in Southwark, a very determined person.
“When I was doing David Mamet’s play The Old Neighbourhood in London. I went to see one of the producers. I said I hear you might be interested in putting money into the transfer of Elektra from the Donmar Warehouse to Broadway. He said,” and here her American accent is perfect, as well it might be since she has an American passport, “ ‘ I have to tell you Greek Drama doesn’t go down to well in New York’. Right, I thought, that’s it. I’ll show you.” And she has. A Tony nomination and the breaking of all box office records at The Barrymore Theatre later, she was such a hit on Broadway that the New York Times had her as the answer to a crossword clue. ‘British Actress, 9 letters beginning with W.’ “That was heaven. But I really resented it too. I wanted to be an American actress.” The trouble is that she had two American parents but she and her two sisters grew up in England after their father came here in the early 40’s during the McCarthyite persecutions. Most people assume she is English, and even more so the wider British public who know her best from playing Tessa opposite Adam Faith in the Marks & Gran TV comedy “Love Hurts”.
Being a sitcom star had never really been her destiny. Her mother, Charlotte, as well as her dad was an actor, but she gave it up to bring up the girls and support her husband. Both of them tried valiantly to discourage Zoë from the stage from the age of ten, when seeing her father at Stratford entranced her. Brief spells painting and typing eventually led to them supporting her at the Central Drama School. She started to make her name at Nottingham Playhouse and the RSC in Streetcar named Desire, the musical Once in a Lifetime and Mother Courage. In a career with few breaks she has taken Piaf to Broadway, played opposite Ian McKellen’s Iago in Trevor Nunn’s benchmark production of Othello, played Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible and created Amanda the lead in Terry Johnson’s hit Dead Funny. The laughs and the tragedy have run easily into each other and miles apart as they are, it was probably Love Hurts that lead her to Elektra, Sophocles’ Oedipus for girls who persuaded her brother to kill their mother to avenge the mother’s murder of their father, whom Elektra loved.
“She was a terrorist who at the same time was looking for and believed in beauty.” The link is that once Wanamaker proved with a hit on telly that with her turned up nose, idiosyncratic sexiness and record for doing what she describes as “socially committed TV once a year”, she was nonetheless a real star, a real leading lady, she got cast in leads. She could carry a play. And with Elektra in London she needed to. Not well served by a wooden supporting cast, she nonetheless was rivettingly the centre of the piece, her acting clear, spare and pure. It was re-cast for America with Clare Bloom playing her mother. “I knew it would work on Broadway because the Americans love drama. I knew it would arrest a Broadway audience. I’d always worried about Greek drama myself before. It made me feel stupid and I don’t want to feel stupid in the theatre. But this was so good. And in New York theatre is ‘an event’. Culturally there’s an energy and excitement about what happens in the theatre. Anyone who comes back from doing theatre in New York feels rewarded, whereas here – I’m not sure why- everybody’s rather blasé about theatre.”
And in New York everybody goes to the shows. That’s “everybody” with inverted commas. “Al Pacino, Meryl Streep. They all come. Some actors keep a list.” Did you? “No” Big Laugh. Bag Ladies don’t keep lists. “And I can’t really remember all of them now.” The most exciting? “Jessye Norman. She came twice.” Why so excited by Jessye Norman? “Because she’s f****ing Jessye Norman. She’s f****ing brilliant.” The grandeur of the Diva is made very funny when coupled with the fierceness of the expletive. The Gods brought to earth. But despite playing court to all the stars, Wanamaker wasn’t the girl about town in Manhattan. Her social life was in her dressing room, then home to an hour of TV and to bed. Classes in the morning, lunch, and a nap and by five or so, to work. “I am always the first to arrive at the theatre and the last to leave. And I had to be a good girl. I know the show was only 90 minutes but it was shattering. So I had to be really disciplined. Finally towards the end of the run though I just thought f***k it, this is silly. So I started to go out. Early on I was so frightened of being ill in the first weeks.” Then she says vehemently as if talking about an article of faith. “I don’t believe in eight shows a week. It’s a killer. I just don’t believe in it. Every kind of work has its own trials and strains but people always think that actors are so f***ing precious when they say things like that. Ha ha ha ha.”
