A household name thanks to an acting career that started at the age of five, Jane Asher is currently playing Else, the mother, in Rufus Norris' production of Festen. Adapted by David Eldridge from the Danish Dogme film of the same name, the play opened at the north London’s Almeida Theatre earlier this year and has now transferred to the West End's Lyric Theatre with a slightly altered cast (See News, 4 Aug 2004).
Asher is a favourite of the prolific writer/director Alan Ayckbourn and has appeared in many of his plays including the linked House and Garden at the National Theatre and Things We Do for Love in the West End. Her other theatre credits include The School for Scandal, To Those Born Later, Strawberry Fields, Old Flames, Great Expectations, The Happiest Days of Your Life, Sixty Thousand Nights, Romeo and Juliet, Measure for Measure, What the Butler Saw, The Shallow End, Look Back in Anger, Treats, The Philanthropist, Making It Better, Henceforward, Blithe Spirit, Before the Party, Whose Life Is It Anyway? and Peter Pan.
On television, Asher has appeared in Crossroads, The Choir, Murder Most Horrid, Wish Me Luck, The Stone Tape, The Mistress, Bright Smiler, East Lynne, A Voyage Round My Father, Love is Old - Love Is New, Brideshead Revisited, Trader Horn, The Saint, The Mill on the Floss, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Brothers Karamazov.
Asher’s film credits include Closing Numbers, Paris by Night, Dream Child, Success Is the Best Revenge, Runners, Henry VIII and His Six Wives, Deep End, The Masque of the Red Death, Alfie, The Prince and the Pauper, The Greengage Summer, The Quartermass Experiment and Mandy.
Date & place of birth
I was born on 5 April 1946 in London. Literally, physically, in the Central Middlesex Hospital because my father was a doctor who worked there. At that time, we lived in Great Portland Street.
Lives now in...
Chelsea (south London), near the river.
I trained by doing it I suppose. I did my first film at the age of five and just went on from there. I often wonder if I missed much not ever having trained formally and, in some ways, I suspect I did in terms of the technical aspects. I’ve had to pick those up bit by bit as I've gone along. I suppose it would have been very useful initially to have had training in voice, movement, fencing, singing, dancing and so on. But, although you can teach all the techniques that go round it, as far as acting itself is concerned, I think it's a very hard thing to teach. Even years of experience don’t necessarily make you able to act. Undoubtedly, it improves what you’re trying to do, but a newcomer can come along - particularly in a film - and do something absolutely brilliant.
First big break
I don't know if one can have a big break at five... I suppose nowadays you can. There came a sort of a crossroads - good word considering what I did later on - at the cusp of childhood and adulthood. That can be a very difficult stage. Of course, I wasn't a huge star like Macaulay Culkin, though I had enough of a name to be working most of the time. I made a conscious decision not to keep playing down but to wait for parts that were in my age group and more serious than the panto types.
There was definitely a mini fork where I could have done a film or gone to Bristol for a season. Theatre was what I really wanted to do at that stage - not that I didn't and don't want to do films, but it was more interesting at that time to go and build up my craft at Bristol and do a lot of good work. Then I think Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court was quite a breakthrough in that it got me taken more seriously as an actor at a time when it could have gone either way. After doing that and The Philanthropist, I decided that almost my favourite thing in the world is doing a new play. There's something so exciting about creating a character that's never existed before except in the mind of the writer. And there's the huge advantage of the writer being alive. It's wonderful to work with somebody who's actually there, knows what he wants, knows what he intended. So often, if you are doing something like a Shakespeare, you’re longing to check with Will as to what he really intended by a line. So it was lots of little breaks really which is much easier to cope with. I think it’s very difficult for someone who suddenly becomes incredibly well known in an amazingly successful role. It’s much easier to maintain a middle range, pottering along.
There have been lots, but one I can think of was doing a film for Channel 4 called Closing Numbers, which was about a woman who discovered her husband was HIV positive. It was quite early in the AIDS crisis when things were being very sensationally, worryingly dealt with in the media, and it was a very cool rather sensible look at the whole problem. I thought it was interesting to be looking at it through the eyes of a heterosexual couple - although he was bisexual and had picked it up from casual gay sex, which was very realistic. It was good particularly to cast nice safe Jane Asher, which made people look at the whole epidemic perhaps in a different way. Although I hate the idea of a message in our work - I'm always very wary of that - I do think, in a way, that film was quite important. I felt proud to be part of that.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
Apart from that .... I love working with Alan Ayckbourn, so it would have to be one of his. I think Things We Do for Love which, on a good night, was just brilliant because it was so funny and quite moving at the same time. I played this dreadfully buttoned-up woman who, by the end of Act One, is having wonderfully riotous, enjoyable sex. Having to play someone who gets her dreadful shell chipped off bit by bit until she's raw and exposed was a treat. So that was probably one of my favourites. But I have to also say Festen at the Almeida. In terms of successful productions, I can't think of anything I've been involved with that's had such an effect. It’s just extraordinary.
