20 Questions WithÖLinda Bassett
Date: 1 November 2004
Actress Linda Bassett Ė currently starring in Love Me Tonight at Hampstead Theatre Ė talks about Theatre-in-Education, the poetry of Caryl Churchill, the nature of grief & why sheíd like to live in a cave.
After early years working regionally in community theatre and Theatre-in-Education, actress Linda Bassett has enjoyed a long and varied career across stage and screen.
Her many theatre credits - at the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Court, Almeida, Bush and in the West End, New York and elsewhere Ė have included: Fen, The Cherry Orchard, Medea, Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Seagull, Serious Money, Our Countryís Good, The Recruiting Officer, The Awakening, The Theban Plays, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, The Clearing, The Triumph of Love, Five Kinds of Silence, The Triumph of Love, Out in the Open, The Taming of the Shrew, Richard III and Lucky Dog.
Bassett appeared in the original stage version of Ayub Khan-Dinís East Is East at Birmingham Rep and Theatre Royal Stratford East as well as on tour and in the West End. She then recreated her role as mother Ella Khan in the multi award-winning 1999 film version, for which she was nominated as Best Actress in both the Evening Standard and BAFTA Film Awards.
Amongst Bassettís other film credits are Calendar Girls, The Hours, A Way Through the Woods, Spivs, Beautiful People, Oscar and Lucinda, Mary Reilly and Paris by Night; while, on television, sheís appeared in The Brief, The Little Life, Out of Hours, Our Mutual Friend, Far from the Madding Crowd, Kavanagh QC, A Touch of Frost, Love Hurts and A Village Affair amongst other programmes.
Bassett is currently starring in the world premiere of Nick Staffordís Love Me Tonight. The production reunites her with actress-turned-director Kathy Burke, who previously directed Bassett in Jonathan Harveyís Out in the Open, also at Hampstead Theatre.
Date & place of birth
I was born in a village called Pluckley in Kent on 4 February 1950.
I didnít train. I went to Leeds University to read English, but only for a year. I was always doing plays, which is why I didnít do very well! For two years before that, I had been working as an usherette and in the catering department at the National Theatre at the Old Vic Ė I sometimes regard that as my training. I stayed on in Leeds until 1976, working on a project there called Interplay Community Theatre. We worked in adventure playgrounds and hospitals and special schools, many, many different venues across the community as a unique service. It specialised in those days in things called Dramascapes. We would go to an estate and gather all the kids up within a band, and lead them onto a bit of waste ground, do them a play, which then would lead into a week-long arts and craft project on a theme. All the work was tailor-made for the situation. It was a kind of training, but it didnít feel like training Ė it felt like doing it. We did street theatre as well, which is a good thing for everybody to do, I think.
Lives now inÖ
Kent. Iíve gone back to where I was born, though I grew up mostly in London. I moved back there in 1987.
First big break
Thatís a tricky one. When youíre working in community theatre, youíre not looking for a break Ė youíre not on the market, really. Then I was doing Theatre-in-Education in Coventry, and I did that for five years, and that wasnít on the market, either. I came to London when I was 32. I didnít really become a conventional actress until then. I got a job with Joint Stock Theatre Company doing Caryl Churchillís Fen, with Les Waters directing. That was brilliant for me to do. It was my break into theatre, I suppose, with plays written by playwrights rather than me and a group. The glory of the work in the other way was the audience and what youíre creating Ė but what you miss is the poetic aspect if youíve got a great writer to work for. Thatís what I became a bit hungry for.
Career highlights to date
Iíve had such a gloriously varied time, itís hard for me to pick a low one really. If I look at the list of writers whose plays Iíve done, theyíre a really good bunch. Iíve done a couple of Carylís, Iíve done Athol Fugard, Timberlake Wertenbakerís work which is great, Iíve loved doing Shakespeare, Sophocles, Chekhov, Ibsen. Thatís all theatre, and then thereís the film work that is also exciting. I was very fortunate with East Is East, which I was part of from workshop to play and then film, and playing a great character as well. People loved the film. I love things where comedy and tragedy mix, but sometimes I think that people ignored the domestic violence side of it a bit too much. In the theatre, Iíve been lucky a few times to go to New York with shows, too: with Carylís Fen and Serious Money and Wallace Shawnís Aunt Dan and Lemon.
Favourite productions youíve ever worked on
You donít really have favourites as an actor. Obviously, if youíre watching theatre, you do have favourites, but when youíre doing it, the one youíre doing is the one you care about, and the ones you havenít done yet. But I loved working at the Globe last year Ė I had a wonderful time there. Itís a fantastic theatre to work in, and Shakespeare is a great playwright to try and do. All the things Iíve done at the Royal Court in the past and have gone back to do Ö. itís hard to pick out a favourite.
