After early years working regionally in community theatre and Theatre-in-Education, actress Linda Bassett has enjoyed a long and varied career across stage and screen.
Her many theatre credits - at the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Court, Almeida, Bush and in the West End, New York and elsewhere – have included: Fen, The Cherry Orchard, Medea, Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Seagull, Serious Money, Our Country’s Good, The Recruiting Officer, The Awakening, The Theban Plays, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, The Clearing, The Triumph of Love, Five Kinds of Silence, The Triumph of Love, Out in the Open, The Taming of the Shrew, Richard III and Lucky Dog.
Bassett appeared in the original stage version of Ayub Khan-Din’s East Is East at Birmingham Rep and Theatre Royal Stratford East as well as on tour and in the West End. She then recreated her role as mother Ella Khan in the multi award-winning 1999 film version, for which she was nominated as Best Actress in both the Evening Standard and BAFTA Film Awards.
Amongst Bassett’s other film credits are Calendar Girls, The Hours, A Way Through the Woods, Spivs, Beautiful People, Oscar and Lucinda, Mary Reilly and Paris by Night; while, on television, she’s appeared in The Brief, The Little Life, Out of Hours, Our Mutual Friend, Far from the Madding Crowd, Kavanagh QC, A Touch of Frost, Love Hurts and A Village Affair amongst other programmes.
Bassett is currently starring in the world premiere of Nick Stafford’s Love Me Tonight. The production reunites her with actress-turned-director Kathy Burke, who previously directed Bassett in Jonathan Harvey’s Out in the Open, also at Hampstead Theatre.
Date & place of birth
I was born in a village called Pluckley in Kent on 4 February 1950.
I didn’t train. I went to Leeds University to read English, but only for a year. I was always doing plays, which is why I didn’t do very well! For two years before that, I had been working as an usherette and in the catering department at the National Theatre at the Old Vic – I sometimes regard that as my training. I stayed on in Leeds until 1976, working on a project there called Interplay Community Theatre. We worked in adventure playgrounds and hospitals and special schools, many, many different venues across the community as a unique service. It specialised in those days in things called Dramascapes. We would go to an estate and gather all the kids up within a band, and lead them onto a bit of waste ground, do them a play, which then would lead into a week-long arts and craft project on a theme. All the work was tailor-made for the situation. It was a kind of training, but it didn’t feel like training – it felt like doing it. We did street theatre as well, which is a good thing for everybody to do, I think.
Lives now in…
Kent. I’ve gone back to where I was born, though I grew up mostly in London. I moved back there in 1987.
First big break
That’s a tricky one. When you’re working in community theatre, you’re not looking for a break – you’re not on the market, really. Then I was doing Theatre-in-Education in Coventry, and I did that for five years, and that wasn’t on the market, either. I came to London when I was 32. I didn’t really become a conventional actress until then. I got a job with Joint Stock Theatre Company doing Caryl Churchill’s Fen, with Les Waters directing. That was brilliant for me to do. It was my break into theatre, I suppose, with plays written by playwrights rather than me and a group. The glory of the work in the other way was the audience and what you’re creating – but what you miss is the poetic aspect if you’ve got a great writer to work for. That’s what I became a bit hungry for.
Career highlights to date
I’ve had such a gloriously varied time, it’s hard for me to pick a low one really. If I look at the list of writers whose plays I’ve done, they’re a really good bunch. I’ve done a couple of Caryl’s, I’ve done Athol Fugard, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s work which is great, I’ve loved doing Shakespeare, Sophocles, Chekhov, Ibsen. That’s all theatre, and then there’s the film work that is also exciting. I was very fortunate with East Is East, which I was part of from workshop to play and then film, and playing a great character as well. People loved the film. I love things where comedy and tragedy mix, but sometimes I think that people ignored the domestic violence side of it a bit too much. In the theatre, I’ve been lucky a few times to go to New York with shows, too: with Caryl’s Fen and Serious Money and Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon.
Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
You don’t really have favourites as an actor. Obviously, if you’re watching theatre, you do have favourites, but when you’re doing it, the one you’re doing is the one you care about, and the ones you haven’t done yet. But I loved working at the Globe last year – I had a wonderful time there. It’s a fantastic theatre to work in, and Shakespeare is a great playwright to try and do. All the things I’ve done at the Royal Court in the past and have gone back to do …. it’s hard to pick out a favourite.