There are so many lovely ones...
Alan Ayckbourn clearly. It touches on what I was saying before about doing a new play with the author around, even one better to have the author directing it. Alan is a brilliant director - very very subtle, very serious. Although he tells a lot of jokes during rehearsals and it’s all lots of laughs, the actual directing process is very very serious. I remember him telling me how someone once asked him "When are you going to write a serious play?" He said "All my plays are serious", which indeed they are. I think Alan is kind of a modern Dickens really, in that he caricatures all of us and our class and our times but, through those caricatures, he actually exposes some deep truths about society, who we are and the way we live now, which is just wonderful. Apart for Alan, Rufus Norris is just brilliant, he really is. Obviously, he’s a different generation, a different approach, but I would have to link those two as my favourites.
It's hard to pick out one. You can't really dismiss Shakespeare, can you? But I suppose of the ones I've done most, yes, I think Alan Ayckbourn.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Like a lot of actors, I never have any specific ambitions. When I was little, I probably did. I probably wanted to play Juliet - which later I did, on TV and on stage, though probably not very well because I think I was too young - but I generally don't think in those terms anymore. The older you get, the more you realise you’re lucky to get offered anything. If it's something good and well-written, it's a huge bonus.
You've worked extensively in theatre, TV & film. What are the different skills you need for each?
The truth of your acting is the same in all. There is no question about that – it’s the trying to appear to put across a reality. But there are incredibly different techniques. It’s all very well being brilliant and subtle and meaningful and truthful on stage, but if they can't hear you past row G, it's useless. So it’s an unfortunate fact of life we've just got to project it out. That can be difficult and frustrating if it's something you've rehearsed very internally and very quietly. It's quite interesting. I believe in some countries they rehearse on stage all the time - lucky things. We can't always do that because very often we're moving into a theatre where something else is playing. It’s a shock when you've been in a rehearsal room for weeks and weeks and weeks. The moment when you move on stage after that is horrible. You feel as if you have to abandon all that subtlety. I think it's partly an illusion - even though you're having to expand it all, hopefully, everything you did in rehearsal is just multiplying but still existing in the same sort of relation to itself. Still, it's a weird way of doing things. We were lucky with this Festen transfer in that we moved onto the Lyric stage a bit early and had a good warm-up because the theatre was dark before us.
Since I started working in television, it’s become more and more subtle and realistic because the sound and the cameras are better at picking up everything. It’s similar to film now that television is done so much more with a single camera and cut more like a film. It used to be you had to be really technically aware, because television was all done as live, so you had to know which camera you were on and make sure you were in the right light for the right camera and so on.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
I'm at a terrible age where you forget everything. I did see Jessica Lange doing Long Day's Journey into Night in this theatre a few years back and that leaps out when you ask me. I thought that was wonderful because it was a play I'd seen about ten years before, also wonderfully done, and I didn't think I could enjoy it as much again. Lange was terrific. I think she was in this dressing room, so hopefully her benign presence is still hovering here.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Do something about public transport and parking in the theatre zone, which is still very daunting for people coming to London. VAT on tickets - that's an obvious one. Theatre is such a tourist asset, it seems to me madness that they make it even more expensive than it has to be. I'd also say clean up the area. It's better that it used to be, a lot better, but it's still a bit seedy – though, I have to say, I like a certain seediness myself. I quite like turning right out of the stage door and there's the Windmill, and a lot worse - the Windmill seems so innocent now. Drugs are a problem. There’s dealing very close to here, and I think that puts people off a lot. But what you do about that? I mean, that's a bigger problem than theatre, my god! In terms of what the government could actually practically do for theatre, I think removing VAT is the biggest thing.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Am I allowed to aim high? Let's go for God for a day. I'd take one look and rethink the whole plan... probably abandoning this free will nonsense that clearly isn't working and instead initiating a benign dictatorship. That has to be better than all the suffering of the present system.
It would be a novel, as I love reading fiction. Of modern writers, perhaps a Paul Auster, of whom I'm a huge fan. The Book of Illusion is probably my favourite.
