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Maggie Steed on The Constant Wife

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The Constant Wife, described as a “comedy of manners”, was written by W. Somerset Maugham in 1926 and Philip Wilson’s new revival is to be the season opener at the Salisbury Playhouse next week.

Constance Middleton is the smart and self-possessed wife of top London surgeon. While rumours circulate of her husband’s infidelity with her best friend, Marie-Louise, she purposefully maintains the fiction upheld by all around her – including her imperious mother – that she has no idea of the affair. However, when confronted by Marie-Louise’s jealous husband, Constance reveals an interesting and unconventional strategy to turn the most unfortunate of situations to her own advantage.

Maggie Steed, best known for her television work in such popular series as Jam and Jerusalem, Pie in the Sky, and Shine on Harvey Moon, returns to Salisbury, having previously appeared in Relative Values in 2005, to play matriarch Mrs Culver in this production.

What can you tell me about the play, and your role?
Well, it is a very well-mannered middle-class setting, largely in a drawing room, in 1926. The language is quite involved, but very clever and very witty. You have to listen hard but I think the audience will think it really pays off. I’m not going to tell you the story, but it is about fidelity and what can happen in a marriage after a long time , and how people deal with that. It is also questions the position of a wife in a marriage. It deals with all sorts of things that even today are quite challenging, so certainly when it was written in 1926, it was quite contentious. I’m not sure that it was particularly successful when it first played in the west end, but it was hugely popular in America interestingly. Of course it worked over here eventually, perhaps when the audience was more ready for it. And the story and its themes resonate today.

I play the heroines mother who is very witty, very rich – but anxious to defend her daughter at all times, and look after her welfare. I think it fair to say she becomes increasingly worried by events, and what is going on in the daughter’s marriage. In the end you feel I am fighting for civilisation as we know it.

The play deals with issues that are incredibly important, even today, but it is done with an incredibly light touch.

What appealed to you about this production?
Basically I wanted to work with Philip (Wilson – Artistic Director at Salisbury Playhouse and director of this play). He is a firm friend. We have known each other for a long time but have never worked together with him as director. I really wanted to do that and was very pleased that he asked me. Also it is an interesting play, although it is quite frightening to do. You are very exposed and have to deal with very complex language. But you just have to jump at it and try and make it make it look as easy as blinking. Susie Trayling (Constance) and everyone are doing such and amazing job, it will be stunning. I think Philip is a terrific director.

You have appeared at Salisbury before. How do you like it?
I like Salisbury, and I love the Playhouse. It has such a great feel about it. A very warm friendly place, and its always busy. The workshops and the costume department are just excellent. It is so great to come away from London to theatres like this. I was at the West Yorkshire Playhouse last year, which has the same feel - wonderful workshops and great skills.

These great skill bases are the things we really have to fight for in these dark days, because theatres are going to close – there is no doubt about it – and all these wonderful skill bases will disappear. Once they have gone you aren’t going to get them back. We will never again get the level of workmanship around the country that we have today. It is just crucial to save them. You need people to fight for them, and the venues need to work with their communities and make their case, so nobody can argue against the value of supporting them. Of course you need the support of the audiences too, and that is what is so great about Salisbury, the place is buzzing, always something going on in the theatre.

Do you enjoy touring live theatre?
I do like to get out of London from time to time, but I think you do need to look after yourself when you are away from home. You need to be comfortable, and do things that are comfortable. The older I get the more important that is to me. I have a wonderful little dog now, called Jack, who’s a lurcher, and he comes away with me wherever I go. They have been brilliant about him here, he’s here in the directors office! When you’re away it is nice to have a companion. Whether you enjoy a tour absolutely depends on the play and the company you work with, and the experience that you can make for yourself. It can be delightful, and it can be hell.

A career that spans live theatre, television and film. What gives you most pleasure?
I do enjoy the theatre more now. I have loved doing television, and I hope I will continue to love doing television – lots of it - even though it pays very badly it does pay the bills! And also you can get some very interesting stuff to do, but it can be too comfortable. A play such as this can mean such a lot and extend your skills, being very challenging. And the other good thing is you get the chance to do it every night, so if you get it wrong you can go back and try and get it right the next night. Every night something different, and if the show is really good it stays fresh.

Whats coming up next for you?
Heaven knows what’s next. Very often you just go from one project to the next, and certainly at the moment, while times are not so good, good parts are a little thinner on the ground than they used to be. You just don’t know, so you have to pick up your bag, go home and keep your head down. Wait for the next opportunity that appeals.

You open next week. Are you ready?
No, No. Were very excited about it but we’re not ready yet, but we’ve still got a few days. We are doing a run through every day so we are getting a good feeling for the whole play now, and everyone is watching and learning from what they are seeing everyone else doing, so we are developing a great feel. I think it is going to be terrific. Everyone is just “getting on the horse” now, you know, and there are some wonderful performances. It is a very interesting play which raises a lot of issues… I think the audience are going to be on the edge of their seats, and arguing with each other all night! Which is great, so long as they’re entertained!

The Constant Wife plays at the Salisbury Playhouse from 3 February to 5 March


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