INTERVIEW: Alexandra Gilbreath
Gill Sutherland talks to Alexandra Gilbreath, currently courtesan Angellica in the RSC’s The Rover, about smashing glass ceilings and trumping Trump.
There are just the two of us, Alex Gilbreath and myself, in a cosy office in the RSC’s Chapel Lane offices, where we meet to chat about the actress’ new play The Rover, but we are joined by a shadowy third. The spirit of Aphra Behn — born in 1640, writer of The Rover (1677), poet, translator and lady spy — is palpably in the room.
“She was a real lifeforce, an extraordinary woman who lived by her wits,” enthuses Alex of Behn. “She smashed her glass ceiling; pushing boundaries that no woman had EVER pushed in her lifetime. She was phenomenally successful in her day and lived a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. To quote our director Loveday Ingram, she was a rake. Yet while we celebrate male playwrights of the time, Dryden and Wycherley for example, she is largely forgotten, which is incredible.”
Indeed Virginia Woolf thought Behn such a trailblazer that she suggested that all women should seek out her burial plot in Westminster Abbey and “let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds”.
There is no need for Alex to troop, bouquet in hand, to visit Behn’s resting place, however, as this brilliant production is worthy homage enough. There are ten male and ten female actors in the play, a female director and a female stage management crew.
“We are profoundly egalitarian,” smiles Alex. Does she think Behn has been forgotten because of her gender? “She’s been diminished. Is that because she’s a woman?” considers Alex. “Is that too easy to suggest? I’m sure there are other people of society — be they men or women — who have pushed the boundaries and that history has forgotten. But we are now ringing the Aphra Behn bell!”
The Rover tells the story of three wandering Cavaliers on a jolly in a foreign land during carnival. Willmore is the roguish rover of the title, played by Joseph Millson, who dallies with Alex’s smouldering courtesan Angellica, whose company can be bought for a thousand crowns, about £80,000 in today’s money. Alex is at her exquisite best as Angellica. Her throaty, come-to-bed-voice, sophisticated good looks and open-heartedness lend the lady of the night charisma and depth in perfect measure. Anyone who saw her the last time she was at the RSC, as Mrs Ford in the hilarious The Merry Wives of Windsor in 2012, will know that she gives delightfully good saucepot. Joseph Millson plays the wild rover with stupendous wit and verve: he is — and I say this without hyperbole — a veritable sex god. Alex agrees.
“He’s absolutely gorgeous,” she laughs. “He’s really is. It feels like Aphra Behn’s been waiting 300 years for him. Joe has such charm and panache; he has the exceptional quality of being able play a character who is incredibly charming and quite dangerous, and yet the audience are his, they are with him — he’s all things to all people. He is perfect, although I’m sure his wife would disagree!
“But yes, he’s just glorious. I think he would make a wonderful Cyrano de Bergerac. There is that inner joy… we are having such fun!”
The production is laugh-out-loud funny, and sizzles with live salsa music and tons of passion. It is a proper romp, but has it got more to it than that?
“Aphra wrote wonderful roles for women. Hellena and Florinda are feisty sisters who are at the carnival; 24 hours later one is going to be carted off to a nunnery and the other one will be married off. She looks at the obsession with marriage, and how women are tamed.
“However there are a handful of scenes where there is an intense level of violence against women, including attempted rape, which is challenging for us and for a modern audience,” continues Alex. “She obviously wrote a joyful comedy, but what’s with the violence? It would be my first question if Aphra was here. I like to think she’s making a point.”
Digressing from feminist dilemmas, I ask Alex what made her want to be an actress.
“My father, Bob Gilbreath, was manager of comedy and light entertainment at the BBC and from age four me and my two older sisters would be taken into the studio to watch the shows being recorded every week. So I grew up during a golden era of television: The Good Life, Bread…”
Were there any shows that resonated in particular? “Those wonderful Carla Lane sitcoms with strong female leads, like Wendy Craig in Butterflies. It sowed a seed.”
Now, 47, and a mother of two, Alex has herself experienced something of the Butterflies effect — an older woman who is at risk of being put out to pasture.
“It’s weird, you hit 45 and everything suddenly changes. I’d been working consistently, building up a body of work, then overnight the offers stop. It’s brutal.”
Trying to convey the full horror, Alex tells me about wanting the part of Portia in a production of The Merchant of Venice. She asked her agent to make enquiries, and while the director said they were flexible they could do “old, but not that old”! Alex shivers with affront at the precisely remembered putdown.
She continues: “That’s why it’s so exciting to be cast as a famous courtesan. Although I have thought ‘what am I doing?!’ when I’m standing there in my costume — which consists of a bra and pants, and I’m nearly 50 and have had two children. But if I believe it then it’s fine.”
You’re channelling the spirit of Aphra Behn!
“That is exactly what I’m doing! I wish that she was here. I would love to spend an evening with her — just to see her; she is so unique and fierce.”
As we chat about age, motherhood and gender issues, the subject of Hillary Clinton comes up; perhaps because Alex’s American husband is living with the nightmarish prospect of Donald Trump ruling his homeland. We imagine what it would be like if both Aphra and Hillary were sat around the table with us now.
“They would have celebrated each other’s unrelenting force,” decides Alex enthusiastically. “They both endeavoured to achieve, they shouldn’t be judged because of their gender; they are both exemplary human beings.”
And we’ll salsa dance to that sentiment.
The Rover runs until 11th February 2017. Book tickets online at www.rsc.org.uk