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20 Questions With… Patricia Hodge

Actress Patricia Hodge – who stars in The Country Wife, the inaugural production of the Theatre Royal Haymarket Company – talks about the challenges of Restoration comedy, escaping to Antigua and giving courage to the West End.

By • West End


While Patricia Hodge’s breakthrough role was in the 1973 West End premiere of Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin, directed by Bob Fosse, she certainly hasn’t contained herself to musicals over her long and varied career.

In addition to Hair, Pal Joey, The Mitford Girls and A Little Night Music, her non-musical stage credits over the years, in the West End and elsewhere, have included Look Back in Anger, Then and Now, As Your Like It, Benefactors, Shades, Separate Tables, The Primes of Miss Jean Brodie, Noises Off, His Dark Materials, The Clean House, Noel and Gertie (for which she was nominated for an Olivier) and the NT Ensemble productions of Money and Summerfolk (for which she jointly won an Olivier for Best Supporting Actress).

On screen, Hodge’s credits include The Elephant Man, Betrayal, Sunset, Thieves in the Night, The Leading Man, Prague Duet and Before You Go; and Rumpole of the Bailey, The Other 'Arf, Edward and Mrs Simpson, The Professional, Holding the Fort, Hayfever, Hotel du Lac, The Life and Loves of a She Devil, Inspector Morse, The Legacy of Reggie Perrin, Moonstone, The People’s Passion, The Falklands Play, Miss Marple, Hustle and Maxwell on television.

Hodge was most recently seen on stage playing put-upon housekeeper Bertha in the hit West End revival of Marc Camoletti’s Sixties sex farce Boeing-Boeing. She’s now joined Toby Stephens, David Haig, Fiona Glascott and others in the all-British cast of Jonathan Kent’s production of William Wycherley’s 1675 classic The Country Wife.

The Restoration comedy is the inaugural production of the Theatre Royal Haymarket Company, an ambitious initiative at the Grade I-listed commercial West End venue which, under the artistic direction of former Almeida chief Jonathan Kent, is producing its own year-long, in-house season of work.


Date & place of birth
Born 29 September 1946 in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire.

Lives now in
South-West London.

Training
London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA).

What made you want to become an actor?
I remember from an early age being incredibly fascinated with anything which happened on a stage. It just seemed to be a sort of magical thing. But it wasn’t until I was about ten or 11 that I saw a professional production and decided it was the only place I wanted to be. It was a show which was done in the West End every Christmas called Where the Rainbow Ends.

If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I was actually a teacher before I was an actress because nobody, when I was leaving school, wanted me to be an actress. So I got a teaching degree and taught young children for a year, and it was in that year that I applied for drama school. It meant I was a student for quite a long time, but that would have been my other career.

First big break
In the time that I joined the profession, you had to serve 40 weeks apprenticeship in the provinces before you got your full Equity card and before you were allowed in to the West End and to do films and things. I got exactly 40 weeks on my card when I was offered a West End musical (Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Phoenix Theatre, 1972), so that was a nice break. Then there was another big break, about a year or so after that, when I was auditioned by Bob Fosse and got the leading role in the amazing musical Pippin, which had been on Broadway. To work with a giant of the stage and film industry was fantastic.

Career highlights to date
In the early Eighties, I went down to Chichester to do a musical about the Mitford Girls, and while I was there, I got a call one day and Sam Spiegel wanted to meet me. It was a bit of a joke in my agent’s office apparently. When he would come back after lunchtime, he’d ask his secretary “has anyone important called?” and she’d say “yes Sam Spiegel called”. It was a joke because Sam Spiegel was one of the most famous film producers of all time - Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai, On the Waterfront, The African Queen. But this time it wasn’t a joke. He rang and wanted to see me for his new film (a screen version of Pinter’s Betrayal). So that whole period when I was doing that musical about the Mitford Girls by night, and then by day being seen by Sam Spiegel and reading for Harold Pinter was a very interesting part of my life.

Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
The Mitford Girls was a very happy experience. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was a wonderful thing to do. A Little Night Music at the National – all the things I’ve done at the National I’ve loved. I’ve absolutely had some of the best times of my life there because I love company theatre. I like being part of a whole. I’d love to go back there anytime.

