(Donald Clarke’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 8/21. Photo: Juliet Stevenson: ‘The union was a big part of our lives. It seems absurd for a bunch of actors to be talking about the revolution. But we did that then.’)
She comes to Galway next month (kind of) in an adaptation of José Saramago’s Blindness
Juliet Stevenson has been a force in British acting for more than four decades. She landed at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in the late 1970s and, after a short period of spear carrying, triumphed as Isabella in Measure for Measure, Rosalind in As You Like It and Madame de Tourvel in the company’s legendary production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. She was scientist Rosalind Franklin in the BBC’s terrific Life Story from 1987. We could go on.
For a brief moment there was, however, a possibility that she could have become something else. Anthony Minghella’s Truly, Madly Deeply, in which she played a cellist communing supernaturally with her late husband, was a critical and financial hit in 1990.
“My agent said: ‘you have got to go to Hollywood’,” she says. “ ‘Go for the big stuff.’ I absolutely couldn’t manage that. I just didn’t feel that was my element at all. I thought: ‘I just can’t do this sh*t – schmoozing, swimming pools, wandering into casting directors’ offices? It is not my thing’.”
Rodeo Drive’s loss was Shaftesbury Avenue’s gain. She continued to boss the West End. She is immovable from high-end television. And now she is available to light up the Galway International Arts Festival in Simon Stephens’s adaptation of José Saramago’s novel Blindness. Or is she? Premiered last August in London’s Donmar Warehouse, the show, a timely tale of a pandemic, makes use of the actor’s recorded voice. The audience sit in spookily lit, isolated positions and listen as an unseen Stevenson, preserved in a binaural sound, drifts around them.
“No, I won’t be there,” she says. “I would give my eye teeth to be in Galway. I love it – one of my favourite places on earth, but no. I’m not saying this because I’m selling the show to you, but, when I went to it, I thought: ‘well, this is not going to be very immersive’. But lots of my mates said to me: ‘I honestly thought you were at the show because you knew I was coming today – that you decided to do it live.’ They felt that.”
Recorded on complex microphones shaped to emulate the human head, the sound replicates the experience of a source moving left, right, above and below. But does this still counts as live theatre. Stevens, the hugely prolific theatre maker best known for his adaptation of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, has thought deeply about this.
But the assembling of strangers in one place for a shared experience is also a vital part
“I think it’s a fair question,” he says. “You know there was a time when we used semantics to suggest the opposite. Ha ha! When it was really clear that no piece of live theatre was legal in London. ‘It’s not theatre!’ It raises quite interesting philosophical questions. The form is predicated on two elements. One of the elements I think is inarguably missing: the live presence of a performer. I think it would be disingenuous to lie about that. But the assembling of strangers in one place for a shared experience is also a vital part.”
It must have been strange attending the show last summer. The uncertainty and unease were that bit greater than they are today.
“Sitting in the space with people I’d never met before, experiencing this piece together was as theatrical an experience as I’ve ever had,” he says. “In that sense I would strongly argue that there’s much which is very theatrical about this.”
Saramago’s 1995 novel concerns a city afflicted by an inexplicable epidemic of blindness. Stevenson’s character is spared and is thus able to talk us through the near-total breakdown of society. Noting that this is a “testimony of a survivor”, Stephens argues we are dealing with an optimistic text. Really? There are some grim messages here. At any rate, it feels like the ideal project for the pandemic years. And yet . . .