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‘I haven’t found or read anything like this for years,’ says Susannah Harker. We are speaking on the telephone during rehearsals for The Little Black Book by French playwright Jean-Claude Carrière, translated by Solvène Tiffou. The play, in which Harker appears opposite Paul McGann, is at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith in a co-production between the theatre and Coup de Théàtre. It is directed by Marianne Badrichani who, with Tiffou, founded the company to produce new translations from the classic and contemporary French repertoire.
Susannah Harker made her name playing Mattie opposite Ian Richardson in House of Cards on British television. The series made such an impact that it is probably the first thing we think of in connection with the actress. Her career since, however, has encompassed a great deal more and she is now back on stage at the Riverside for a play that has been done all over the world except in this country.
Originally a huge success in Paris with Jane Birkin, the only production of The Little Black Book to have failed was in New York. It was apparently a ‘disastrous rendition’ on Broadway which Harker feels had much to do with the American translation. ‘It’s very literal and the whole point of the play is that it’s very enigmatic and strange and mysterious and funny. You have to observe the enigma in it and not deliver answers, which they did, of course, in the States.’ Such material is what all actors need: ‘It’s so often not there,’ says Harker, who was supposed to be doing something else that had been delayed. Her agent said he thought she should do The Little Black Book anyway because she was perfect for the part. ‘The producer had seen me in something and had wanted me to do it years ago.’
The daughter of actors Polly Adams and Philip Harker, her sister Caroline Harker is currently touring with Rik Mayall in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, while younger sister, Nellie, is training at Webber Douglas. Susannah was one of those children for whom acting was the only thing she ever wanted to do. ‘Of course, you can’t avoid being inspired if your family are actors because you’re so much surrounded by that world… any theatrical family will always advise about the pitfalls and that it’s not an easy life. They probably want to guide children to do other things. It was unavoidable, I suppose.’ As with most true actors, it is something she cannot do without. ‘I have to do it, I have to do it. It has to be vocational because it’s so tough, and it’s so unpredictable, and it so messes around with you. And the highs are so high and the lows are so low, it’s got to be vocational. You have to be tough in ways you don’t have to be for other things.’
I ask whether she has worked on stage with her sister. ‘Well, you know, it’s funny working with Caroline. I mean, we have a very close sibling thing anyway which is kind of complicated, as people know. I’ve never worked with her on stage. I’m not sure I could. We played sisters in something [on television] years ago. And the problem is that I found it very difficult to suspend the disbelief. Actually, Paul McGann, of course, has got four or five brothers and he’s worked with them and has found the same thing although he enjoyed it very much. But I found it particularly with Caroline because there’s eleven months between us. I found it really difficult just to make that little leap. I kept looking at her and thinking of “I saw her when she was twelve!” I can’t kick that. But of course, if the right thing came up, it would be wonderful. It would have to be so right, you know, and strong. No, I’d love to do something with her and my Mum and my Dad. A family thing.’
Harker’s training at the Central School of Speech and Drama from the age of eighteen was cut short when she was picked for a television drama called The Fear. This took her down an unexpected path. ‘I suppose at the time [that] Shakespeare was my thing which, of course, I haven’t done any of! That was my strength when I was at drama school, that’s where I thought I was headed. I thought I’d probably be going to the RSC and things, so it rather took me by surprise when I went into a very different kind of career.’ Having come from theatre actors, she had expected to go into theatre and to be ‘that kind of an actor’. But the later House of Cards was certainly the big turning point: ‘That was the thing, yes, that gave me a different place, gave me better prospects.’
Harker considers herself fortunate. ‘I’ve had the odd lucky break come along,’ she says, acknowledging just how much luck and timing come into it. She stresses that timing is why The Little Black Book feels so wonderful. ‘It’s a very lucky job to be involved with because it’s such a rare jewel.’
Her enthusiasm for the play is palpable though it is virtually impossible for her to describe her character. Is the stranger who enters Jean-Jacques’s flat a squatter, a psychopath or a woman from his past? Harker explains: ‘You can’t describe her and I know when we went to see Jean-Claude Carrière in Paris to talk about it, he very much said he understands the man but he could not give any answers for the woman. It’s actually very important to maintain, which is very frustrating in interviews because people say, so come on, tell me, who is she, and I sort of can’t and I don’t want to. She’s symbolic, she’s a metaphor, the whole play is a metaphor for me. I know what I’m doing with it and I will stick with that and see what comes out. So I can’t say who she is.’
The trip to Paris revealed the source of Carrière’s inspiration. ‘When he was a bachelor living in Paris, a cat just broke into his flat and did that thing that cats do of moving in. And he tried everything, everything he possibly could to get rid of this cat, which is what happens with this woman, and she doesn’t go, and this cat wouldn’t leave. And eventually, of course, his heart is won over and he’s completely seduced by the cat. And he takes it over, and accepts it and feeds it. And then it leaves. And he had extraordinary cats in his house – a pure white one and a pure black one – and it was so interesting. [The play has] got a feline thing which I think is a female thing as well. It’s about male and female, it’s about men and women. And it’s about relationships and love. It’s about the human condition and searching.’
The play is also funny. ‘Some of it we find very difficult to do without laughing. I hope that [the audience] laugh and it’s not just us who find it funny which can often be the case, as you know. You get out there and you think “here is that big comedy moment” and it’s complete silence!’
The conversation turns to congestion charging and war on Iraq; it is clear that rehearsals are proving a ‘welcome distraction’. ‘I’m so absorbed in this play – there’s too much to learn!’ Other people’s work has also been absorbing her and she is full of praise for the recent production ofThrough the Leaves at Southwark Playhouse with Simon Callow and Ann Mitchell. ‘Absolutely wonderful,’ she says. ‘It’s a two-hander which is good for us because it gave us the inspiration but in a very different style. And they [Callow and Mitchell] talked about the unique relationship that you have in a two-hander, the trust that’s needed.’ I reminded her of all those trust exercises at drama school: ‘No, I will catch you!’
If Harker had not had a burning ambition to tread the boards, she thinks she might have become an archaeologist. ‘I always say archaeologist, rather grandly, and I don’t know why I say that but I’m interested in old things and digging things up and history. But I know it’s a lot more academic than that and I don’t really think I could have put up with so many years. But something like that, something to do with history.’ She is also, not surprisingly, fascinated by psychology. ‘The more I do, the more I realize that eighty per cent of acting is psychology, and applying that. And the rest is technique etcetera.’
There can be no doubt that the London première of The Little Black Book is something Susannah Harker is thrilled to be doing. Archaeology’s loss is acting’s gain.
Sarah Vernon © 2003
Originally published on R&V25-02-03
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