Favourite playwrights
Unquestionably, Harold Pinter. I’ve done two screenplays of his. Michael Frayn, I’ve done two of his plays too. There’s a wonderful play that I’m going to do next year which is written by an American woman playwright called Sarah Ruhl who’s getting quite a good reputation in the States. It’s called The Clean House. It’s poetic as well as funny. We’re doing it in Northampton and then taking it on tour, hopefully bringing it into the West End. I’ve already done it actually. We did a try-out of it at the Sheffield Crucible last year, programmed by Samuel West.

What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
In the West End, I saw The Last Confession at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. It was a great evening. It was theatrical, it made an interesting argument – I liked it very much. I also went to the Edinburgh festival this year and saw eight shows in four days. My son took a school production of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser. I also saw a wonderful young comedian up there, Jack Whitehall, who I think has got a great future. I saw a very beautiful one-man play of Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful, a fantastic American troupe doing something called Dickens Unplugged, like the Reduced Shakespeare Company, only Dickens, and a very interesting one-woman show called A Conversation with Edith Head done by an American woman called Susan Claassen. I hope that will come to the West End.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Joanne Woodward. Because I’m in love with Paul Newman.

Favourite books
I’m always reading what I’m working on so I don’t have much time for other things. There are some wonderful essays written by people at the time of the Restoration which give quite an accurate perspective on where they were coming from. Other than that, I’ve recently read The House by the Thames. It’s about a very important house next to the Globe which is one of the oldest houses in London I think. It looks directly across to St Paul’s. I was in it many years ago when Sam Wanamaker was trying to get the whole idea of the Globe going. The guy who was then living in it had a dinner party for some of us. It’s just full of history, this house, so when I saw there was a book written about it I had to read it!

Favourite holiday destinations
Mauritius and Leffe in Belgium. Favourite after-show haunts
St Albans and the Wolseley. It depends on where you are though. They’re particular to the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

Favourite websites
Wikipedia because it’s a useful tool, I suppose. I’ve just been to Carlisle Bay Hotel in Antigua. If you want to feel better, just go on the website and look at it – beautiful.

How important do you think the Theatre Royal Haymarket Company initiative is?
Oh, very important. What we lack in the West End is a commercial representation of the work that the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre are doing. There’s a balance, and it’s missing. We should be able to do classical work of all different types in places other than subsidised theatre. There are commercial ways of doing things – but it’s bringing us back to the roots of what the West End has always been world-famous for. It’s the diet of the West End that’s important, and we’re not helping ourselves by overloading it with musicals and easy stuff. We have to challenge as well, we have to provide something for everybody. Simply because a play is a classical play doesn’t mean to say that it’s not as entertaining or fulfilling or a great piece of theatre. The Theatre Royal Haymarket has a grandeur about it because it’s the most beautiful theatre. It has its own sort of profile. That’s the one where this can happen. It’s a hybrid; it’s a monument in its own right. In its heyday, in the Fifties and Sixties, HM Tennant was doing one good classical play after another. That was a memorable period in the theatre’s life, and I think that’s what they’re aiming to bring back.

Why did you want to accept the part of Lady Fidget in The Country Wife?
Why wouldn’t I? These decisions are not as people imagine. They think it’s all about the part and you go away to count your lines. It’s not about that at all, not for me. It’s entirely about exactly what I’ve said: “Is this going to be a good evening of theatre? Is this what we all joined for?” Here, you’ve got a superbly constructed play that still speaks in a modern voice. The human interaction in it is extremely recognisable today, and that’s what makes the life of the play sustainable. Underneath all this, the characters are all beautifully drawn. And it’s about the whole, it’s a company show. This is the only production I’ll be appearing in in the season. The original idea was to set up a company and cross-cast, but that takes a lot of forward organisation. They would have had to have found three plays where there was equal provision for everybody. If this enterprise works, that’s something they might be looking to in future. But with this season, the plays they’re doing only allow for one piece of cross-casting, and that is that David Haig is appearing in The Sea as well as this. There’s nothing else for me.

