20 Questions With...Claire Price
Date: 4 October 2004
Actress Claire Price - who's just opened as Queen Elizabeth in Don Carlos at Sheffield Crucible - reveals her top three theatres, the problem with modern plays & the best-kept secrets in British theatre.
Actress Claire Price has already made a name for herself in theatre playing opposite some top-notch leading men, amongst them Ralph Fiennes in Brand, Derek Jacobi in The Tempest and Stephen Rea in this year's National Theatre production of Cyrano de Bergerac.
Price's other theatre credits include The Relapse (also at the National, for which she won the Ian Charleson Award in 2001), Richard III and Mean Tears in Sheffield, Don Carlos and Volpone at the RSC, and also As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Ursula, The Giant Prince And Dead White Males.
On television, Price has appeared in London's Burning, The Knock, The Whistle Blower, Murder in Mind, Midsomer Murders, Twelfth Night and Poirot, while her radio credits include Bleak House and Laughter in the Dark.
Price is currently playing Queen Elizabeth in Don Carlos, Michael Grandage's swansong production as associate director at Sheffield Crucible (See News, 19 Aug 2004). Michael Poultonís new adaptation of Friedrich Schillerís 1787 thriller also features Derek Jacobi, Una Stubbs and Richard Coyle and continues until 6 November 2004.
Date & place of birth
Born 4 July 1972 in Chesterfield, Derbyshire.
I did a degree first at the University of London - Queen Mary's College - in English literature and I got a first with honours. Then I did a one-year acting diploma at Guildford Drama School.
Lives now in...
Camden, north London.
First big break
My first big break was when I worked with the Wrestling School, Howard Barker's company, on a play called Ursula and I played Ursula. Howard is the best-kept theatre secret in this country, he's a wonderful playwright and a wonderful director. The production played to small houses, but everyone in the business saw it because of Howard - including the casting director from the Royal Shakespeare Company. He gave me a job doing another production of Don Carlos and that's when my career started to come together.
I suppose, in terms of plays, it was Brand which I did last year in the West End. It's obscure, which is a shame, but that's because it's mighty and it's difficult. It's all about spirituality and God and our relationship to God so it was very brave of Ralph Fiennes and Adrian Noble to put it on in this day and age. That said, we played to packed houses and it worked. For me, it was great. I played Agnes, Brandís wife, which is a wonderful part. You have to go back to the last century and before to find really good, strong parts for women like that.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
That was one, Brand, the first Don Carlos, Ursula. In fact, to be honest, all the shows I've done. Cyrano, which I did at the National earlier this year, was controversial and not well received, but Roxanne is a wonderful part and I loved it. Also Mean Tears, which I did here in Sheffield a few years ago as part of the Peter Gill festival. He's another well-kept British theatre secret. His plays are wonderful and yet under done.
Oh goodness, that's a difficult question, an indiscreet question... I wouldn't know where to begin. I'm glad to be working with Derek Jacobi again. We work at a similar pace and similar emotional pitch - we throw everything at it rather than tentatively growing towards a character. It's exciting to work with someone who does the same as you.
Adrian Noble was a favourite because he made me do what I do better. I came away from that job a better actress, having done things I didn't know I'd be able to do. I very much enjoyed working with Howard Davies earlier this year because he's so detailed and specific, he won't let you generalise. Michael Grandage is the same, he doesn't let you blur the lines.
Ibsen is a favourite because of what I said earlier, he's so generous with character and has written wonderful ones for women. Chekhov to watch, although I've never been in any of his plays. Howard Barker is probably my favourite of all. And of course, Shakespeare is the main man, you can't get away from that.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Isabelle from Measure for Measure and Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. Of 19th-century plays, the heroine in A Month in the Country and any girl in Chekhov - Natasha in The Seagull is wonderful. I know I'm listing plays written by dead people, but when I listen to modern plays I'm so disappointed. They don't explore things in a poetic, epic or brave way. Theyíre are too like television, and I find that very frustrating. That's why I go back to the classics.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I want to say to leave us alone. This is something Howard talks about a lot - that theatre should be treated like art, like painting, it should be left alone and not asked to justify itself and its funding. The idea that it's dirty to not be accessible is not useful. It's a dead end that forces theatre to become more like television - which will eventually make it redundant. Theatre needs to be an experience, all these people shut in a dark room watching characters in extremis fighting to survive. Otherwise, there's no point. Theatre can't be the thing you do in the evening to wind down - that's television's job - it has to be an alternative and the government is not comfortable with that. That said, itís a difficult relationship to build because the two have always been opposed. Theatre is supposed to bite the arse of government.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
The Firework-Maker's Daughter - which I saw here in Sheffield a while ago - was fantastic, really moving and amusing. I like children's shows that are also aimed at adults. I think Told by an Idiot are a great company. Their show at the BAC recently, I'm a Fool to Want You, about a jazz musician was wonderful too.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Tony Blair, so I could find out why he thinks the way he thinks, why he's made the decisions he's made and what the pressures on him are like. I'd love to know what it's like to have that power and what that does to your conscience, imagination and soul.
