Kathryn Hunter: 'We all have a nose'

The legendary actress Kathryn Hunter talks about her latest gender-swapping role in ”Cyrano de Bergerac”

Kathryn Hunter in rehearsals for Cyrano de Bergerac
Kathryn Hunter in rehearsals for Cyrano de Bergerac
© Richard Lakos

When Kathryn Hunter told her husband about her latest role, he went a bit green. "Marcello was very jealous," Hunter smiles at me during a break in rehearsals. "He had always wanted to play Cyrano!"

It's one of the risks of being married to an actress like Hunter. Marcello Magni is a co-founder of ground-breaking theatre company Complicite and a respected theatremaker in his own right. But his wife, the unique and prodigiously talented Hunter happily hoovers up the lion's share of parts for both men and women. In her career she has acted for the RSC and Shared Experience, played Cleopatra at Shakespeare's Globe, worked with Complicite, won an Olivier Award in 1991 for The Visit, has worked extensively with legendary director Peter Brook and has directed many successful productions including Othello and My Perfect Mind. But she has also made a name playing male roles. She was the first British woman King Lear in 1997. She was a male office worker in The Bee in 2006, she played a male monkey in Kafka's Monkey and now she is about to play Edmond Rostand's big hootered hero Cyrano De Bergerac.

At five feet tall, she is not an obvious choice for someone that, by Hunter's own admission is a bit of a bruiser: "Cyrano is a Cadet de Gascogne, they were renowned for being boisterous, extremely vivacious, over the top, fantastically courageous," Hunter explains. "They are alpha males. Napoleon said: if I had 100 Gascogne men I could go to hell and back."

Hunter approaches a male role much the same as a female role: "You have to attend to physical things, just as you do with a female characters," she says. "But I do have a reference of a man who might be a Cyrano type figure in my mind and try to see the male figure in each situation."

"Of course women are under-represented in theatre, we know that"

These days, we've seen more and more women take on male leads, Phyllida Lloyd's Julius Caesar starred Harriet Walter as Brutus, Maxine Peake was Hamlet, Tamsin Greig will play Malvolia in the National Theatre's upcoming Twelfth Night. Hunter recognises the issues with lack of roles for women, but sees the increasing trend for women playing male roles just an extension of theatre itself. "Of course women are under-represented in theatre, we know that, and this Cyrano is riding with a feminist agenda. But men should play women, women should play men. [Cyrano] is very much about imagination and theatre is an act of the imagination."

Russell Bolam is directing Hunter and an all-female cast in Glyn Maxwell's adaptation of Rostand's 19th century play which is about a poet, musican and duellist who falls in love with a woman called Roxane. It might have had a happy ending, but for his extremely large nose, which leads Cyrano to doubt anyone would return his affections. You might recognise the story from the 1987 film starring Steve Martin. Maxwell's poetic adaptation, which Hunter, a fluent French speaker, describes with much admiration, has an intriguing framing device that I'm sworn to secrecy about.

Kathryn Hunter (Cyrano)
Kathryn Hunter (Cyrano)
© Richard Lakos

The actress is clearly excited about the production and working with Bolam, whose recent successes includes Crushed Shells and Mud at Southwark Playhouse. Hunter didn't know Bolam prior to this project, but when they first met she liked the way he encouraged collaboration. Working as an ensemble is important to her: "A collective imagination is going to be richer than your own," she explains, "that was reinforced when working with Peter [Brook] who embraces you. With him, you are the palette."

A twin, born to Greek parents in New York, Hunter grew up in London and trained at Rada. It was a friend of hers – Michelle Wade who runs Maison Bertaux, the chic French cake shop in Soho – whose audition pieces she was asked to watch and comment on, which first made her interested in acting. Her initial memories of being onstage are of making people laugh: "I remember being in a play and saying something and not realising it was a laugh line. Then everybody burst out laughing and I loved that. I think I was hooked then."

Interestingly, it was also the excitement of experiencing her first tech rehearsal that peaked Hunter's attraction to theatre. "I was fascinated by it. Just the excitement and the camaraderie and all these people buzzing around and converging on the same event." Her enthusiasm for that seems to me a perfect example of her love of the process of theatre. "When an actor has invested in the creation of the piece, with ideas, rather than being told to stand there and do that, that's fuel," she says to me at one point. For her, acting is about engaging heart, body, soul and, crucially, brain too.

But what of Cyrano's famous protuberance? "The nose is beautiful," Hunter smiles, simply. "There's always something that's not good enough. It can be a nose or a lack of confidence or tragic trauma." Hunter says and then quickly adds: "We all have a nose."

Cyrano De Bergerac runs at Southwark Playhouse until 19 March.