Favourite holiday destination
I enjoy skiing in the spring when it’s nice and sunny, with a nice late fall of snow, all the family there, probably in the Three Valleys in France, Meribel I suppose. We used to go quite often, but we haven't been for a few years now and I quite miss it.
Apart from mine www.Jane-Asher.co.ukDeal Time - are also wonderful. I think Whatsonstage.com is a very good site – obviously with very good taste since it liked Festen! I hope people do look at your site because there aren't that many theatre sites, and anything we can do to boost theatre is great.
Favourite after-show haunts
The Ivy. It’s a bit obvious, but I love it there.
If you hadn't been an actor, what would you have done professionally
With my father being a brilliant doctor, I suspect I'd have done something medical. I've always had a fascination with medicine and was brought up in that world, with extraordinary stories from the hospital ward every night round the dinner table. I notice I've crept into the medical world sideways. Whether it's through writing or voluntary work, it's often medically linked.
Why did you want to accept your part in Festen?
I'd seen the film. In fact, a friend of mine who was on the judging panel for some prize that it won somewhere or other told me there was this Danish film I had to see. I don't think at that stage I'd heard about Dogme or anything like that. So I did go and see it as soon as it came out, and I was just knocked completely sideways by it. I went back and saw it quite quickly afterwards I was so amazed by it. So years later when they said they were doing Festen on stage, I said absolutely I'd love to be involved in it.
Did seeing the Dogme film affect your performance?
The actress was wonderful so I'm sure it did affect me. Like it or not, it soaks in. Luckily, it was quite a long time since I'd seen it - I didn't watch it again while we were rehearsing – and, in the film, they were speaking in a foreign language. But my impression of the film was that everyone was so good. I though, how wonderful to be a part of this. Then, the next feeling was, my god what are we doing? I think we all felt that - what are we thinking of touching this wonderful, wonderful film? It's very interesting, though. Filmwise, Dogme is attempting to create a sort of false reality by abandoning special effects and all those things, and in a way, we were able to do completely the opposite. On stage, we don't have to try and give the impression of being real because we are really, literally, physically there. To become so stylised and have the same effect is fascinating. Rufus is quite brilliant in that way. If I'd been directing it, I'd have tried to make it really real and it would have been stupid. You know how actors moan about everything. I can remember saying, "Oh I don't know about this sideways lighting, it’s impossible, we can't work in this." Of course, it’s brilliant, you soon get used to it.
How has this production changed since its run at the Almeida?
Inevitably, with new people, it puts a new feeling on all sorts of moments. It’s got slightly bigger in every way. Like I was talking about before, having to send it out to a bigger house changed it - even the physical thing of having to keep your head up much more to make sure that you include the circle, dress circle and - who knows, cross fingers - the gallery. We all have to encourage ourselves to give it out much more. But I hope the feeling stays the same, I think it does. There are certain little moments that I guess have changed. And some things are easier. At the Almeida, the wings are literally tiny, which is impossible when you’re doing the crocodile going across the table.
What's your favourite line from Festen?
It's all so upsetting, isn't it? I wish it wasn't true, I wish it was the kind of play that finished and you could say it was all fantasy. It’s awful that it’s real. When Helge says, "It's all you were good for", that hits me in the stomach every night.
What's the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that has happened during your run to date of Festen?
Silly little things. I wear these terrifyingly high heels to make Else scary and horrible. Inside the shoes, I wear these party feet (rubber insoles). There's a bit where I take my shoes off to go across the table and at the end I throw my arms up as I say "Time for pudding!" and once one of the insoles flew out and, like a bit of jellyfish landed, on my Claire Rushbrook (who plays daughter Helene)! Another night, it happened again but landed on the shoe of Stephen Moore (who plays father Helge), so I now have to take my party feet out before that entrance. These silly things always go one...
We did have the set get stuck the other night. It's the only time that's ever happened. One of the pillows fell in the gap where the bed goes under the stage, and it got completely stuck. The audience were wonderful, and finally Michael Thomas (who plays Helmut) said "I think we're going off for a drink here". We went into the wings until they brought something on and unstick it. Apart from that, physically, it's been the most smooth running set I've ever worked on. It’s beautiful.
What are your plans for the future?
When Festen finishes, I may be doing a film in January, but I don't want to talk about that too much until it's confirmed. There's also the radio version of Festen on Radio 3 - how they'll cope with the long silences, I don't know! We're recording that in October, but I'm not sure when it airs. I should be able to do my part in ten minutes. If you look at how much I say, there's only about three lines in Act One and then the one long speech later.
- Jane Asher was speaking to Hannah Kennedy
Festen is now playing at the West End’s Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, where it’s booking until 15 January 2005.