Frances Barber plays Arkadina in The Seagull and Goneril in King Lear in Trevor Nunn’s Royal Shakespeare Company productions, which start performances at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Courtyard Theatre this month and also star Ian McKellen, Romola Garai, Jonathan Hyde, Ben Meyjes, Monica Dolan and William Gaunt.
Barber played opposite McKellen in the Old Vic’s Aladdin in 2005/6. She was Whatsonstage.com Award-nominated for her role as Nurse Ratched in the 2004 West End run of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and won the Whatsonstage.com Best Actress in a Musical Award for Closer to Heaven at the Arts Theatre in 2001.
Last summer, Barber won critical acclaim as Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra at Shakespeare’s Globe. Her many other stage credits include Closer in the West End, Tales from the Vienna Woods, Pygmalion and The Night of the Iguana at the National, Insignificance at the Donmar Warehouse, My Heart’s a Suitcase at the Royal Court, Uncle Vanya at Chichester and on tour, Imagine Drowning at Hampstead, Over a Barrel at Watford Palace, Macbeth at Manchester Royal Exchange, Summer and Smoke at Leicester Haymarket, Turning Over and Hard Feelings at the Bush, Space Apache at the Tricycle, Ooh La La at Hull Truck, and Riff Raff Rules at Theatre Royal Stratford East.
Barber has previously appeared at the RSC in Camille (for which she won an Olivier for Most Promising Newcomer), Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Dead Monkey and Hamlet in the 1984, 1985 and 1986 seasons.
On television, Barber has recently taken roles in Hustle, New Tricks, The IT Crowd, Funland, Where the Heart Is, Monkey Dust, Everything I Know About Men, Miss Marple, Trial and Retribution, Boudica, My Family, Holby City, The Gentleman Thief and Love in a Cold Climate. She also starred as Viola in Kenneth Branagh’s television production of Twelfth Night in 1988. On film, her credits include Goal!, Superstition, Flyfishing, Shiner, The Escort, Still Crazy, Just In Time, Photographing Fairies, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Prick Up Your Ears, Soft Top Hard Shoulder and The Missionary.
Date & place of birth
Born in Wolverhampton on 13 May 1958.
Lives now in
Clerkenwell, London. I’ve been there for about seven years.
First big break
When I came to the RSC all those years ago and played Camille, I think that was my big break because I was nominated for some awards, which made a big splash, and it transferred to the West End. Up until then I had done lots of work on the Fringe but never classical roles and that opened doors for me. Then I went on and did quite a lot of small independent films in the late Eighties.
Career highlights to date
I loved Closer to Heaven, for which I won a Whatsonstage.com Award, which I was very thrilled to receive. I had never been in a musical before, although it wasn’t like a musical for me because I was playing a drugged-up Seventies has-been and had license to do whatever I wanted. Most of the critics hated it, but the audience loved it. And I also loved doing Nurse Ratched with Christian Slater in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest because I got on with him so well and I really enjoyed working with him. He’s a wonderful actor and a great friend. That was a fantastic time.
I loved doing Sammy and Rosie Get Laid with Stephen Frears because I adore working with him and I loved the script. Quite often I’ve done things that maybe were ahead of their time and didn’t get good notices, but I’m proud of that. I had such a wonderful time doing Funland recently, and everybody in it was brilliant. And I had a wonderful time years and years ago on Real Women.
You’ve been very successful on screen as well as on stage. Do you have a preference?
I think it’s not possible to prefer one to another really because they are so different. When I am filming, I really enjoy all the paraphernalia that goes with it in terms of technicalities and how to use your face on camera and to look as though you’re doing it for the very first time even though you’ve done ten takes. But I often go to watch a play and feel so jealous that I’m not up there doing it. I know part of me will always want to do theatre, not because I think it’s good for me or worthy in any way, but because I get ravenous with jealousy if I see someone playing a part I want to play!
