I saw the original production of The Chalk Garden in 1956 but I don’t remember very much about it. And a long, long time ago I also saw the film, which has practically nothing to do with the play at all, even though Dame Edith Evans, who played my part of Mrs St Maugham in 1956, was in the film as well. Other people might know it by the film, but I think if they come to see our play, they’ll find it a much richer evening.
The Chalk Garden is a comedy but with a very dark centre, all of the characters are much more complex that they appear at first. I think it was Kenneth Tynan who went to the premiere in 1956 not expecting, because he was such a fan of the avant garde, to be blown away by what he described as the greatest comedy since Congreve. Don’t take my word, I’m just saying what the master critic of the day said!
Mrs St Maugham is a monstre sacré. She’s preposterous, odd, flamboyant, impervious to convention, potty, very un-PC, upper-class, overbearing and utterly selfish. She spends a lot of time tending to her garden, but very little time with her granddaughter. She’s not been a good influence on the girl. It’s a very, very punishing type of role. Gladys Cooper apparently said “oh I can’t learn this, I shall approximate”, and I don’t blame her as it is impossible to learn because of the language - the construction of the sentences, the labyrinthine gear changes and the constant contradictions. It’s a massive challenge.
Felicity Jones, who plays my granddaughter Laurel, is going to be a big star, of course she is. She is an intelligent girl and enchanting. Wonderful, so good and so ripe! Penelope Wilton is Miss Madrigal, the governess, who becomes a very good influence as the play progresses. I’ve never worked with her before, but I have admired her from afar. She is absolutely sensational. I have the utmost admiration for her process, what comes out of the end of it, her attitude, everything. And to use an old-fashioned word, she couldn’t possibly be more agreeable.
What would I say to theatregoers about why they should see The Chalk Garden? I’d say, because you won’t regret it. By any standard, it’s a very rich evening. And don’t be fooled, it’s deeper than you might think, on every level.
(Margaret Tyzack was talking to Terri Paddock)
The Chalk Garden opens at the Donmar Warehouse on 11 June (previews from 5 June) for limited season to 3 August 2008. It’s directed by Donmar artistic director Michael Grandage.