Since leaving drama school, actress Alexandra Gilbreath has been seen regularly on stage, particularly with the Royal Shakespeare Company, where, over the past ten years, she’s graduated from supporting roles in productions of Ghosts, The Country Wife and Love’s Labour’s Lost to leading roles in Cyrano de Bergerac, As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet and last year’s The Taming of the Shrew and The Tamer Tamed, now transferred to the West End.

Elsewhere, Gilbreath’s many theatre credits have included Blood Wedding, King Lear, Disappeared, The House of Bernarda Alba, As You Like It, The Complaisant Lover, Company, Woman in Mind, Wild Oats, How the Other Half Loves, The Importance of Being Earnest and the title role in English Touring Theatre’s staging of Hedda Gabler, for which she won the Ian Charleson Award in 1996.

On screen, Gilbreath has appeared in, amongst other programmes, Monarch of the Glen, Happiness, Out of Hours, The Children’s Ward, The Project, Midsomer Murders, The Bill, A Touch of Frost, Next of Kin, The Brittas Empire, The Real McCoy and in the film Dead Babies.

First seen in Stratford-upon-Avon in March 2003, the RSC’s productions of The Taming of the Shrew and The Tamer Tamed - believed to be the first major pairing of the plays since they were written in the 17th century - transferred to the West End this month for a limited season, following runs in Newcastle and Washington DC (See News, 26 Nov 2003). Gilbreath plays first Kate and then Maria, successive wives to Jasper Britton’s Petruchio.

Date & place of birth
Born 28 March 1969 in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire

Trained at…
LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Drama)

Lives now in…
West London.

First big break
Well, others might say it was Monarch of the Glen, but I don’t really think so. My career has been a gradual process, mostly in theatre. I’ve been with the RSC on and off for ten years, working my way up from small roles to leading roles. There’s never been one thing that ‘put me on the map’. Honestly, if you work mainly in theatre, when are you ever on the map? For me, a big break is about when you surprise yourself and do something you didn’t think you were capable of. Playing Hedda Gabler was a big break in that way. I was 26 when I did that, which is quite young, even though she’s meant to be her in late 20s.

Career highlights to date

Doing Cyrano de Bergerac with Antony Sher and Gregory Doran directing. That was the first time I worked with Tony and I loved every moment of it. The second time was on another RSC production, The Winter’s Tale, another favourite. The first time I worked with Katie Mitchell was also a highlight. It was in 1991/92 on a production of The House of Bernarda Alba at the Gate, and it was really exhilarating.

Favourite co-stars
Definitely Tony Sher, because I've learnt more from him about acting than anyone else. And I should say Jasper Britton, my leading man in The Taming of the Shrew and The Tamer Tamed. We do have fun – and we’re now onto our 150-odd performance. It’s always a challenge to recreate the freshness of something when you’ve been doing it for over a year. One does get very tired. But the entire company of both Shrew and Tamer have been superb. We’ve been through a lot together. I was thinking about that especially when we were in Washington DC, where we’ve just come back from and where we had to perform on Christmas Day. That was hard. I also love David Tennant, who I did Romeo and Juliet with. He is such a delight.

Favourite directors
Gregory Doran is right up there on my list. This is the fifth time I’ve worked with Greg, and he’s become more of a friend now than a director. The first director to really change my life and my approach to acting was Katie Mitchell. She is quite extraordinary, so precise, so specific. With her, there’s never a muddy moment, never a single instant on stage when you don’t know exactly what your character is doing or thinking. Other directors let you off the hook, but not Katie. I would love to work with her again.

Favourite playwrights
I’m quite partial to Mr William Shakespeare. It’s funny. When I was at drama school, I never would have thought I’d spend so much time at the RSC or even become a classical actor. But I have been doing rather a lot of it. My favourite Shakespeare is The Winter’s Tale. I love it. It’s definitely the most beautiful, the most life-enhancing and emotionally satisfying to do. I was Hermione and it really was lovely to play someone so generous and forgiving.

What roles would you most like to play still?
In terms of Shakespeare, there’s Portia (The Merchant of Venice), Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra. But I’ve still got time for those. There are lot of other modern plays – and indeed, modern classics – that would be good. In maybe five years, I’d love to do Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea.

What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
I thought Cymbeline last year in Stratford was wonderful. Of course, I was somewhat biased since I was with the company, too.

What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
However subsidy is divided up, I think it’s important to really value what we have. There are more theatres per capita in this country than anywhere else in the world. We have so much wonderful art and culture here. We should appreciate that, and the government should make more of a point of prioritising and encouraging it, especially for the next generation. Art inspires children, but so many young people today seem already lost to their cynicism. They’re too cool for school, and certainly too cool for theatre. That’s a shame.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I don’t know who exactly I’d be, but I’d love to go back to when Shakespeare was alive. Did he actually write all those plays?