So many fantastic people, this is going to sound like a roll call, but some include Kenneth Branagh, Michael Caine, Ian McKellen, Judi Dench…. I’m so lucky to have worked with these amazing actors. The list goes on and on, but I couldn’t possibly name them all. You can learn so much from other actors, particularly those older guys on stage like Ian and Derek Jacobi, who technically are just breathtaking and bring a naturalism in classical work that young actors can only look at and learn. I regard myself as a novice compared to them. They speak the verse as though they’re in Tesco reading a shopping list, but you hear every single word and it’s poetry but it sounds so natural and wonderful - I’m in big awe. And then someone like Michael Caine, I learned by watching how brilliant he is technically on camera. It looks as if he’s doing nothing, but then you see the finished article and just a flicker of an eyelid tells you so much. And Daniel Craig, I worked with him years and years ago and I knew then he was going to be a massive star. He’s exactly right for James Bond because he’s so sexy and such a good actor and he has such power and control and beautiful blue eyes.
Again I’ve been so lucky because I’ve worked with amazing people. Richard Eyre, Howard Davies, Max Stafford Clark, Stephen Frears and Terry Johnson – who is also my favourite playwright.
Terry Johnson because he wrote Insignificance when he was about 21 or something but Stoppard would have been proud of it now. I think Terry is a genius and I don’t use that word lightly. And that incredible teleplay he wrote about Peter Cook, Not Only But Always – he is just phenomenally talented. I also love Hanif Kureishi’s writing. I was very connected to him at the Royal Court in the early days and had a little part in his film London Kills Me. I like his audacity, he’s shameless. And I really like Patrick Marber’s writing, I love his screenplay Notes on a Scandal. He hones everything down to such a degree that it’s almost Beckettian in his distinctive modern voice.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed? And the first?
The RSC’s Antony and Cleopatra really impressed me because Harriet Walter and Patrick Stewart were both fantastic in it and it was a fantastic production. But it was also really weird to see it because it was so soon after I’d finished being Cleopatra at the Globe. The lines were still fresh in my memory and so it was painful as well as joyous because I kept thinking “oh that would have been an interesting choice to make”. I said that to Harriet afterwards and she said she didn’t come and see my production for that reason. They were rehearsing at the time, and I think it just gets confusing to see other people’s interpretations. I really wanted to see The Seagull at the Royal Court, but I couldn’t do it at that stage. It would have muddled my rehearsal process. The first thing I saw was My Fair Lady at Birmingham Hippodrome with Rex Harrison as Higgins. I loved it. Years later when I played Eliza at the National, it was a joy to remember that wonderful production – even though I was in the play (Pygmalion) and not the musical – that my Dad had taken me to see all those years ago when I was a kid.
What first made you decide to become an actress?
I don’t think I woke up one day and decided “this is what I want to be”, but I was always cast in the plays at school and had a drama teacher who was very encouraging and suggested I go to university to study drama. So I went to Bangnor University and then Cardiff University and did degrees in English and drama and then an MA in theatre studies. I didn’t really know that was what I wanted to do because I didn’t really have any knowledge of drama schools and things like that. But I met a few people at uni and my then-boyfriend, the director Danny Boyle, set off to London and all of a sudden I stumbled into acting and it’s what I’ve done ever since.
If you hadn’t become an actress, what might you have done professionally?
I would love to be Sarah Montague on the Today Programme. That’s my dream job of all time because I love politics and political journalism. I would love to be able to roast some of the politicians they have on that show, it would be such a buzz putting them on the spot for the benefit of everyone else. In my next life, that’s what I want to do.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
This is from an older actress who I didn’t believe at the time and wish I had done: “Don’t let them put heated rollers in your hair because in five or ten years it will become impossible. And lie about your age very early on.” She was absolutely right. I didn’t do either of those things and now the rollers have mucked up my hair and I should have lied about my age 20 years ago!
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Give us more money and appreciate the fact theatre fills the coffers of restaurants and hotels and is still one of the biggest draws for tourists. They don’t take us seriously and I get so angry about that. Someone should also force Ken Livingstone to give concessions on the congestion charge and parking for people who are going to the theatre. Many people feel they have to drive to the theatre because they might miss the last train home if they live quite far away, or they can’t get public transport to get them into the West End after work in time for the show. And I know theatre is expensive, but you can go to the NT for £15 and see some spectacular stuff, and the RSC too. Regional theatres are now struggling because the government has taken all these subsidies away and forced them to do plays they might not want to do - you know, these old potboilers that draw the crowds, whereas they might want to be more experimental but don’t have the money to do it. So yes, the main thing is for the government to take us seriously and subsidise theatre better.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I read it when I was at an impressionable age and I remember it having an extraordinary effect on me. I was really into feminist politics at the time, but it shows you need people with feminine and masculine characteristics for society to work properly. And the writing is just beautiful.