Favourite co-stars & other collaborators
It has to be a list as long as your arm, that’s all I can say. And it’s the same with directors, because I know you’re going to ask me that next! When your list of directors includes Kathy Burke, whom I’m working with at the moment, Max Stafford-Clark, Les Waters, Nancy Meckler, Athol Fugard, James Macdonald, Stephen Daldry, Phyllida Lloyd, Peter Gill, you can’t pick individuals out, and I’ve probably left out people there that I’ve loved working with.
You’ve worked with Burke before, at the old Hampstead Theatre, on Jonathan Harvey’s Out in the Open. What’s special about working with her?
Kathy suits me, because she goes for the soul of it. She’s very intelligent – emotionally intelligent as well as intellectually intelligent – and she’s very honest in her feedback. I think that’s terribly important. I know some people like directors who play with them and try to trick them into performances. I cannot be arsed with that! I’m too old! It’s just so irritating, because you have to spend your time second-guessing them. I love a direct approach where we’re all there together to put the play first. No one’s out to glorify themselves – it’s for the play, to illuminate it and give it to the audience. We’re a team, and anything that goes outside of that she will confront and bravely – she’s courageous about that. She doesn’t let it go by. She knows what she likes, but she does trust you. She lets you pick it up and run with it, she’s not nitpicking from day one.
Shakespeare was my first love at 16, but I haven’t done enough of him. Why actors like him as much as they do is that he’s always bigger than you are, and you have to grow to do it. It’s always painful, but you’re not squeezing a big foot into a small shoe. You’re going, “I don’t know if I can quite compass this.” He forces and demands that you rise to his largeness of soul and vision.
I’ve done a lot more contemporary work, but that’s because of what people offer me. When I set out to be an actress, I imagined doing the classics, but it just didn’t turn out like that. Having made the early choices I did, it took me down a road that taught me a lot about people today – researching all that work, I met a huge variety of people, and I suppose that got expressed through the work of modern playwrights I’ve done. I love Caryl Churchill – she’s fantastic, a true poet.
Timberlake Wertenbaker also translated the Sophocles Oedipus trilogy that I did at the RSC, and that was fantastic. She really worked to narrow the vocabulary down to match Sophocles’ narrow and very deep words. Some of the old translations tend to pick a different word every time even though he’s used the same word, but she was quite rigorous in only ever using the same word. You really got the sense when working on it of his weight. Doing a play is always a bit like time travel. You jump into someone else’s psyche and play about in it, and you’re actually inhabiting a bit of them. So when you do a playwright like Sophocles, you’re back there in a dark world of terrible fear and superstition – a relationship to the world that is really very fearful, longing for some new light to come in. No wonder Christianity happened, because they needed some hope of redemption. They couldn’t walk around with these burdens on their heads any longer!
What roles would you most like to play still?
I’d love to play Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, and at some point I’d like to do the Countess in All’s Well That Ends Well. I’d like to do some of the Greeks, as well – I’d love to do Medea again. When I did it, we did it very quickly, and I’d like to have another shot at it.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
I’m living in the world of the play I’m doing now – I have no knowledge of the world outside it! I’ve forgotten that there is one out there, and can’t remember what I’ve seen! I’m very bad at going backwards over what I’ve seen or even done!
Why do you like to return to theatre as opposed to film & television?
To me as a practitioner and worker in it, it’s not an opposition – I like them all. People say actors are snobbish about telly – I don’t do much because I’m not offered much. Some of it is quite ropey, so you are constantly bigger than the part and that can drive you nuts. But that doesn’t mean television as a medium has to be like that. It can be a fantastic art form. It’s just that often it’s not, because it’s done for the wrong reasons. As for film and theatre, I like doing them both. They rejuvenate each other for me. They’re not as different as everyone says in terms of the actual acting, but the different demands they make challenge you and you learn stuff. The minute-to-minute spontaneity that’s vital in film is great to do in the theatre, and you need it. At the Globe, that’s exactly what we were using – that same feeling of going on and not having a fixed idea, not crusting it over with set ideas of how each bit has to happen, so that it becomes fossilised and dull. If you can take that back into the theatre and be that relaxed and free and playful, it’s great. And film helps you to do that, once you’ve learnt a bit. For a young actor going into it, film can feel terribly constricting, like for instance when a director tells you to move your ear over there and no further, but once you’ve understood why that is, then it’s okay, and it’s no more technical than a theatre director asking you to enter stage left and go upstage. But theatre is where it’s at: you hear a lot about how frivolous these activities are, but I just think that’s complete hogwash.
