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Brief Encounter With … Miriam Margolyes

Bafta and Whatsonstage.com Award-winning actress Miriam Margolyes plays Nell in Simon McBurney's new Complicite production of Samuel Beckett's 1957 existential classic Endgame, which opens tonight (15 October, previews from 2 October) at the West End's Duchess Theatre.

Margolyes' most recent stage credits include originating the role of Madame Morrible in the West End production of Wicked, a role that won her the Whatsonstage.com Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical; she went on to reprise her performance on Broadway. Her other theatre work includes The Importance of Being Earnest (Bath Theatre Royal & US tour), The Killing of Sister George, Dickens’ Women (both West End) and Cloud Nine (Joint Stock/Royal Court). Her film work includes Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Ladies in Lavender, Being Julia and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

In Endgame, she stars alongside Mark Rylance (who stepped in to replace the originally announced Richard Briers) as Hamm, director Simon McBurney as Clov (replacing Adrian Scarborough) and Tom Hickey as Nagg.

How did you start out?
I did philosophy at Cambridge and joined the Cambridge Footlights doing Shakespeare and Marlowe and all the usual things that people do and then I got an audition with BBC Radio. I didn’t do the usual thing that people do which is just learn a piece and do it, I said to the person giving the audition “I am going to act for you a lot of different people coming into a railway carriage, and you’ll just hear me do different voices.” What they needed was versatility. So it worked, and I got a job with the BBC drama repertory company, playing everything from little boys to old ladies, and working with wonderful people like Donald Wolfit, John Osborne, Coral Browne - lots of famous and wonderful people came in to do radio. It was a great training ground really because I didn’t go to drama school. Then I came down to London and hoped I’d get a job, which I didn’t. It was quite tough early on.

What was your big break?
Well people talk about a breakthrough job, and I’m not sure I’ve actually ever had one. I think probably doing my one woman show made people think of me as more than a funny little person. I also did a lot of television comedy, such as Blackadder. But doing a full length stage show was definitely quite useful, it made people more aware of me. Everybody’s limited by what they look like, and I’m limited because I look really strange. I’m versatile vocally but not physically because I am what I am. But despite my confines, I’ve managed to have a very interesting career. I took myself to America, and I’ve had quite a lot of success in movies, which I never expected to have.

You proved a big hit in

Wicked, how did that impact your career?
Well I don’t think it did anything for my career except take me to Broadway. It was a wonderful experience because I can’t sing - I’m hopeless at musicals - and this was a huge musical! But I think I was right for the part, and it was great fun to work with the dancers. I love working with dancers because I get to look at them. They’re so beautiful. And it was a very happy group of people, and we’re all still in touch. Then I went to New York, which was my only appearance on actual Broadway, and I’m still in touch with all my New York chums. So Wicked has brought me a lot of personal happiness - not a lot of money, but a lot of happiness.

How would you describe Endgame?
Well it’s like no other play that I’ve been in or seen. Within our production we show everything. There are four characters, and I’m the only woman. It’s a very happy and completely terrifying experience – very testing and intellectually trying. Beckett doesn’t write the way other writers write. He has a different vision of the world. Some things become very important when you’re doing Beckett, and sandwiches are one of them.

Can you talk us through the rehearsal process?
Well, actually I’m not going to do that because Simon has specifically said “What happens in this rehearsal room is not to go outside”. But I can tell you it’s unlike any other rehearsal process I’ve ever had. Physical games are very important. In fact, I have seldom been so physical out of bed, and I’m the one who seldom moves!

What's Simon like to work with?
He’s very hard to pin down as an individual. He's quite brilliant, and very unexpected. You never know what’s going to come up. He’s very demanding, but we also have a lot of laughs. He’s got a way about him that makes you want to try harder to please him. And he’s so gifted, he knows everyone’s part better than we know them ourselves. He’s a very precise director, and I think his standards are extremely high. We all have to raise our game to match him.

Would you say it the hardest role you've ever taken on?
To be truthful, I always think every role I’m about to do is the hardest one I’ve ever done. But I do think this is particularly difficult. I think anyone would find it difficult. My part is the smallest part in the play, and sometimes I’m quite relieved about that.

Do you find the creative limitations enforced by the Beckett estate frustrating?
Well I think that’s complete nonsense of course, I want to smack him for doing that. Everyone’s script should breathe! And what they’re doing is stopping it from breathing. They’re taking the life out of it and that’s just disgraceful. I think it’s frustrating and truly stupid.

What have you got lined up next?
Well, after Endgame I’m going to reprise Professor Sprout in Harry Potter. I think I start slightly before the play finishes, actually. I hope that Beckett doesn’t bleed through into professor Sprout. I haven’t got any projects after that, so I just hope I'm employed. I'm getting close to being elderly because I'm 68. I'd love to do some more TV. I was furious that Julia McKenzie was chosen for Marple - I wasn’t even seen for Marple! I think she’s fantastic, of course. But how dare they not see me!

- [Miriam Margolyes was speaking to Theo Bosanquet

Endgame runs at the Duchess Theatre from 15 October to 5 December 2009 (previews from 2 October).


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