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There is nothing more beguiling than talking to someone who is passionate, and self-effacing, about their work. Linda Bassett, who is currently playing Ella Rentheim in Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman for English Touring Theatre, finds it impossible to accept work unless it is a piece that ‘either clicks with something I’ve learnt or I want to say’. ‘Some actors will do anything, and I admire that,’ she says, ‘but I’ve never been able to do that… [the writer] has to be speaking some truth for me’.
Bassett first made an impression on me in Max Stafford-Clark’s acclaimed double bill at the Royal Court in 1988 and 1989. The director’s pairing of Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer with Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good was a glorious theatrical experience for those of us lucky enough to see the productions.
Based on Thomas Keneally’s book, The Playmaker, Our Country’s Good follows a disparate group of Botany Bay convicts — murderers, villains, prostitutes and the like — who are dragooned into rehearsing The Recruiting Officer for the first performance of any play in Australia. The piece has particular resonance for actors for obvious reasons and is a fine example of the positive social and cultural effects theatre can have on our well-being. As Bassett says, ‘It was such a statement of faith in our job, wasn’t it? There’s so much in our society telling us that what we’re doing is trivial and stupid.’ She believes that acting is ‘the oldest art’: ‘You don’t need anything, any materials, just yourself. We’ve been acting since we walked the earth.’
Born in Kent, Bassett was brought up mainly in London. She acted at school but had no awareness that it was ‘something you could actually do’ until the school took them to the theatre. ‘And there was never any doubt then, after that, that that’s what I wanted to do,’ she says. I ask how her parents reacted to this decision. ‘It was such an odd thing, there was no tradition of it so … what I was online to do was try to get to university, do a science degree and go into nursing but with a degree. That was quite ambitious, in a sense.’
Not having trained, Bassett and I discuss the pros and cons of going to drama school. Although she acknowledges that it is probably true the best training comes from being in the business, she says ‘on the other hand, when you haven’t been to drama school, you think how wonderful it would have been to have spent that time laying down a few foundations with other people who also wanted to do it. But I think when you hit about 40, it’s probably evened out. When I was younger I really felt like I missed it, that I had missed out somewhere. But then when you’ve done enough of a little bit of work, you think no, it’s okay’.
She had a very clear idea of the work she wanted to do. ‘Yes, yes..yes. I’m talking about when I was in my teens. I think it was even before they took us to the Old Vic, which was the first play I saw, I was reading Shakespeare. I just used to read it for pleasure. I was talking about this with Gillian [Barge] the other night. I did Macbeth for O-level and whereas people were going ‘oh, what is this we’ve got to do?’, I was just devouring it. I was onto all of them and just read and read. I loved it and that’s all I wanted to do. And curiously enough, it’s not what I’ve done.’ A passion for Shakespeare, Chekhov and ‘all the great classics’ drew her in but ‘it just wasn’t what happened’.
Looking back, it seems that The Recruiting Officer and Our Country’s Good may have been the point at which directors and casting directors sat up, took notice and started asking for her. She particularly remembers ‘a very nice review in the days when I read them’ for Our Country’s Good. ‘It mentioned me but it didn’t mention me, if you see what I mean. It was really lovely because it was something like: “There’s this wonderful moment when a woman does this.” Well, that’s rather fantastic, but on the other hand why doesn’t it mention me by name! Maybe that was indeed a little bit of a turning point.’
It can often appear, from an outside perspective, as though a particular performer has never stopped working. ‘It always seems like that, doesn’t it?’ says Bassett. ‘I’ve had up and down like anyone else. I know I’m lucky because I’ve got mates who don’t get the things I get so I know I’ve been very lucky.’ It is curious how many in a position to employ consider that cream always rises to the top in the profession, and yet it is always the cream who consider how lucky they have been by comparison with equally talented actors who fail to get the work.
Bassett is currently gaining plaudits on the big screen as Virginia Woolf’s cook, Nelly Boxall, in Stephen Daltry’s award-winning The Hours. ‘I’d just worked with Stephen in the theatre. I’d done Far Away with him, Caryl Churchill’s play [at the Royal Court] and that’s why I did The Hours, really, or he asked me to do it. It was a three-day job. As luck would have it, for us, for Lyndsay Marshal and I, who plays the other servant, delays, delays, delays, so it turned into a six-day job and we both doubled our fees!’
‘It wasn’t a big “I’m going along to do this”,’ she tells me. ‘I still worked on it. I did my research, don’t get me wrong. I don’t do anything cynically. Also, because she was a real woman, Nelly, I read the diaries and found that particular period. And Nelly is a fascinating character. It’s about her, really!’
We are talking the day after the opening night of John Gabriel Borkman at Greenwich Theatre and she is unsure how the performance went. ‘I don’t know, it was a bit dry. I can never tell. Rather fortunately, unfortunately, the night before had been a really good show, and we were quite high. So it was almost like a second nighty feel but with fear! Who knows! You just don’t know, do you?’