Favourite holiday destination
At Christmas I went to Zanzibar. It’s fantastic and I urge everyone to go before it gets too touristy. The people are lovely, the weather is lovely, and it’s really very special.
Favourite after-show haunts
Only the same as everyone else: Century, Soho House, Joe Allen’s. We all tend to go to the same places.
I use the internet loads but I guess Google is the one I use most. I Google everything, particularly a thesaurus to finish off my crosswords, so I use the internet to cheat, basically! Recently, I’ve been pootling about with ebay but I get a bit impatient. I bid for a bike and someone beat me to it so I decided not to do that again.
Why did you want to accept your roles in The Seagull & King Lear?
I’ve worked with Ian (McKellen) before and I love working with him. He’s a great company member, and I know we’ll have fun on tour. Also I’ve always wanted to work with Trevor (Nunn) and this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to – to be able to play these two fantastic parts under Trevor’s direction is brilliant, because he’s a master of both Shakespeare and Chekhov, they’re two great passions of his. I can’t think of anybody who has as much information at his fingertips as Trevor about both kinds of work. I feel as though I’ve had a personal Masterclass in all things Bard and Chekhov.
What do you enjoy most, or find most difficult, about each of the roles?
Arkadina’s a great role because I realise more and more that she is a mini version of Cleopatra, which I played last summer. She is selfish and a drama queen, a desperate woman of a certain age who wants to hang on to her man. She’s very clever and wheedles her way out of possibly losing Trigorin by all sorts of cunning methods, just like Cleopatra did with Antony. There’s room for comedy and lightness and so she’s much less intense than Goneril. King Lear is such a bleak and unremitting and really evil play. It’s sensational but it’s so dark and right from the get-go it’s horrid. In most of Shakespeare’s tragedies there’s a build up to it, but in this, right from the start he’s screaming and cursing and saying some really unthinkable things. I mean it’s the kind of stuff you couldn’t say to anyone, but a man saying it to a woman, and even worse, a father to his daughter... Ian said to me we’re going to give each other lots of hugs before the show and during the interval because we were getting very emotional in rehearsals. It’s really intense. The first time he cursed me in rehearsals I burst into tears. I’ve never seen Goneril do that in a production, but then I thought, why not, she wipes away her tears and then swears never to forgive him, and only becomes very hard faced after that initial outburst.
What are the challenges of playing these two very different roles in rep?
I’m getting quite tired because I haven’t done rep before in this intense way. I’ve done plays in rep before at the National, but we rehearsed them separately. With this, we did three weeks on Lear then three on The Seagull, then five days on each, then two days on each, and then down to doing one on one day and the other one the next. Trevor and Ian have done it this way before, so they’re comfortable with it; but I’ve found it quite hard work. For example, we ran The Seagull on Wednesday the other week, and it felt like the end of the week, it went well and psychologically I felt we had made a big leap. Then in my head it was the weekend, but we had to come in the next day to do Lear. It’s certainly been a whole new learning curve for me. Once both plays are up and running, I’ll feel less schizophrenic because each performance has its own momentum.
What’s it like playing opposite two different Sorins in The Seagull, with Ian McKellen & William Gaunt sharing the role?
They’re having a ball actually. They said everyone should do it because they’re having so much fun. In rehearsals, one goes on for a scene and then for the next scene, it’s the other’s turn. It keeps us on our toes because they play it in completely different ways so I don’t know where to stand or what tempo will be coming at me from one scene to the next, which is quite exciting.
What made you want to return to the RSC in these productions?
I’m just thrilled to be part of the Complete Works season. That’s why I wanted to be part of these productions in the first place. I love working in Stratford, and I am really looking forward to the tour as well.
Do you have a favourite line or scene from each of the plays?
I love the line - because it makes me laugh, and I hope everyone in the audience as well - when Arkadina says “I could still play a 15-year-old” and she totally believes it! It’s the fact that she’s being completely serious that’s so funny. And in King Lear I love how Goneril describes her husband as a “milk livered man” because it’s the perfect way to describe this lily-livered idiot who she unfortunately had to marry.
What are your future plans?
The tour of these RSC productions will keep me busy for about a year, so nothing planned for after that yet.
- Frances Barber was speaking to Caroline Ansdell