I just started reading Graham Greene. I read Brighton Rock years ago but I've just read The End of the Affair. Books that make you cry are quite something - this was incredible, almost too painful. Other writers I enjoy are Gabriel Garcia Marques and William Faulkner.
Favourite holiday destination
It has to be India, which is where I went a couple of years ago for two months. It was a beautiful ugly experience, all encompassing. Everywhere I went I had very different experiences, whether Bombay or Puna, an extraordinary assault on the senses. I also spent some time in Goa. One of the happiest days of my life was sitting on the beach watching the sunset as some Indian women swam in the sea in their saris. It was so quintessentially Indian.
I like things to do with dance so the Danceworks website is great. They have fantastic classes in Bollywood dancing and things like that so I'm forever looking through their schedule and not having time to go to anything.
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
This is a tricky question for actors as usually we're actors because we can't think of anything else to do. I remember once being asked the same question at drama school and I said I'd work as a lawyer for the VSO or something like that, trying to protect small villages from big business. That sort of thing fascinates me.
Why did you want to accept your part in Don Carlos?
I was drawn to working with Michael Grandage again because I know, trust and respect him. I love the Crucible, it's one of the best theatres in the country, along with the Royal Exchange and the Olivier. They are my favourites because they are epic, huge spaces and they demand huge expression, which I do best. And itís interesting to me when plays come around a second time - especially something that's done rarely like Don Carlos.
How difficult is it to play a renowned historical figure like Queen Elizabeth?
It's not difficult in this scenario at all because Schiller is not faithful to history. Don Carlos is a historical fantasy so I can discard details, the actual facts and work with whatís in the text. It's imagination rather than fact.
Like Cyrano at the National, this production of Don Carlos is a new adaptation. Why do you think they are they necessary?
It's not something I used to think about, but Cyrano caused such criticism that I was forced to. There were elements of ugliness in that translation, but I found those exciting, and I thought the elements of great beauty ran out like jewels in amongst that. The backlash made me think, why not have new poets express themselves? They're not changing the story so letís allow our modern poets to speak for us. If we donít, again, theatre will just die. Shakespeare's plays were all new versions of old stories and we're wedded to them. We need to be more iconoclastic, theatre can take it.
You've performed in Don Carlos before (in 1999 at the RSC), although you played a different character then. Has that production affected your view of the play?
Itís left me with a huge affection and respect for the play. I think it's great, an undiscovered gem, and it's interesting that it's done so rarely. I think thatís because it's unwieldy - in the original German, the play is seven hours long! The Germans are up for that, but we're not comfortable with tragedy, so it's understandable why Michael Grandage and Michael Poulton have trimmed it, down to its heart, because a lot of the stuff is Schiller on his soap box. This is a sleeker version. As a play, Don Carlos gives me with great respect for melodrama, which is much maligned and misunderstood. For me, it's high emotion and high intellectual debate at the same time.
Whatís the difference, if any, between a regional audience & a London audience?
It's one of cynicism. I think London audiences are, on the whole, cynical. Audiences up here don't go to the theatre as much because there's less on offer, so each play becomes a much more significant experience. When we did The Tempest here, it was incredible to learn that 90% of our audiences didn't know what happened so it was all about telling the story. In London, we were judged on very different criteria. It was more a case of, ďwe know the story, how are you going to tell it?Ē It's to do with an innocence and support you find here.
What are your plans for the future?
To keep working. Iíve loved some of the TV things I've done, like Poirot and Midsomer Murders. Someone once called those shows 'television for classical actors' because you work with wonderful theatre actors like David Suchet and John Nettles, Sarah Miles and Edward Fox. It is wonderful to watch them work. I'd love to do more of that and some films. I'd really like to be the heroine in a great BBC period drama next, though.
- Claire Price was speaking to Hannah Kennedy
Don Carlos opened on 1 October 2004 (previews from 22 September) at Sheffield Crucible, where it continues until 6 November 2004.