Ella Rentheim is the former love of John Gabriel Borkman (Michael Pennington) who is now married to her twin sister Gunhild (Gillian Barge). Before the play starts, Borkman has spent five years in prison for embezzlement, during which time Ella has looked after his and Gunhild’s son Erhart (James Loye). Borkman’s guilt has meant the loss of his estate which Ella has bought at auction. She places it in her sister’s hands and supports the Borkmans financially but does not see Gunhild. Just before her brother-in-law is released, Ella returns the fifteen year old Erhart to his mother. Ella then discovers that she is terminally ill and the play begins when she goes to visit the icy Borkman household where John Gabriel spends his time alone in an upstairs room.
The rehearsal process has clearly been a joy and is described in detail as part of ETT’s Education Pack available on the company’s website. ‘The material is so deep. We’re still mining it,’ says Bassett. ‘It keeps you going. You don’t find hidden shallows, it’s all good stuff.’ When I say what a good quote that is, she tells me she can’t take the credit. ‘Someone I worked with once used that phrase – not about a text – about someone she was teasing and she said, “You’ve got hidden shallows”. It stuck in my mind as such a good thing. I’ve obviously incorporated it now into my vocabulary.’ She goes on to say that ‘it was a good rehearsal. We just didn’t have time – moan, moan. It’s so good that we could have done with longer. So we were still rehearsing it when we were opening at Malvern, still working on it’.
She has enormous admiration and respect for Stephen Mulrine who translated the Ibsen for this production. Several generations are familiar with the Michael Meyer translations and I ask if she had compared the different ones available. ‘I’ve read Nicholas Wright’s which I thought was fabulous when I first read it. That’s what first attracted me [to the play]. But the more we’ve worked on Stephen Mulrine’s, the more I think it’s really, really Ibsen. It’s easy, it’s very repetitive and sort of odd – it sounds like you’ve said something already. And we often used to be cutting in on each other because you’d say something and then you’d say, no, hang on, I’ve got another whole sentence here which more or less says the same thing but in a slightly different way which is what Ibsen’s language does. And it really works.’
Mulrine’s stated aim was for a totally naturalistic approach. ‘I think what a lot of translations do is simplify it, make it more direct and so it’s more easy to grasp emotionally, initially. But then it can become rather grand, whereas what he’s written is real naturalism with a kind of icy quality to it. It’s like an etching, it’s really carved, really interesting and not easy at all. It’s becoming easier as we do it. We used to email [Stephen] every day saying “But this, what about this?” and if he agreed, he’d change it. But often we’ve gone back, and I’ve gone back where I’ve made a request and said not this word, what about this? And I’ve gone back to what he originally had because I’ve learnt more and then discovered that no, his first choice was really good. I think he’s done a great job.’
Bassett’s passion for the piece is palpable. ‘It’s an amazing play about the bargains we strike in life. I don’t know if I can articulate it. The choice that Borkman makes is more than just the family thing. Obviously I don’t want to decry what happens within the family because havoc has been wreaked for his wife, for his wife’s sister and his son. So there’s that aspect of it, and for himself, of course. Also, there’s an archetypal aspect as well, of the soul bargain that he makes when he sells his soul. It makes the world a colder place. And I think that’s relevant every day, all the time, on so many levels.’
She may not have gone to drama school but the actress has learnt an unquantifiable amount from those she has encountered during her career. ‘I’ve worked with so many good directors and good writers and I’ve learnt from all of them. I don’t know if I could distil it, really. Except that everybody, every person that you meet and work with will teach you something. Even the difficult jobs – they’re just as full of richness, the hard bits. You can often get more out of them. That’s not even a new thought but it’s true. Some of the bitter failures I’ve had, I’ve learnt a lot.’
If Linda Bassett gets to choose, her next job would be in Shakespeare. ‘It’s a loss in my life that when I was younger I was doing other things, that I didn’t play any of the young women. I would have given very much to play Rosalind or any other heroines I could have played. I couldn’t perhaps, say, have done a Juliet or something. But I could have played Rosalind, I could have played Helena in All’s Well.’ With those parts gone, she is loath to miss out on the older ones such as the Countess in All’s Well That Ends Well and Margaret in Richard III. ‘There are lots of strong, older women now that I think I could have a shot at.’
In the meantime, what might she be doing if she were not continuing to mine the part of Ella and others? ‘If I could have another life [alongside], I would try and become a naturalist. Sitting in woods watching things, that would be fine by me.’ Such keen observation is what makes her such an interesting actress.
© Sarah Vernon
Originally published on R&V 12-03-03
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Yay! Thank you so much for sharing this interview. I loved it!
Delighted to hear that. More on that production to come when the treacle has disappeared!