INTERVIEW: RSC Coriolanus actress Haydn Gwynne

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Gill Sutherland talks to Haydn Gwynne about her role playing pushy mum Volumnia in Coriolanus at the RSC

Haydn Gwynne

A brilliant comic actor, stage, film and TV performer, not to forget award-winning musical actor, Haydn Gwynne is what you might call a versatile all-rounder, if it didn’t sound incredibly patronising.

Meeting her for a chat about her role as Volumnia in Coriolanus in a functional meeting room at the RSC admin offices, you get the impression of someone who would not be happily patronised. She is relaxed and friendly but also clever and thoughtful, and not someone you would want to put dumb questions to.

But I can’t help myself. You see I was a young and eager journalist when sitcom Drop The Dead Donkey hit the nation’s telly screens in 1990 and I became a massive fan; it was set in a newsroom and I adored its satire and wit — and in particular the character of Alex Pates, the fierce and cynical assistant editor played by Haydn, then in her early 30s.

How was it being in Drop the Dead Donkey? I ask with all the editorial savviness of a five-year-old.

She kindly recalls walking around Soho when it was being filmed and getting conspiratorial nods from hacks, like she was an honourary journalist. We then reminisce about an episode or two, and we chortle over the tragic-comic figure of ill-fated media mogul Robert Maxwell, whose death in 1991 was a source of satire for the hugely popular show.

More recently Haydn has gained another cult-like appreciation for her performance as Camilla in Channel 4’s The Windsors, who she plays as dementedly jealous and controlling, and as if “played by Joan Collins in a soap opera called Balmoral”. It is sublimely brilliant.

Continuing in my rather lame line of enquiry, I ask Haydn which roles from her impressive CV has she enjoyed most.

“Everyone is different and it depends on who you are working with,” she observes. “One of the things you enjoy is doing things that are wildly different and that’s one of the fun things about the job. So two years ago I was doing Beauty and the Beast [for Disney] where I was playing a horrible old hag. I went from that to Desiree in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music in Boston [Massachusetts], and I had never thought about doing that — she does Send In The Clowns and that was surprisingly fulfilling. The summer before I did The C Word with Sheridan Smith, which is based on a real-life story. I went from that to playing a woman dressed as a man in Ripper Street… I think it’s having that stimulation of being thrown very odd and different challenges that makes your eyes sparkle.”

The last time Haydn was at the RSC was with her dancing shoes on in 2006’s musical The Merry Wives of Windsor (she subsequently picked up a Drama Desk award for her role in Billy Elliot on Broadway).

So had you thought about coming back to the RSC, or indeed had the role of Volumnia, Coriolanus’s rather pushy mum, ever crossed your mind?

“No I hadn’t actually,” she replies. “The first time I came to the RSC used to be in the days when the company all started together on the same day, eventually moving on to Newcastle and London, and staying in the same company for a year or two. But very soon afterwards I started a family and the truth of the matter is it’s very difficult to take prolonged periods away.”

Haydn has two sons, aged 17 and 19, with her partner Jason Phipps, a psychoanalyst, and it’s clear that her boys are her priority — turning down work if it means long periods away from them.

“Merry Wives worked because it was rehearsed in London, then it was over Christmas and few weeks in January,” she says. “So in a way the RSC has been off the agenda, and I haven’t given it a great deal of thought just because of the practical difficulties.”

She continues: “I hadn’t thought about Volumnia. In fact I actually met Sope [Dirisu, who is playing Coriolanus], we have a mutual friend in common and together went to see One Night in Miami, in which Sope was playing Cassius Clay last year, and meeting him afterwards I remember him telling me he was going to be Coriolanus, and I congratulated him and nothing pinged in my head at all!”

When a direct offer came to play Volumnia via director Angus Jackson, Haydn was cautious.

“I got an e-mail and I thought because of the commute, the kids and what have you, I knew it would be difficult to do, but also difficult to turn down.”

After a long chat with Angus she was on board.

“What sold it to me was a combination: Sope, Angus and Angus making it as practically possible for me to do!” says the London-based actress.

She continues: “Great roles in Shakespeare are very few and far between. I’ve done one of them, which was Elizabeth in Richard III [2011’s Sam Mendes epic Old Vic production starring Kevin Spacey]. I actually didn’t realise what a great role Volumnia is… and it’s not like I could say no as it will come round again, as it’s not performed that often.”

The relationship between Volumnia and her son Coriolanus is very psychologically complex — why do you think Shakespeare gave Coriolanus a mum rather than a dad?

“That complex relationship between Richard and the Duchess of York is seen in here in this Roman history… There are these powerful women, and it’s very interesting psychologically – whatever else is going on in the play – there’s this tension. Coriolanus is very much a creature that Volumnia has created. His father was probably a soldier who died in battle when he was young. But rather than remarry, all her energy, focus and love goes into him and she almost lives vicariously through him. If it were a different generation she would be fighting or leading Rome herself.”

She continues: “I think Shakespeare is interested in the influence of mothers on sons, like in Richard III Shakespeare is interested in how his spirit is deformed.

“Everything is pre-Freudian, but it works in terms of how we understand those relationships in the modern world.”

As a mum do you empathise with her pushiness at all? I suspect all us mum’s are guilty of willing our offspring on a little too keenly at times…

“She is a Tiger Mum — I’m definitely not but I am very involved and I have sons and only sons; and I do identify with that passion that you have for them.

“Volumnia is in a society where marshall power is seen as a prime thing and that is difficult to get one’s head around: to be a soldier, to be a killer of men is the greatest thing you can be. The First World War changed all that — the idea of conquering distant lands with the reality of what that actually meant.”

Coriolanus has been interpreted in a number of different ways over the years: during Hitler’s years in Germany it was seen as a model for dynamic leadership; while Brecht brought out the issues of class struggle. What themes are being brought to the fore in this production?

“It’s modern dress but unlike the current production of Titus Andronicus we haven’t got mobile phones – it’s a more dystopian world. Historically this was based in a world 500 years before what we think of as being the Roman Empire, at a time when city states are warring. We’re quite stripped down: we haven’t got phones, or guns and there’s not much set, so we’re right down to the words and ideas and personalities.”

She continues: “So hopefully you can put what you want on it; we are not imposing a societal reference, which is unusual in some ways. So the audience is going to decide whose side they are on: right wing, left wing, are the people justified? Maybe the right response will be to swing between. Coriolanus does say some terrible things — he’s a bully and she’s manipulative but at the same time he’s a human, so what makes that forgiveable?”

She concludes: “He’s very pure of heart as well as of purpose. So while you can condemn him for his pride and arrogance and lack of empathy perhaps you can also admire potentially someone who can only be himself — he can’t dissimilate. He says what he thinks.”

With our interview time at an end, and the recording equipment turned off, Haydn takes time to ask me about my own family. Just a mum having a chat with another mum… the next time I see her she will be a very different, slightly scarier mum. Crikey!

When and where: Coriolanus is on at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 14th October. Dido, Queen of Carthage runs until 28th October at The Swan Theatre.