Favourite co-stars & other collaborators
It has to be a list as long as your arm, thatís all I can say. And itís the same with directors, because I know youíre going to ask me that next! When your list of directors includes Kathy Burke, whom Iím working with at the moment, Max Stafford-Clark, Les Waters, Nancy Meckler, Athol Fugard, James Macdonald, Stephen Daldry, Phyllida Lloyd, Peter Gill, you canít pick individuals out, and Iíve probably left out people there that Iíve loved working with.
Youíve worked with Burke before, at the old Hampstead Theatre, on Jonathan Harveyís Out in the Open. Whatís special about working with her?
Kathy suits me, because she goes for the soul of it. Sheís very intelligent Ė emotionally intelligent as well as intellectually intelligent Ė and sheís very honest in her feedback. I think thatís terribly important. I know some people like directors who play with them and try to trick them into performances. I cannot be arsed with that! Iím too old! Itís just so irritating, because you have to spend your time second-guessing them. I love a direct approach where weíre all there together to put the play first. No oneís out to glorify themselves Ė itís for the play, to illuminate it and give it to the audience. Weíre a team, and anything that goes outside of that she will confront and bravely Ė sheís courageous about that. She doesnít let it go by. She knows what she likes, but she does trust you. She lets you pick it up and run with it, sheís not nitpicking from day one.
Shakespeare was my first love at 16, but I havenít done enough of him. Why actors like him as much as they do is that heís always bigger than you are, and you have to grow to do it. Itís always painful, but youíre not squeezing a big foot into a small shoe. Youíre going, ďI donít know if I can quite compass this.Ē He forces and demands that you rise to his largeness of soul and vision.
Iíve done a lot more contemporary work, but thatís because of what people offer me. When I set out to be an actress, I imagined doing the classics, but it just didnít turn out like that. Having made the early choices I did, it took me down a road that taught me a lot about people today Ė researching all that work, I met a huge variety of people, and I suppose that got expressed through the work of modern playwrights Iíve done. I love Caryl Churchill Ė sheís fantastic, a true poet.
Timberlake Wertenbaker also translated the Sophocles Oedipus trilogy that I did at the RSC, and that was fantastic. She really worked to narrow the vocabulary down to match Sophoclesí narrow and very deep words. Some of the old translations tend to pick a different word every time even though heís used the same word, but she was quite rigorous in only ever using the same word. You really got the sense when working on it of his weight. Doing a play is always a bit like time travel. You jump into someone elseís psyche and play about in it, and youíre actually inhabiting a bit of them. So when you do a playwright like Sophocles, youíre back there in a dark world of terrible fear and superstition Ė a relationship to the world that is really very fearful, longing for some new light to come in. No wonder Christianity happened, because they needed some hope of redemption. They couldnít walk around with these burdens on their heads any longer!
What roles would you most like to play still?
Iíd love to play Paulina in The Winterís Tale, and at some point Iíd like to do the Countess in Allís Well That Ends Well. Iíd like to do some of the Greeks, as well Ė Iíd love to do Medea again. When I did it, we did it very quickly, and Iíd like to have another shot at it.
Whatís the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
Iím living in the world of the play Iím doing now Ė I have no knowledge of the world outside it! Iíve forgotten that there is one out there, and canít remember what Iíve seen! Iím very bad at going backwards over what Iíve seen or even done!
Why do you like to return to theatre as opposed to film & television?
To me as a practitioner and worker in it, itís not an opposition Ė I like them all. People say actors are snobbish about telly Ė I donít do much because Iím not offered much. Some of it is quite ropey, so you are constantly bigger than the part and that can drive you nuts. But that doesnít mean television as a medium has to be like that. It can be a fantastic art form. Itís just that often itís not, because itís done for the wrong reasons. As for film and theatre, I like doing them both. They rejuvenate each other for me. Theyíre not as different as everyone says in terms of the actual acting, but the different demands they make challenge you and you learn stuff. The minute-to-minute spontaneity thatís vital in film is great to do in the theatre, and you need it. At the Globe, thatís exactly what we were using Ė that same feeling of going on and not having a fixed idea, not crusting it over with set ideas of how each bit has to happen, so that it becomes fossilised and dull. If you can take that back into the theatre and be that relaxed and free and playful, itís great. And film helps you to do that, once youíve learnt a bit. For a young actor going into it, film can feel terribly constricting, like for instance when a director tells you to move your ear over there and no further, but once youíve understood why that is, then itís okay, and itís no more technical than a theatre director asking you to enter stage left and go upstage. But theatre is where itís at: you hear a lot about how frivolous these activities are, but I just think thatís complete hogwash.