Favourite holiday destinations
New Orleans. I’ve never it there during Mardi Gras, but the French Quarter is a joy at any time of the year. Also the coast of Devon. My Mum and Dad’s house down there is a sanctuary to me.

Favourite books
At the moment I’m reading Robert Harris’ Pompeii. I don’t think I’d call it a favourite, but I am really enjoying it.

Favourite after-show haunts
The first taxi heading home.

Favourite websites
Expedia! Where can we go?

If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
If I hadn’t become an actor, I would have become an actor! I know it sounds silly, but though I’ve often thought what else I might do, whenever I start, my mind eventually wanders. There isn’t anything else for me. Having said that, having spent a lot of time working on my flat with my chap, I think I’d quite like to learn about furniture restoration. I find it therapeutic.

How did this pairing of The Taming of the Shrew & The Tamer Tamed come about?
Greg and I first talked about it three years ago, when I was doing Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It for the RSC in the 2000 season. He came to me and said, I have this great idea to do these two plays together. Of course, I knew The Taming of the Shrew, but not The Tamer Tamed, and when he sent me the script, I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Two years later, he called me up and said we’re on.

Was it daunting tackling both plays at the same time?
It was daunting, but also liberating. I was mainly worried about the Shrew , because I couldn’t see it as a comedy. I read it and thought, what happens to this woman is terrible – how is that funny? We didn’t treat it as a comedy in rehearsals either. We approached it in a mood of very serious exploration. And I think Jasper, Greg and I all felt very liberated by doing the two plays together. Certainly, I don’t think I could have come to the same conclusions about Shrew , if we hadn’t been doing Tamer. I could play Kate that way, because I knew I’d also have a chance to present the other side, to give the argument for equality – to tame him. So we didn’t have that usual thing of having to ‘solve’ Shrew or make some elaborate apology for it, we could just do it. And by just doing it, I think we discovered the play again.

I really don’t think The Taming of the Shrew is this ‘battle of the sexes’ like people always say. The word ‘battle’ implies that someone should lose and, if someone loses, it has to be the woman, of course, because that’s the way it’s written. But, really, I don’t think either Kate or Petruchio loses, I think they both gain. Kate can be painful to play. Here’s this woman who’s fighting all the time, but she comes to realise that you don’t always have to fight so hard. Sometimes, to gain control, you must give up control – and that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being submissive. Opening your heart up to the possibility of unconditional love doesn’t make you weak. Kate doesn’t need to be tamed, she just needs to be loved. At its essence, The Taming of the Shrew is a genuine love story.

What, if anything, is so special about performing for the RSC?
Well, they keep employing me – which is great! What makes it so special, and also frightening, is its reputation and its history. It’s lovely to play the same roles now as some of the actresses who I most admire have played in the past. And to have things passed on. There’s an amazing continuity of actors and plays – and even costumes. Take the cardigan I wear in The Taming of the Shrew. It’s the same one that Peggy Ashcroft used when she played the Countess in All’s Well That Ends Well in 1981. I’m wearing Peggy Ashcroft’s cardie! And that’s the scary bit too. How do you measure up?

What’s the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that has happened in the run over the past year?
We have unending problems with our doors. On our set, there are an awful lot of doors, and they have taken on a life of their own. They break, fall down, travel around the stage, sometimes they won’t open, sometimes they won’t close. You just never know what to expect. I remember one performance where Jasper had to hold one of the doors up for an entire scene. The audience could see what was happening - he couldn’t move. When he finally had to leave the stage, the door collapsed and he ad-libbed some remark about budget cutbacks at the RSC, which got a big laugh.

At one point, it looked the plays wouldn’t come to London. Why do you think the transfer was important?
As a national subsidised company, it does seem to be very wrong to stay only in Stratford. Of course, that will always be the RSC’s spiritual home, but I think there’s a duty to give the work back to more people, particularly in our country’s capital city. As for these plays, this isn’t even a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The Taming of the Shrew and The Tamer Tamed have not been performed together since 1633, and they probably won’t be ever again. You will never get another chance like this. And they’re still so relevant, too. Here was John Fletcher writing in Tamer that men and women should live together in equality. That was 400 years ago. And on television today, Wife Swap is a big hit. Where’s the programme called Husband Swap?

What are your plans for the future?
I don’t know what’s coming next. Currently there’s nothing in the pipeline. I’m available for weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs … I can’t sing but I could do the final speech from The Taming of the Shrew, though I don’t know how well that would go down at weddings.

The Taming of the Shrew and The Tamer Tamed continue, in repertory, at the West End’s Queen’s Theatre until 6 March 2004.

*** Our Outing to The Taming of the Shrew on 29 January – including top-price seats, a post-show Q&A with Alexandra Gilbreath & Jasper Britton & a further 50% discount to return for The Tamer Tamed - has now SOLD OUT! To join the waiting list for returns, click here. ***