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Brief Encounter With … Hannah Waddingham

Actress Hannah Waddingham plays stage siren Desiree Armfeld in Trevor Nunn’s Menier Chocolate Factory production of Stephen Sondheim musical A Little Night Music, which has transferred to the West End’s Garrick Theatre direct from its sell-out run at Southwark’s Menier Chocolate Factory. Waddingham was Olivier and Whatsonstage.com Award-nominated for creating the role of the Lady of the Lake in the West End production of Monty Python’s Spamalot. Her other musical credits include The Beautiful Game, Tonight’s the Night, Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens, Lautrec and Bad Girls.

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How did you land the role of Desiree?
I’d just arrived home from New York and my agent said that Trevor Nunn wanted to see me about being in A Little Night Music. Apart from knowing it was by Stephen Sondheim and includes “Send in the Clowns”, I didn’t know too much about the show. I think they thought of me as the saucy maid Petra, which I didn’t really want to do as I’ve played belting roles like that before. Still, I auditioned, because I wanted to meet Trevor Nunn. I did one of Yelena’s speeches from Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, then sang some opera and a big showy number. Trevor seemed surprised, as if he didn’t know I had such a vast vocal range. He kind of circled round, looking at me from all sorts of odd angles – I thought, “what’s he doing?” Then I wondered, maybe he sees me as the Countess Charlotte. I had no idea he was walking around thinking of me as Desiree. Even when I got a call to go back to read the role, I thought it was to understudy. Still, I did two scenes, sang “Send in the Clowns” and Trevor said, “something special has happened today, I’ll be in touch”. He did – I got the job!

Was it daunting knowing you would be performing the iconic “Send in the Clowns”?
At first it was, but I decided to deconstruct those repeat “send in the clowns” lines and then rewrite them in my head to find out exactly what each one means, just like you would with a speech in a play. The song then becomes a vocalised stream of consciousness – an extension of the scene, not “oh, here comes that famous bit”. But I always felt that I know Desiree. I also lost a major love in my life – a person who could have chosen to go with me but decided to go another way. That experience massively informs how I sing “Send in the Clowns”, which I hope makes it very real. I’ve been there – I know what it’s like to lose.

In previous productions, Desiree has been played by a much older actress.
I completely agree with Trevor about ageing-down for this production. Desiree’s a very glamorous woman – every man wants to be with her, every woman thinks she’s going to steal her husband and there are constant references to her being a siren. A woman of 55 or 60 wouldn’t be like that would she? In the original Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, Eva Dahlbeck’s Desiree was a beautiful 40-year-old. Once you see her that way, all the other characters and their relationships fall into place.

As an actress, do you relate to Desiree?
There’s a song that isn’t used in the show that Desiree’s daughter, Frederica, sings about having this glamorous actress mother who leaves her letters and is out every night. I was that child. My mother was a principal at Covent Garden before I was born and she went back to work for the English National Opera chorus when I was eight years old. I grew up knowing the mum that goes out to the theatre and when she comes home finds a note on her pillow saying things like “went to bed and eight, left you a cake” and I’d find one from her in the morning saying, “hello darling, sorry I wasn’t able to tuck you in”. So I’m playing my mother. It’s real-life source of material.

Did your opinion of her change during the Menier run?
Oh yes. When I started I just saw her as an outlandish, flamboyant and excitable. She’s all of that of course, but I’ve come to realise that Desiree is the normal person in the play – the only honest one. Everyone else has dysfunctional relationships and marriages. They are complete oddities. Sometimes in the dinner scene I sit there and think for goodness sake, what a mess all these people are!

What has Trevor Nunn brought to the piece?
Chekhovian glamour. He’s captured the comedy and has been a stickler for clarity and making it utterly accessible. Maybe that’s because it’s his first Sondheim too, and why audiences have told us that they understand the story for the first time. Sondheim himself came to a preview at the Menier and said he’s often been moved to tears in act two, but never in act one like he did here. It was a huge thrill for us to hear him say that – you go, “right, daddy thinks we’re good”!

It’s quite a contrast to all that clowning as the Lady of the Lake in Spamalot.
It’s a real step-change. In Spamalot I needed a four-octave range, but with this it’s the extremes of emotion. Now, for the first time in my life, I feel as if I’m in a real play. I needed to flex my acting muscle and show people what I can do. I’ve grabbed this part by the horns and run with it.

How did you first get the performing bug?
It was a foregone conclusion. I don’t remember not singing or not wanting to sing. My mother was a principal at Covent Garden before I was born and she went back to work for the English National Opera chorus when I was eight years old. I grew up seeing her in operas like Aida, Madame Butterfly and Carmen. I’d sit in the Coliseum stalls, all wide-eyed, watching rehearsals and absorbing it all. I just thought, what else would I do? I never questioned going into show business for a second.

Has your height affected the roles you are offered?
It has absolutely. But the thing that’s nice about being nearly six feet tall is that I’ve always had principal roles. It means I get to play separate entities in shows – like in my first job, Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens at the Queen’s Theatre, where I was Chesty Prospects, an Australian fetish plastics smuggler. Then there was Satan in Tonight’s the Night and the Lady of the Lake in Spamalot, who was on her own for most of the evening until she got together with King Arthur at the end. I remember my dad once saying, “You just need to keep going until such time as they find men tall enough for you”!

After Desiree, is there a dream role?
I can’t think of anything else that runs the full gamut of emotions, except for maybe Joan of Arc – The Musical! But I’d love to do Rosalind in As You Like It and, for some reason, I’ve always wanted to play Macduff in Macbeth. Or how about Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar? Dolly Levi would be great, but I’m probably too tall for that.

A Little Night Music opens on 7 April 2009 (previews from 28 March) at the West End’s Garrick Theatre, where it’s currently booking through to 25 July. Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 Swedish film and written largely in waltz time, Sondheim’s 1973 Broadway classic concerns the tangled romantic lives of several couples in Sweden at the turn of the 20th century. Waddingham is joined in the cast by Alexander Hanson, Maureen Lipman, Jessie Buckley, Kelly Price, Gabriel Vick and Kaisa Hammarlund.

An abridged version of this article appears in the April issue of What’s On Stage magazine, which is out this week in participating theatres. NOTE: After this issue, the magazine will be available by subscription only as one of the many benefits of our Theatre Club. To guarantee you receive all future editions, click here to subscribe now!!


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