She fitted in New York, a city overflowing with eccentrics, since one of the most vibrant symbols of Elektra’s visceral, heartbreaking grief was a haircut Wanamaker describes as being “chopped with great holes in my scalp, which made it look like I was having major chemotherapy.” No one paid a blind bit of notice. But she was in the Museum of Modern Art one day, visiting the Jackson Pollock Exhibition and a woman came up to her. “All afternoon people had been talking to me and saying very nice things about Elektra and how marvellous I was and all that. Then this woman approached me and I kvelled -it’s a Yiddish word – I started to puff up with pride and arrogance and then she just pointed at my head and said ‘I have something for that. Folic acid. The alopecia just goes right away’ ”. Wanamaker falls about rasping with nicotined merriment. “I was properly deflated by that.” And that’s when she yelled across the National Theatre Press office for more vodka.
The play she is doing there is a new play by Nick Stafford. It took her a long time to decide to do it. “I am terrible at reading scripts. I always get them wrong. I thought Glass Menagerie which Sam Mendes asked me to do at the Donmar Warehouse was very dated.” It turned out to be a huge hit with a modern audience and transferred to the Comedy Theatre. “I thought The Crucible was very old fashioned. With Dead Funny I thought that Terry Johnson has written something that was just very vicious and so the first night and all those laughs came as a huge shock really. And this one I felt was rather pedestrian. Plus I just thought everybody would compare it to The Madness of King George.” So what changed her mind? “When Howard Davies, the director said that he thought maybe he’d like to begin with something like… something like Caroline doing cartwheels across the stage. And I just thought ‘That’s great’ I’ll do it.”
That seems to fit with her central idea of theatre and of the vivid sense of colour and energy you get spending time with her. “When he said that about the cartwheels, which we’re actually not doing because in the end it didn’t look right, I thought ‘That’s the point You take something and you grab it and throw it out of the window. He changed it so it was much more outrageous and it grabbed my imagination. It took it off the page.” What motivates her about the theatre is that when she goes herself she likes to be “engrossed in the story and forget what else is going on in the world. I want to become fascinated by the characters. And the other thing that motivates me is that I love dressing up. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. I just like dressing up and I like being somebody else.”
The role of Caroline will certainly satisfy much of that. She was an extraordinary woman. She smelt and had legendarily bad breath. She was a great naive and in Wanamaker’s words “The stuff I’ve read about her is absolutely crazy. She was barking really”. The play is the story of the arranged marriage between the Prince Regent and Caroline who was his German cousin. She arrives in London and he is repulsed by her. She increasingly becomes an absolute anathema to the Royal family who seek to sideline her. Nonetheless with the French Revolution in the air and the unpopularity of the British monarchy she becomes a focus for republican dissent and much beloved of the British people. The bad breath and lack of dress sense apart, remind you of anyone? “Yes I thought you might say that. I am afraid that people might try and read something in to the play about Diana.” At this point Wanamaker reaches into her bag and brings out a piece of paper with notes. She has done homework. “I thought you might ask me what I thought the play is about.”
Fine. What is it about? And sounding for all the world like a thirteen year-old girl in class, she reads out her disjointed essay. “It’s a new play with 25 characters (aside: ‘and that’s pretty amazing’). It’s a tragi-comedy (we’re back into GCSE mode) about an arranged marriage; a turbulent clash between private desire and public image; and spin doctoring and being English; and England and France at the time of the Revolution; and the fear of revolution in England; and Machiavellian politics at court and that’s what I’ve written.”
And yes it is about all those things. But paired with the superb Simon Russell-Beale, surely playing a part towards which he has been heading for much of his career, it will also be about another surprising facet of this unpredictable and versatile actress, who can move with an ease unlike anyone else except the Dame Dench, between TV sit com, Greek tragedy and royal romps. She chose the part deliberately as something very different from Elektra, about which she still cannot stop talking. That affected her in the way that only Greek tragedy perhaps can mirror one’s own tragedy. She nightly relived the grief of Elektra for her parents while Sam and Charlotte Wanamaker, her own mother and father died within a short space of each other. With Caroline of Brunswick she will have less intensity and more laughs, certainly on stage. But it is a delicate play. For all her outrageousness and wildness Caroline was a broken woman who was refused entry to the Abbey at her husband’s Coronation and died within three weeks. Even comedy with Wanamaker has an edge and it’s a racing certainty that this will live up to her own aspiration for theatre. “You just want drama to be completely f****ing arresting and involving, don’t you?” Yes.