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Haydn Gwynne: ‘People say tragedy is tough – but try doing Billy Elliot twice a day’

Haydn Gwynne in rehearsal for Hedda Tesman. Photo: Johan Persson

For more than 30 years, Haydn Gwynne’s stage and screen work has ranged from Shakespeare and Billy Elliot to Drop the Dead Donkey and Merseybeat. As she prepares to take on Hedda in Cordelia Lynn’s update of Ibsen, she tells Liz Hoggard about maintaining her career and laments the lack of older women characters


Haydn Gwynne marvels that in her long theatre career, “unbelievably”, she’s only been directed by a woman twice – and both times, almost three decades apart, she played the
same character.

The 61-year-old actor’s second experience with a female director is for Hedda Tesman, which opens this week at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre before heading to the Lowry in Salford. This contemporary reworking of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler by Cordelia Lynn is directed by Holly Race Roughan, associate artistic director at Headlong.

She is a wonderful director, Gwynne says. “It’s quite collaborative and democratic but she runs the room. When we were doing the table work she checked in with everybody every day to see how we were doing. That way, you end up sharing stuff, which helps build intimacy and gives you permission to talk about any worries.”

Hedda Tesman is set in 2019 where Hedda, now in her early 60s, has been married for 30 years and has an estranged daughter. Gwynne loves the fact that a young, female team is putting on a play about a middle-aged woman. Race Roughan and Lynn, who adapted Chekhov’s Three Sisters for the Almeida earlier this year, may only be in their 20s but they’re a crack team, Gwynne says. “They met at university and are very engaged politically and with feminism, so they’re interested in what happens to women throughout all stages of their lives.”

The actor continues: “The stage management is an all-female team; our designer and composer are women. It’s a very female-centric space. And when there are more women involved, it is more equal.” It certainly feels significant in the rehearsal room, she says. “I think the male actors like it, but they say: ‘My God, it’s so different.’ ”

Because it’s a new play with rewrites, Gwynne wasn’t able to learn the script ahead of time. “I was getting very tired doing long hours, getting home at 7.30pm and then trying to learn the lines, and I thought: ‘I can’t maintain this.’ And I felt free to say: ‘I need to stop rehearsing at such and such a time, even if I stay in the room.’ I think with another director I’d have just sucked it up, but Holly totally wants to know what’s going to work for everybody. There’s a lot of trust in the room.”

On stage Gwynne is best known for playing dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson in Billy Elliot the Musical in the West End and on Broadway, where she was nominated for a Tony, and Margaret Thatcher in The Audience opposite Helen Mirren as the Queen in 2013. She was Queen Elizabeth to Kevin Spacey’s Richard III in Sam Mendes’ Bridge Project at the Old Vic in 2011 and more recently played Volumnia in Coriolanus at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Lady Wishfort in William Congreve’s The Way of the World at the Donmar Warehouse.

TV fans will remember her role as icy news editor Alex in 1990s newsroom satire Drop the Dead Donkey and she’s currently filming a new series of royal spoof The Windsors, in which she is a hilariously scheming Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall – “I play her as if she were Joan Collins in a soap opera called Balmoral.”

Continues…

Holly Race Roughan, Haydn Gwynne and Anthony Calf in rehearsal for Hedda Tesman. Photo: Johan Persson

Q&A Haydn Gwynne

What was your first non-theatre job?
Toilet cleaner at the John Player factory in Nottingham. Actually, I worked a week on toilets and a week on tea bars.

What was your first professional theatre job?
Alan Ayckbourn offered me a role in His Monkey Wife in Scarborough. It wasn’t one of his plays – he was directing it.

What is your next job?
Series three of The Windsors.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To learn or start a concurrent money-earning skill or business. Even as a busy working actor, it is increasingly hard to earn a living on which to raise a family.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
My father.

What’s your best advice for auditions?
Just be as prepared as you can, and then let it go. And understand it’s out of your hands.

