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INTERVIEW: RSC actor Jane Lapotaire #ArtistInRetreat

Actor Jane Lapotaire worked at the Bristol Old Vic and National Theatre in the 1960s before joining the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1974. In a video interview later this month for the RSC she talks about her incredible career that saw her bounce back after suffering a catastrophic stroke in 2000. Here the 75-year-old tells Gill Sutherland about what she’s been up to this year… but first she takes umbrage with the title of our regular feature…

Who says we’re in retreat? Dreadful word. I’m girding my loins. Never has there been such girding in the theatre.

Tell us about what you do, and how you got started.

What do I do? Well it depends on the day of the week… Tuesdays are fetch gluten free crackers day; Thursdays Sherry comes and I do the ironing.

How did I get started? I got the role of Toad in Wind in the Willows at Grammar School. But Then I got German Measles. I tried to convince my foster mother than the red spots wouldn’t show under the green make up - to no use.

Where are you spending the lockdown, and who are you with?

I’m at home with my cat. I hug him when I feel the need to feel life. He hates it. He’s not a huggy sort of cat. But he rolls on his back so I can stroke his tum if he thinks food is nearby.

How have you stayed connected with the outside world?

What’s so wonderful about the outside world in London?

I miss the hills trees and space of Warwickshire. Especially the hills- I was born in Suffolk.

I have the weekly thrill of collecting my click and collect. And it’s always too much too big and too heavy for my basket on wheels. What fool ordered all this?

Jane Lapotaire receiving the Pragnell Award in 2018 for Shakespeare's Birthday. (43490833)
Jane Lapotaire receiving the Pragnell Award in 2018 for Shakespeare's Birthday. (43490833)

Tell us about any work you have managed to do.

I’ve just recorded a contribution to a documentary film on Princess Alice of Greece and Denmark- The Duke of Edinburgh’s mother who I played in The Crown.

A magnificently brave and humane woman who gave her life for others. It was a privilege to walk in her shoes (they were 1940’s cracked Clark’s leather sandals) agony on my bunions. Brilliant designer Amy Roberts just won an Emmy for it

I was offered a role in a remake of ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’. Yes you read that right.

I didn’t do it. I have enough trouble sleeping as it is.

What – if any – are the upsides and downsides to being in lockdown?

I don’t find it hard being alone - I’m an introvert. I spend a lot of time alone anyway. My idea of hell is a party with loud music and a room full of people and not hearing a word anyone says. I’ve never been a social actor. I was a single parent and that was more than enough to be getting on with.

Do you have any cultural recommendations for keeping entertained during the isolation?

I‘m addicted to online Scrabble. Medium Level (I can beat the computer if I never let it go first).

I watch a film a day, sometimes two - the luxury! French films and classics:

Wings of Desire, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and anything by Almodovar, Bergman, Zeffirelli and Pasolini

I recommend streaming: The Crown (of course!); Unorthodox and The Queen’s Gambit.

I love writers Marilynne Robinson and Elizabeth Strout – both American novelists. I lived in America playing on Broadway and teaching Shakespeare (with the beloved John Barton) at Washington University in Saint Louis.

Music wise, I listen to acapella, choirs (I love the prelude to Parsifal), Mahler and anything by Elgar except Land of Hope and Glory.

Or I sing along with Aretha Franklin, Joan Armatrading, Streisand, The Eagles, Dire Straits, Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash, Roberta Flack (child of the 60s, moi).

When I’m realIy up against it I run to the Complete Works. I speak some out loud for comfort.

I also sew patchwork quilts; just squares I can’t do the fancy stuff it’s too much like maths. I’ve made five altogether. One of them took me 28 years to finish.

What have you missed most?

Standing on a stage. Being on a film set Going to the cinema of an afternoon.

Being in the company of actors – the only family I know. Being waited on hand and foot and being made much of until the wrap.

My 11-year-old granddaughter Lily Grace, but we WhatsApp.

Have you found out anything about yourself during these strange times?

Yay! I enjoy being idle. Lounging on my bed! Watching YouTube. I love it.

And I used to belong to the headless chicken brigade.

I’ve also developed a vengeful hatred of squirrels.

My little backyard has been a gardening solace. There are no spaces to get another pot in. I pick up fallen leaves by hand as I’m allergic to dust

I grow David Austin roses, which are total joy. I have Iceberg, Clare Austin, Lark Ascending, Lady of Shalott and Compassion.

I’ve lived in this street for 40 years- but have got to know two lots of new neighbours since lockdown who’ve both offered help.

Six-year-old Charlie and his three-year-old brother Teddy are my favourites. They always wave or come and chat by the gate which is special. And Charlie draws me pictures which I put on my fridge.

Jane Lapotaire as Gertrude with Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet, RSC, 1992. (43490835)
Jane Lapotaire as Gertrude with Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet, RSC, 1992. (43490835)

What help would you like to see being given to the arts community?

Theatre and its actors are admired and respected in Europe. And by and large they are much better funded.

The English - apart from honourable Hazlitt have always had an uneasy relationship with ‘rogues and vagabonds’.

They like us winning prizes for the country- but they wouldn’t like their daughter to marry one.

The sheer wonderment of an auditorium of hundreds being held in unified silence by the story being told on stage – it is a thrilling privilege to be part of that.

I first came to Stratford in 1974 to play Viola in Twelfth Night with the redoubtable Nicol Williamson giving his Malvolio. I couldn’t believe my luck.

Thank you for all you’ve given me, Royal Shakespeare Company. I’ve not finished with you yet.

What lesson would you hope mankind could learn from the coronavirus catastrophe?

More kindness and care wouldn’t go amiss. And more awareness of how capitalism has screwed our care for each other.

And how politicians used to be honourable committed, truthful people.

Humankind doesn’t seem to learn lessons, or we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.

The young - the poor young. I’m ashamed of what we’ve left them but have great hope for Greta [Thunberg] and others like her. The anger of the young can move mountains.

Where and when: Jane Lapotaire’s Talking Shakespeare’ interview will be available for RSC members to access live between 6-7pm on Monday 14th December. To subscribe from as little as £20, visit rsc.org.uk.

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