Why do you think theatre is important in modern society?
I could get very pompous about this, as I tend to. But it’s absolutely basic primitive human behaviour to do theatre. It’s right at the root of humanity: people were doing this when we were living in caves. It’s not a modern, sophisticated art – it can be – but it’s coming back to the tribe and dancing the dance of the elk or whatever, that’s what we’re doing, reflecting our own lives back to each other, so that people learn, educate ourselves and spiritually grow and make our intelligence freer. That’s why I said I’d sound pompous, but it is soul food!
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
When I was doing Theatre-in-Education, every town had its own TIE company. They don’t now. Some are growing back up, but I would support having one in every town. We were a free service to every school in Coventry, and every child of every age group in education got a visit from us. Then once a year we’d do one big show in the theatre where they all had a free visit. That’s where the future audiences and future actors and actresses come from. It’s a seedbed. But that isn’t why we did it. We did it because it itself is theatre, in a very valuable place.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Anyone! Just to find out who they were! If I had to choose just one, I’m going to go back to cave people – if you can guarantee that I’d survive the day, which in those days would have been tricky! I’d like to be someone performing theatre as a religious and spiritual exercise in the caves.
I read Shakespeare for pleasure. I love the ones that have a fairytale aspect, the ones they call the ‘problem plays’. I think they call them that because they always have a female lead, that’s the problem! I also like reading psychology books, fairy stories and myth books. I read them a lot. There’s a great psychology book called Descent to the Goddess by Sylvia Perera. And I’m reading all the Richard Dawkin books at the moment. He’s fantastic. I like science books and natural history.
Favourite holiday destinations
Cornwall, Scotland, North Wales, Ireland – I went to Connemara this year and loved it. I like remote places, and a bit of wildness.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I’d have been a naturalist – that’s another side to me that I haven’t explored fully. I think I would mostly get involved in projects that enable wildlife and people to live together without having to destroy either. Where I live in Kent I do little bits with Kentish Stour Countryside Project, which works all around the river Stour. Rather than putting collars on animals and tracking them, I’m more interested in protecting and creating habitats that allow wildlife to thrive.
Having worked at both the old & new Hampstead buildings, what do you feel about the change?
I’m getting to like it now. It’s like with the new Royal Court as well. If you’ve worked in the old barn-type place, with leaky bits and wind howling down through the place, you can’t but help have an affection for it which you then miss, and you think the new is all so soulless. But, of course, it’s just new and needs to build it all up. The spirit here is very good.
The new theatre has had a slightly shaky start, critically speaking. How would you like to see it develop?
I’d like it to just be given some time. It’s going to have a shaky start when they’ve doubled their capacity – it’s bound to, how can it not, it just doesn’t make sense. So give them time to let the audience build up again, and for people to realise that good theatre happens here.
Why did you want to accept your part in Love Me Tonight?
Nick Stafford, who wrote it, showed me the play when I was doing Out in the Open and I liked it then. It’s about a family in the tragic situation of the loss of the youngest son. There’s his mother, who I play, and father, sister and brother, and it starts at the point where the wake is finished and the core family are left alone for the first time. It takes place that night. I think it’s a beautiful play, and very honest about feelings. It looks at what you do when you’re grieving. One of the things that happens is that you look at how you live your life. It challenges you – are you going to waste your life? Is your life being lived enough or is there more to do? Hopefully, in the end, it’s therefore an inspiring play, too.
What’s your favourite line from Love Me Tonight?
My character toasts her son, and says: “I toast you, Vincent, and I hope you weren’t a virgin when you died!” He was 16 when he died and she’s his mum, so that’s quite poignant.
What’s the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that happened during rehearsals for Love Me Tonight?
Only that we’ve all eaten an awful lot – we’ve comfort eaten. We’ve gotten through more chocolate and biscuits than the average company!
What are your plans for the future?
No particular plans. It’s possible that I’ll do another run of a television series I did called The Brief. I don’t know what else I might be offered, but I’m thinking of applying to the Globe. Mark Rylance says he’s going and I’d like to be in his last season, but who knows?
- Linda Bassett was speaking to Mark Shenton
Love Me Tonight opened on 28 October 2004 (previews from 21 October) at Hampstead Theatre, where it continues until 20 November.