If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
I was offered a job that would have taken me down a business route in Italy. And also a job with a university contemporary who was doing something with music – he did quite well, I should have gone with him… I’m quite a people person. I think I’d be a good number two in a business environment.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Not really, but I do like doing the physical and vocal warm-up before a musical, when the whole company gets together in the same space before the show. I miss it in straight theatre.


Playing Hedda again

But theatre is Gwynne’s first love. And she is relishing taking on the plum role of Hedda Tesman – Tesman was Hedda Gabler’s maiden name in Ibsen’s 19th-century classic. “Critics call it the female Hamlet,” the actor says of the original’s protagonist.

The Stage’s review of Hedda Gabler at Bolton Octagon in 1990

Gwynne has played Hedda before, at Bolton Octagon in 1990. “Coincidentally that was the first time I had a female director, a lovely woman [Romy Baskerville] who normally worked as an actress.”

Ibsen’s play opens with Hedda just back from honeymoon, already bored by her new husband. But in Lynn’s adaptation, Hedda is a deeply discontented middle-aged woman in a ‘self-imposed prison’. She and her husband George, an academic, have returned to the UK after years in the US. George thinks he’s bought his wife her dream house, but Hedda is slowly suffocating. “She’s made the wrong choices, or perhaps not even made choices, but found herself on the wrong track,” Gwynne says. “In our version, her father died, she married a man she shouldn’t have married, got pregnant, stopped her PhD and now has a dysfunctional relationship with her child.”

Hedda needs to be older in Lynn’s version, she continues: ‘If Hedda was a 29-year-old woman in 2019, you’d have thought: ‘Get a job, you lazy cow.’ Because, as appalling as Hedda’s behaviour is in 1890, which is not to excuse the terrible things she does, Ibsen is interested in the position of women in society, the pressure of a woman of her class to get married, and the entrapment of what she can and can’t do. But set it now and you think: ‘What is your problem? Or maybe you’ve got significant mental health issues and narcissistic personality disorder?’ ”

She pauses, then adds: “Well, Hedda may well have mental health issues. You could say most of the characters in this play have a personality disorder.”

Gwynne raves about the quality of Lynn’s writing and the way she has tracked Ibsen’s text closely – rather than simply offering her own free take. “Linguistically, she’s very precise.”

‘If Hedda was a 29-year-old woman in 2019, you’d have thought: ‘Get a job, you lazy cow.’ Ibsen is interested in the position of women in society in 1890’

The play is dark but also very funny. “Depending how you play it, I think there’s quite a lot of dark humour in Ibsen. So I think the Cordelia/Ibsen marriage works quite well,” she laughs before adding: “If I dare use such a patriarchal phrase.”

Hedda is very competitive with other women. In Lynn’s version, it’s Hedda’s daughter, Thea, rather than her old schoolfriend, who becomes her rival. Thea has been brave enough to leave her marriage to an older man, unlike her mother. And now she’s helped academic and reformed alcoholic Elijah to write an acclaimed book. But she doesn’t realise he was once her mother’s collaborator and admirer. Inevitably Hedda needs to reassert her power.

“I don’t have daughters, I have sons, so I haven’t experienced that sense of being replaced, that unhealthy rivalry that I imagine could happen in mother-daughter relationships,” says Gwynne. “My mother was much older than me so I have no experience of that complicated friction.”

The adaptation is very good on parenting, the actor says. “You blink and 25 years later, what happened? I think a large percentage of the audience will relate to that. You’re so busy in the thick of it, hanging on by your fingernails, and then suddenly, as Hedda says: ‘Your future is behind you.’ ”

Part of the challenge of playing the role, she says, is working out Hedda’s motivation. She doesn’t seem to be driven by sex or love, though she wants to manipulate others.

“Hamlet tells you everything he’s thinking and feeling, whereas Hedda hides so much. There’s this deep undercurrent going on, but I can’t make that too explicit.” She thinks the play is about “psychological inheritance and the trickle-down of trauma that we’re destined to repeat if we don’t reject it”.

