Patricia Hodge: ‘Without rep, actors have no blueprint for how to behave’
The novelist Graham Greene was apt to call his lighter works “entertainments”. Although he did not formally include Travels With My Aunt in this category, there is no shortage of entertainment at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre, with the luminous Patricia Hodge leading the fun as the bohemian Aunt Augusta in a new musical version of Greene’s comic classic.
“It’s a caper, really,” explains Hodge. “It has all the elements of the spy story and of film noir, which are very much themes of Greene’s, and you are picked up and carried along by the strength of the narrative. Aunt Augusta is an amazing creation. I suppose you might call her a free spirit. Back in 1969, the year the book was published, we all thought that we held pretty advanced views, but Aunt Augusta is way ahead of the game. She lives entirely by her own rules, she is a frontierswoman, really, and she has reached this point not without some cost and struggle. Her interest in [nephew and first person of the title] Henry is not entirely altruistic, as we discover.”
Hodge lavishes praise for the score of Travels With My Aunt, the work of composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe, and for the book, co-written by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman.
“If you asked me why I agreed to do Travels With My Aunt, I’d have to give you a multilayered answer,” she says. “To begin with, it’s a novel I remember reading and enjoying when it first came out. It’s a wonderful story, and one of Greene’s more comedic writings. Turning the piece into a musical has given the piece an extra charm. The book of the musical is very clever and very appropriate. You have to be a bit of a miniaturist in writing a musical version of a novel, I think. You have to pare down from all the detail that exists in the book until you reach the essence, the core of the story, where you find its emotional heart.”
There must be an extra frisson when an actor is the first to play a part in a new show.
“That was a secondary reason for agreeing to play Aunt Augusta, although it’s nice not to be weighed down by other actors’ interpretations that cast long shadows over what you are trying to do,” Hodge says. “It’s 20 years since I last did a full musical and it’s been marvellous to have George [Stiles] in the rehearsal room and to watch him add or cut something. It’s been a very collaborative process.”
How does the actor, when faced by an outsize and outlandish character such as Aunt Augusta, find the psychological truth?
“That’s the challenge,” Hodge replies. “I couldn’t play somebody I didn’t believe in and in a sense you’re so engrossed in the story that you accept what happens. And it is not overloaded with detail, which helps the audience to suspend its disbelief.”
The opportunity to renew her long association with Chichester was another factor in persuading Hodge to return to West Sussex.
“It played a big part in my decision because Chichester is an organisation you feel you want to be part of. Because it is called the Festival Theatre, there is always the feeling of celebration about it. I’ve had some of the happiest times of my life working at Chichester.”
More recently, Hodge found herself enjoying a higher profile as a result of playing Miranda Hart’s domineering mother in Hart’s eponymous TV sitcom.
“There are some jobs that take you into the media spotlight and that was one of them. I’d done the pilot on the radio but I didn’t know if they’d ask me to do the television pilot as well. I didn’t know Miranda, so I asked around my friends in radio comedy. What I heard made me feel I wanted to be part of this, although we had no way of knowing if there was an audience for it, other than 12 of Miranda’s best friends and the proverbial dog.”
Miranda succeeded in the face of conventional comedy wisdom that dismissed the format as old-fashioned. How does Hodge explain its impact?
“I think Miranda took comedy back to the way it used to be before we all got too clever. It took us back to ridiculousness, to sheer silliness.”
Hodge was also a belated arrival to the cast of Downton Abbey, as Lady Edith’s initially forbidding mother-in-law.
“It wasn’t, as was mistakenly reported, that I’d been sitting by the phone for five years, waiting to hear from the Downton people,” she says. “However, it was like working on a well-oiled, beautifully organised ship, and I duly jumped aboard. It was the final episode so a lot of attention was paid to it. I enjoyed the experience.”
Q&A: Patricia Hodge
What was your first non-theatre job? I worked in the fish finger factory in Grimsby.
What was your first professional theatre job? I was at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in a play called No One Was Saved by Howard Barker.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Acting is listening.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Two English teachers at school and early role models were very important. We all loved Hayley Mills and Julie Andrews, and I admired Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman and Paul Scofield.
What’s your best advice for auditions? That’s very difficult because I haven’t auditioned for years. I’d say that what you must do is show the most phenomenal concentration. You must obliterate everything in the room, and be fully immersed in the scene you’re in.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? A teacher.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I’m not spooked by the usual fears that actors have. However, I’m very ritualistic. I never give a performance without a big warm-up. I like to look out from the stage and into the auditorium to see where my voice has to fit and to get an idea of the theatre’s dimensions.
Talking of past seasons at Chichester brings up the subject of Calendar Girls, which opened at the Festival Theatre in 2008.
“We did it for a year and as I have always found when working with a group of women, I had a very good time,” recalls Hodge. “That story so belonged on the road. We’d come out of the stage door every night and there’d be crowds of women of a certain age waiting for us. We quickly learned that the show meant a lot to this audience. They kept repeating that Calendar Girls told their story – that it was them up on the stage. That tells you a lot. We’re not very good in this country at finding the complete spectrum of age, gender or ethnicity represented on stage or screen.”
Whether it’s David Suchet giving his Lady Bracknell in the West End or Michelle Terry tackling Henry V at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, there seems to be a spirit abroad that questions gender assumptions. Hodge wonders if we’re going about it in the right way.
“Of course, writers don’t sit down and declare that today they are going to write a play with roles for middle-aged women,” she says. “They write what they feel compelled to write. If male actors want to play female roles and vice versa, let them. I don’t disagree with it as an idea, as an adventure. The recent surge of women playing masculine roles is, I think, a little bit of revenge on the part of women but it doesn’t really engage me. I believe that we’ve got to respect the integrity of the character. It’s got to be gender specific.
“At the same time, we must rid ourselves of a habit we’re finding very hard to break. I heard Geena Davis talking about it on Woman’s Hour. She’s very active on the gender issue in America and she said how staggered she was by the number of scripts she’d read where there’s a scene with a policeman who is invariably male. So she’s taken to writing in the margins, asking why this character can’t be a policewoman instead.”
In more than 40 years on the stage, Hodge has inevitably witnessed numerous changes. She picks out two – one positive, the other negative.
“Because the business is now so competitive, the level of skills has been raised and it is now absolutely terrific,” she says. “I’m full of admiration for the way in which young actors dedicate themselves to improving their skills.
“On the other hand, with the disappearance of the rep system, only the drama schools are left to offer training. It was in rep that you learned about the disciplines of the theatre. You now have no blueprint – there’s no code of conduct telling you how to behave.”
CV: Patricia Hodge
Born: Cleethorpes, 1946
TV: The Naked Civil Servant (1975), Rumpole of the Bailey (1978-92), Jemima Shore Investigates (1983), The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1986), Hotel du Lac (1986), Miranda (2009-15)
Theatre: The Mitford Girls (1981), Noel and Gertie (1989), A Little Night Music (1995), Money (1999), Summerfolk (1999), His Dark Materials (2003), Calendar Girls (2008)
Awards: Olivier for best supporting actress for Money (1981)
Agent: Paul Lyon-Maris at Independent Talent
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