Brief Encounter with … Before the Party‘s Stella Gonet

Stella Gonet is currently appearing in Matthew Dunster‘s revival of Rodney Ackland’s Before the Party at the Almeida Theatre, which opens on Thursday (28 March 2013, previews from 21 March).

Gonet was last seen on stage in Top Girls at Trafalgar Studios. Amongst her extensive theatre credits are Women, Power and Politics for the Tricycle Theatre and Skylight, Racing Demon and Hamlet (opposite Daniel Day-Lewis) for the National Theatre.

Could you provide a quick overview of Before the Party?
It centres on a family who are getting ready to go to a society ‘do’ in the years immediately following the Second World War. It’s a very hot day in June and gradually, as everyone is getting ready, we learn more about the recent death of the daughter’s husband in Africa – it transpires that an awful lot has been covered up. It’s about how they all deal with the truth, and how they present themselves to society in the circumstances. It’s based on a Somerset Maugham short story, which Rodney Ackland has expanded and developed in the most wonderful way.
I think the play’s a real hidden gem and it’s wonderful that Matthew Dunster is giving it a blast.

And you play the mother of the family
Yes, she’s called Blanche and she’s very driven by what she thinks is correct for her family in the eyes of society. She has given herself an ulcer from worrying about her family. She has an uncanny ability to get what she wants and she’s quite an operator, although she appears on the surface to be very delicate. It’s an interesting challenge!

Would you describe her as a social climber?
Yes, in as much as she lives in a small community and she’s eager to keep up appearances. But what’s more important to her is her family – that always comes first. She just wants everything to be nice but all these fires keep lighting in front of her. It’s extraordinary craftsmanship on Rodney Ackland’s part that he keeps planting this dramatic dynamite all over the place.

Is it poignant to be making your Almeida debut as part of Michael Attenborough’s final season in charge?
I worked with Michael at the RSC many years ago and it’s lovely to be finally working at his theatre. It’s a fantastic atmosphere he’s created at the Almeida – it’s a wonderful community theatre, doing far more than just putting on productions. I think he’s left an amazing legacy.

Speaking of working with great people, you played Ophelia opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in that famous production at the National. What are your memories of it?
I have wonderful memories of working with Dan – he’s the most kind, lovely person. Working with him on Hamlet was quite an experience because he does really go for it – he was very, very intense. It wasn’t hard to fall in love with him night after night!

The night he walked out must have been quite dramatic
It certainly was. I remember going to his dressing room immediately afterwards and seeing him white as a sheet and in a terrible state. Suddenly the dresser came running in saying “Dan, are you ok?” and trying to get his boots off. Then everybody panicked because they announced that the show would carry on and the understudies were frantically digging out their scripts. It was all quite hysterical really.

It was especially interesting for me because once Dan dropped out Ian Charleson
then played the role very differently – it was the last performance
he ever gave. And then Jeremy Northam came in a did it another way, so I
was in the privileged position of playing Ophelia opposite three
entirely different but brilliant Hamlets.

Have you seen Daniel since then?
I have, and he says to me “Oh God Stella, what was I doing?”. I thought he was an extraordinary Hamlet and he’s the most extraordinary human being – he’s got life sorted and I’m thrilled how his career has progressed. I feel very lucky that I had a chance to work with him on stage because who knows if he’ll ever return to the theatre.

Finally, what else would you say to invoke people to come and see Before The Party?
Well it’s just a brilliant piece of writing. It gives me the same feeling I had watching my husband Nicholas Farrell in Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version – that you’re in the hands of a master craftsman. Nick’s working with Judi Dench at the moment (on Peter and Alice) and she said to him, “If there’s a writer I’d like to spend the rest of my life working on it’s Rodney Ackland”. I’m inclined to agree.

Before the Party continues at the Almeida until to 11 May 2013