Choosing a theatre career

Growing up in West Sussex, Gwynne loved acting. She took part in amateur dramatics at school and took a revue to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe while studying sociology at the University of Nottingham.

But she never went to drama school. “I was a bit of a jack of all trades, good academically, sporty, quite musical. I should have been a boy and gone to public school and had a marvellous time thwacking the cricket ball. I adored my parents, but neither of them, in their own way, had been parented at all and there wasn’t a great deal of guidance.”

After graduating she moved to Rome for five years, teaching English as a foreign language and then lecturing in the languages department at Rome University. Then, aged 25, she realised her “shameful secret” was holding her back. She returned to London and told her parents she wanted to train as an actor. She fired off letters to drama schools and for acting jobs, but all were turned down.

Eventually, she was offered a part in His Monkey Wife, a play with songs that Alan Ayckbourn was directing at his theatre in Scarborough. “It was a lovely way to start,” Gwynne says.

She took a role in musical flop Ziegfeld – “the multimillion-pound catastrophe” – in the West End in 1988. “I swore I’d never do another musical ever again but I learned a lot,” she says.

It paid for a trip to the US. Then she came back to audition for the TV dramatisation of the David Lodge campus novel Nice Work in 1989. She played a young feminist academic who becomes entangled with an older lecturer played by Warren Clarke. Nice Work attracted headlines for its groundbreaking sex scenes – Gwynne’s character, Dr Robyn Penrose, introduced BBC viewers to the concept of non-penetrative sex. Gwynne jokes that it put her off playing love scenes for a long time.

‘You get away with murder in a play – I’ve performed with laryngitis’

The following year, she joined Drop the Dead Donkey – and was nominated for a BAFTA – but quit after two series: “I was so eager to try new things.” She would never have left a returning series once she had kids, she says now. “I would have been begging them to let me stay. I didn’t realise how surprising it was to leave. Because I hadn’t been to drama school, I didn’t have an actor’s head.”

Despite her previous oath, Gwynne returned to musical theatre in the West End in 1994. City of Angels, directed by Michael Blakemore, was a much happier experience than Ziegfeld and she was nominated for an Olivier – the first of four nominations, which also included nods for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in 2015 and The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre two years later.

The Threepenny Opera review at the Olivier, National Theatre – ‘beautifully illuminated’

Her late 30s and 40s were spent in television roles in Merseybeat and Peak Practice, which paid the bills when she was bringing up her young sons and her partner was retraining as a psychotherapist. In 2005, she had a small role in TV series Rome, playing Calpurnia, the wife of Julius Caesar – giving her a chance to return to the city she had lived in, and where she had learned Italian all those years before. “It was lovely going back to film there 20 years later,” she says. “I finally got the chance to bring my acting professional life to Rome.”

Billy Elliot was her triumphant return to the stage in 2009. She had to learn to tap-dance and skip at the same time, and spent much of the production in skintight 1980s dance gear. “When you’re doing Shakespearean tragedy, people are very sympathetic. They go: ‘Oh God, how do you do that twice a day?’ And I want to say: ‘Try doing fucking Billy Elliot twice a day.’ People think you must be having such fun because it’s a musical but it’s so physically demanding. You get away with murder in a play – I’ve performed with laryngitis. But with dancing or singing, if you perform with laryngitis, you’re off for two weeks not two days. So you’re constantly worrying about the stress of keeping yourself on stage, and being fit enough to do the show.”

Juggling a career with childcare

Gwynne went to Broadway when Billy Elliot transferred there. “Our children were young enough to transport, we put them in school there. I’m very glad I did it. We had an extraordinary time but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” The Sunday performances in New York are particularly tough on parents, she says.

To her sadness she had to turn down The Audience on Broadway four years later because her boys were older. “I’d have loved to do it, not least because it was much less hard work. Helen Mirren was doing the heavy lifting. I just had 20 minutes on stage. No singing, so yes, I could have a drink after the show. But there was no way I could bog off to New York for six months.”