Tell us about the character.
It’s quite difficult to give her a headline, but she’s representative, I suppose, of the more mature woman who is every bit as interested in the game of love and sex as anybody else. So she plays her role in the whole thing. There’s a lot of hypocrisy and the carapaces that we all use and what is going on behind them. She provides a more mature angle on the story.

This is your first Restoration comedy? Are there any special challenges to the genre?
Yes it is, actually. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve done things at drama school, scenes from things. I think Restoration comedy requires all the different resources that are within an actor. You’ve got to have clarity of thought and of diction, and you need bravado, incredible focus and adroitness for the language. You can’t be sloppy.

Jonathan Kent said of The Country Wife that it has the “distinction of being a Restoration comedy that is actually very funny”. Do you agree?
Yes I do, and I’ll tell you why, because it is farcical. It’s interesting for me having just come from playing in Boeing-Boeing. You recognise that there are so many elements that contemporary farceurs deploy from Restoration comedy where people get themselves into ridiculous situations and the way they extemporise their way out of it and they change the reality according to the way that they couch language and so on. Actually, Boeing-Boeing is a very good example because it’s a French author. It doesn’t depend so much on situations, on doors slamming – certainly that element is there – but it’s to do with the way in which you turn the language. Some Restoration comedies are very verbose and wordy. I think a Restoration audience was more able to listen to a dense text. They weren’t fed, the way we are, with tiny soundbites. We’re assaulted, everywhere we go, with short attention span stuff. So we’re not used to sitting and listening to long speeches. The Country Wife is not as ponderous as some are – it keeps moving.

Are you making any tweaks to modernise the piece?
Jonathan wants to take it out of the chocolate-box, very much behind the proscenium arch presentation, and pull it out into the way it was originally conceived, the way in which all these Restoration plays were conceived. They reached out to their audience, almost a hybrid between the straight play and cabaret. That’s why they were so popular. It was all about that shared experience, the connection. All the asides, as they were spoken in those days, were not people going to one side and talking behind the hand, gazing up to the sky and giving them a sign. The actors were actually directing them to the audience. You acknowledge the presence of the audience and their listening ears as part of the whole development. So the actors, all the time, are treading a fine line. They’re playing a reality but they’re also saying, “watch me play this reality”. It’s a very seductive thing for an audience, but in order to achieve that, to make it resonate now, we’ve gone away from the idea of keeping it pristinely in period. We’ve dropped all the fans, the wigs and all that stuff that went with plays at the time and taken it down to a sort of half-way house which is both modern and period. The costumes have a nod in the direction of the period but with a very funky, modern take. Think Vivienne Westwood. As for as the text goes, the language hasn’t been changed, but there has been some pruning. Nobody says more than they have to. If it gets leaden at all, we’ve taken it out.

What’s the funniest thing that happened in rehearsals?
The stage is actually a lot smaller than you think it is. There’s quite a lot of us on stage and we’re having real candles burning and real drink. We had it marked out in the rehearsal room and it became a bit of an assault course! Everywhere we turned, things were being knocked over and we kept joking, “That’s another lot of hot molten wax gone into someone’s lap in the stalls!”

What are your hopes for this inaugural season of the Theatre Royal Haymarket Company?
I would like it to give the courage back to the West End. I think it’s a nervous place at the moment and it takes people’s courage to actually turn the tide and stop trying to second-guess what the audience want. It’s not about “oh we can only do things if we’ve got an American film star in it” or “we can only do a play on stage that’s a film they’ve heard of”. Forget that. Just give them good theatre. If you make something work and the whole thing is true unto itself and full of joy, people will have every bit as good a time. Ut takes somebody to say “alright, we’re going to rediscover what we’re all here for.”

- Patricia Hodge was speaking to Terri Paddock


The Country Wife opens on 9 October 2007 (previews from 27 September) at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, where it runs until 12 January 2008. Kent’s season at the theatre then continues with a revival of Edward Bond’s The Sea and the world premiere of Boublil and Schonberg’s new musical Marguerite.

** Don’t miss our Whatsonstage.com Outings to the Theatre Royal Haymarket productions of The Country Wife & The Sea - including a EXCLUSIVE
post-show Q&As with the company - click here for more info! **


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