Why do you think theatre is important in modern society?
I could get very pompous about this, as I tend to. But itís absolutely basic primitive human behaviour to do theatre. Itís right at the root of humanity: people were doing this when we were living in caves. Itís not a modern, sophisticated art Ė it can be Ė but itís coming back to the tribe and dancing the dance of the elk or whatever, thatís what weíre doing, reflecting our own lives back to each other, so that people learn, educate ourselves and spiritually grow and make our intelligence freer. Thatís why I said Iíd sound pompous, but it is soul food!
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
When I was doing Theatre-in-Education, every town had its own TIE company. They donít now. Some are growing back up, but I would support having one in every town. We were a free service to every school in Coventry, and every child of every age group in education got a visit from us. Then once a year weíd do one big show in the theatre where they all had a free visit. Thatís where the future audiences and future actors and actresses come from. Itís a seedbed. But that isnít why we did it. We did it because it itself is theatre, in a very valuable place.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Anyone! Just to find out who they were! If I had to choose just one, Iím going to go back to cave people Ė if you can guarantee that Iíd survive the day, which in those days would have been tricky! Iíd like to be someone performing theatre as a religious and spiritual exercise in the caves.
I read Shakespeare for pleasure. I love the ones that have a fairytale aspect, the ones they call the Ďproblem playsí. I think they call them that because they always have a female lead, thatís the problem! I also like reading psychology books, fairy stories and myth books. I read them a lot. Thereís a great psychology book called Descent to the Goddess by Sylvia Perera. And Iím reading all the Richard Dawkin books at the moment. Heís fantastic. I like science books and natural history.
Favourite holiday destinations
Cornwall, Scotland, North Wales, Ireland Ė I went to Connemara this year and loved it. I like remote places, and a bit of wildness.
If you hadnít become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
Iíd have been a naturalist Ė thatís another side to me that I havenít explored fully. I think I would mostly get involved in projects that enable wildlife and people to live together without having to destroy either. Where I live in Kent I do little bits with Kentish Stour Countryside Project, which works all around the river Stour. Rather than putting collars on animals and tracking them, Iím more interested in protecting and creating habitats that allow wildlife to thrive.
Having worked at both the old & new Hampstead buildings, what do you feel about the change?
Iím getting to like it now. Itís like with the new Royal Court as well. If youíve worked in the old barn-type place, with leaky bits and wind howling down through the place, you canít but help have an affection for it which you then miss, and you think the new is all so soulless. But, of course, itís just new and needs to build it all up. The spirit here is very good.
The new theatre has had a slightly shaky start, critically speaking. How would you like to see it develop?
Iíd like it to just be given some time. Itís going to have a shaky start when theyíve doubled their capacity Ė itís bound to, how can it not, it just doesnít make sense. So give them time to let the audience build up again, and for people to realise that good theatre happens here.
Why did you want to accept your part in Love Me Tonight?
Nick Stafford, who wrote it, showed me the play when I was doing Out in the Open and I liked it then. Itís about a family in the tragic situation of the loss of the youngest son. Thereís his mother, who I play, and father, sister and brother, and it starts at the point where the wake is finished and the core family are left alone for the first time. It takes place that night. I think itís a beautiful play, and very honest about feelings. It looks at what you do when youíre grieving. One of the things that happens is that you look at how you live your life. It challenges you Ė are you going to waste your life? Is your life being lived enough or is there more to do? Hopefully, in the end, itís therefore an inspiring play, too.
Whatís your favourite line from Love Me Tonight?
My character toasts her son, and says: ďI toast you, Vincent, and I hope you werenít a virgin when you died!Ē He was 16 when he died and sheís his mum, so thatís quite poignant.
Whatís the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that happened during rehearsals for Love Me Tonight?
Only that weíve all eaten an awful lot Ė weíve comfort eaten. Weíve gotten through more chocolate and biscuits than the average company!
What are your plans for the future?
No particular plans. Itís possible that Iíll do another run of a television series I did called The Brief. I donít know what else I might be offered, but Iím thinking of applying to the Globe. Mark Rylance says heís going and Iíd like to be in his last season, but who knows?
- Linda Bassett was speaking to Mark Shenton
Love Me Tonight opened on 28 October 2004 (previews from 21 October) at Hampstead Theatre, where it continues until 20 November.