She talks warmly about motherhood, but says an actor’s career does go on hold. “You can’t be a film actor without travelling. We know we can’t have it all and there are sacrifices to be made. And I’ve never thought if you don’t have children, your life is not fulfilled. I’m very glad I had my children. But there’s a sense that as a mother you never bring 100% of yourself into a room. You do your absolute best but there’s always a bit of your brain that’s worrying and managing.”

And performing means “you live a photo-negative life”, she sighs. Everyone is coming home from work just as you’re going to work. “Friday night is particularly grim. They’re all like ‘TFI Friday’ and you have a minimum of three shows over the weekend.”

But now she’s an empty nester – her second son is off to university and she’s single after a long partnership – she can take more risks “because of this new transitional moment in my life”.

Last year, she took the role of the ageing, man-mad Lady Wishfort in The Way of the World just days before rehearsals began, after Linda Bassett dropped out for personal reasons. She found it terrifying but thrilling. In the early 1990s, she had played the young heiress Millamant in a production of the same play at the Royal Theatre, Northampton. Has she found it hard to let go of vanity over a long career?

“It didn’t seem so hard because the role of Lady Wishfort is so glorious. Funnily enough I was walking past the Donmar one night and saw the ‘coming soon’ billboard for The Way of the World. I went ‘ooh’ and in the same moment thought: ‘I wonder if I’m old enough to play Lady Wishfort?’ Then I quickly went: ‘Oh yes, I am.’ But obviously it had already been cast. When the Donmar called later on, my first instinct was to do it.”

The Way of the World review at Donmar Warehouse, London – ‘a slick, handsome production’

There is a modesty to Gwynne – she jokes she is “a BAFTA, Tony, and four-time Olivier nominee loser” – and she thinks vanity matters more when you’re younger. “When you’re still trying to hang on and they still want you for a bit of glamour. So it’s almost a relief that the agent isn’t ringing with doubt in their voice, going: ‘Well, darling, she is meant to be drop-dead gorgeous, so do your best.’ And you think: ‘What am I supposed to do? Plastic surgery before 10am?’ ”

Actors in their 60s tend not to be asked to do anything very interesting or challenging, she says candidly, “because they’re not interested in a woman of that age unless she’s the mother or grandmother”. But actually she’s had “three stonking, wonderful theatre roles in a row for older women, of which there are not enough”: Volumnia at the RSC, Lady Wishfort and now Hedda Tesman. “It’s like buses,” she laughs. “You wait years and then they all come along at once.”


CV Haydn Gwynne

Born: 1957, Shoreham-by-Sea
Training: Sociology degree, University of Nottingham
Landmark productions:
Theatre:
• City of Angels, West End (1994)
• A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Peer Gynt, Royal Shakespeare Company (1995)
• The Memory of Water, Hampstead Theatre (1996)
• Billy Elliot the Musical, West End and Broadway (2009)
• Richard III, Old Vic, London (2011); Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York (2012)
• Becky Shaw, Almeida (2011)
• The Audience, West End (2013)
• Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, West End (2015)
• The Threepenny Opera, National Theatre (2016)
• Coriolanus, RSC (2017)
• The Way of the World, Donmar Warehouse (2018)
TV:
• Nice Work (1989)
• Drop the Dead Donkey (1990)
• Peak Practice (1998)
• Merseybeat (2001)
• The Secret, BBC (2002)
• Rome (2005)
• The Windsors (2016 to present)
Film:
• Hunky Dory (2011)
• Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Awards:
• Royal Television Society awards for best actress for Merseybeat (2002 and 2003) and Dalziel and Pascoe (2005)
• Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk and Theatre World awards for Billy Elliot (2009)
• WhatsOnStage award for best supporting actress in a play for The Audience (2013)
Agent: Markham, Froggatt and Irwin


Hedda Tesman runs at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until September 28, and then at the Lowry, Salford from October 3-19

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