Juliet Stevenson has been a force in British acting for more than four decades. She landed at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in the late 1970s and, after a short period of spear carrying, triumphed as Isabella in Measure for Measure, Rosalind in As You Like It and Madame de Tourvel in the company's legendary production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. She was scientist Rosalind Franklin in the BBC's terrific Life Story from 1987. We could go on
For a brief moment there was, however, a possibility that she could have become something else. Anthony Minghella’s Truly, Madly Deeply, in which she played a cellist communing supernaturally with her late husband, was a critical and financial hit in 1990.
“My agent said: ‘you have got to go to Hollywood’,” she says. “ ‘Go for the big stuff.’ I absolutely couldn’t manage that. I just didn’t feel that was my element at all. I thought: ‘I just can’t do this sh*t – schmoozing, swimming pools, wandering into casting directors’ offices? It is not my thing’.”
Rodeo Drive’s loss was Shaftesbury Avenue’s gain. She continued to boss the West End. She is immovable from high-end television. And now she is available to light up the Galway International Arts Festival in Simon Stephens’s adaptation of José Saramago’s novel Blindness. Or is she? Premiered last August in London’s Donmar Warehouse, the show, a timely tale of a pandemic, makes use of the actor’s recorded voice. The audience sit in spookily lit, isolated positions and listen as an unseen Stevenson, preserved in a binaural sound, drifts around them.
“No, I won’t be there,” she says. “I would give my eye teeth to be in Galway. I love it – one of my favourite places on earth, but no. I’m not saying this because I’m selling the show to you, but, when I went to it, I thought: ‘well, this is not going to be very immersive’. But lots of my mates said to me: ‘I honestly thought you were at the show because you knew I was coming today – that you decided to do it live.’ They felt that.”
Recorded on complex microphones shaped to emulate the human head, the sound replicates the experience of a source moving left, right, above and below. But does this still counts as live theatre. Stevens, the hugely prolific theatre maker best known for his adaptation of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, has thought deeply about this.
But the assembling of strangers in one place for a shared experience is also a vital part
“I think it’s a fair question,” he says. “You know there was a time when we used semantics to suggest the opposite. Ha ha! When it was really clear that no piece of live theatre was legal in London. ‘It’s not theatre!’ It raises quite interesting philosophical questions. The form is predicated on two elements. One of the elements I think is inarguably missing: the live presence of a performer. I think it would be disingenuous to lie about that. But the assembling of strangers in one place for a shared experience is also a vital part.”
It must have been strange attending the show last summer. The uncertainty and unease were that bit greater than they are today.
“Sitting in the space with people I’d never met before, experiencing this piece together was as theatrical an experience as I’ve ever had,” he says. “In that sense I would strongly argue that there’s much which is very theatrical about this.”
Saramago’s 1995 novel concerns a city afflicted by an inexplicable epidemic of blindness. Stevenson’s character is spared and is thus able to talk us through the near-total breakdown of society. Noting that this is a “testimony of a survivor”, Stephens argues we are dealing with an optimistic text. Really? There are some grim messages here. At any rate, it feels like the ideal project for the pandemic years. And yet . . .
“When we were first working on it, it was well pre-Covid,” Stevenson says. “I think we thought it was a play about Brexit. This terrible pandemic splits up communities and divides everybody. We thought it was a perfect metaphor for Brexit. Then, when Covid broke out, they approached me and said: ‘should we do it?’ I said: ‘listen, I think it’s too on the nose. Nobody wants to see a piece about a pandemic.’ I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
Indeed. At the start of the pandemic, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion was regularly toward the top of the streaming charts. There has been a real hunger for conscious or accidental meditations on the theme of infection.
“Are we going to emerge from it and just restore all the old patterns and habits?” Stevenson wonders. “Or are we going to take the experience and look at it and say: ‘what have we learned through this incredible time the whole world has shared? How are we going to change our way of being?’ Of course, sadly, probably, that won’t be happening. A year ago we hoped that would be the case.”
Like a disproportionate number of actors, Stevenson, born in 1956, had a peripatetic upbringing. Mum was a teacher. Dad, an army officer, was forced to move the family home every two or three years. She had little exposure to theatre. Even television was hard to come by on army bases in the 1960s. Does such a mobile life profit an actor?
“I am quite movable,” she says. “I’m quite light on my feet. I can easily move, quickly set up a home, make contacts and get into where I am. I don’t need things to be familiar or comfortable. So that’s all true. And that’s what I love about our industry. You cut through the formalities really quickly. You make close friendships and collaborations. But I’m very aware of the impact of that childhood on certain levels of insecurity.”
She went straight to the RSC to juggle classical pieces and new work such as Howard Brenton's famously angry The Churchill Play
She remembers being thrown back on her own imagination. Not shuttled around from "pottery to woodwork or whatever it is" like contemporary children, she learned to become self-reliant. Her reading of a poem got her interested in drama and she gained places at Bristol University and The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. After some prevarication, Stevenson decided she was more interested in creating theatre than writing theses on it and made for Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada), where she ultimately won the prestigious Bancroft Medal (other winners include Timothy Spall, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh and Fiona Shaw). She went straight to the RSC to juggle classical pieces and new work such as Howard Brenton's famously angry The Churchill Play.
“There was this fantastic mix,” she remembers. “There were the classics and Shakespeare. And then there was new writing and the new writing was very politicised. It was a politicised time. [Actors] Equity was so politicised as a union. Nobody really thinks about Equity much now. Half the kids don’t join it. The union was a big part of our lives. It seems absurd for a bunch of actors to be talking about the revolution. But we did that then.”
I wonder what her ambitions were. Few actors of her Rada generation are more respected. But she has had less to do with blockbuster cinema than contemporaries such as – all Harry Potter alumni – Branagh, Spall and Shaw.
"I know it sounds bonkers, but I don't think I ever had ambitions like that," she says. "I had this urge to act. But it originally came from reading a poem. It never came from watching movies. Because I didn't get to cinemas as a kid. I didn't sit there wanting to be Garbo or Shirley MacLaine. I didn't grow up watching amazing actresses or watching movies and thinking: 'that's what I want to do'. Absolutely not. I did grow up running imaginary stories in my head and pretending to be other people."
The career clanked to a temporary halt last year when lockdown struck. She enjoyed painting at her home in Suffolk. She spent time with her long-time partner Hugh, a highly distinguished anthropologist. But there has certainly been a wrench. Stevenson was all set to go to the West End and then Broadway with the Almeida’s acclaimed production of Robert Icke’s The Doctor.
“It was one of those roles that comes along every 15 years or so,” she says. “It’s a really important play about cancel culture and identity politics and this terrible culture where people are being destroyed on social media because of one action or one statement.”
Still, we all need time for contemplation.
“Yes, I love the quiet and I love the clean air,” she says. “I missed the work. But I also really welcomed time to reflect a bit.”
- Blindness runs from September 11th until September 18th at the Mick Lally Theatre as part of the Galway International Arts Festival.