Sunday, 31 October 2010

Interview with Emily Richard

Emily Richard in a theatre in Kyoto looking at a shrine to the Shinto goddess of actors. Image by Edward Petherbridge

I often find myself in discussion with other like minded women where we acknowledge women of note and those that have a particular significance to our lives. More often than not the women we chose are those we’ve never met; they’re famous writers, thinkers, feminists, actors and singers. However I’ve been thinking recently about women in our own lives, the ones who arguably have a greater influence and significance, yet don’t always get the recognition they deserve. These are the women of note that don’t always get to tell their stories. As regular readers of this blog probably know the actor Edward Petherbridge sometimes features, his witty anecdotes and fascinating tales of the theatre make an appearance not only on his own rather excellent blog but over here too. Edward’s wife Emily Richard is also an actress, and with the help of her daughter Dora (who occasionally features here) I interviewed her on her experience of the business. What she has contributed is a fascinating insight into the life of a performer.

Emily’s career began in the late 60’s and has spanned stage, screen and radio. She has worked extensively with the RSC as well as appearing in many television productions. She also performed in Steven Spielberg’s 1987 film Empire of the Sun based on J G Ballard’s autobiographical novel about being separated from his parents during the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in December 1941. In the film Emily played Mary Graham, the mother of Jim (played by Christian Bale).

Emily has two children, can make lace and has conducted historical tours around London.

What was your time at drama school like? How did you become an actress?

‘In 1966 I went to drama school in London when I was 18 but got kicked out after a year because I was too much of a ‘rabbit’. I was told I was too timid and would never survive the business. It was very crushing. The training was awful because they used to make me do improvisations that I didn’t understand such as inappropriate things for my age and experience. I was very innocent and I just didn’t know anything. I was once humiliated in class when the principal said I was no better than a dog and should go to Battersey Dog’s Home. He made me do an improvisation all in dog noises.

Now I realise that they were trying to push me into retaliating, into saying ‘fuck off I’m not doing it!’ but I just couldn’t then. The only constructive thing to come out of my year there was that the voice teacher told me to get my voice back to my bra strap. I thought ‘how can you talk about my underwear? But I knew what he meant.’

So then in 1968 I sold programmes in West End theatres and one day I walked down the Charing Cross Road looking for an agent. I went into Smithy’s Theatrical Agency and asked for work. The agent just shook his head and looked at me as if I was mad. But he gave me some telephone numbers of children’s theatre companies. Just as I was about to leave he looked at me and said ‘your heart is going to be broken many times.’

When I got home I phoned the first telephone number and was told the company were wanting a young girl who looked a bit like a boy to play Mr Mole in Toad of Toad Hall. I said ‘but that’s me!’

I got the part, got my Equity card and toured schools round the country. Touring is hard work, I wasn’t paid very much so would often have to hitch-hike home to London. I even hitch-hiked once from Bristol to London for my sister’s wedding.’

The theatre is a place of heightened emotion, how do you sustain this night after night?

‘The theatre is my favourite medium because it is the most immediate. I’ve played a few particularly intense and tragic roles and sustaining heightened emotion every night is not difficult when the material is good, you just do. It’s never been a problem for me. In the big emotional plays you trust your fellow actors - it’s such a team thing. But everyone has their own technique; I once knew an actress who in order to prepare herself listened to sad music before she had to do a melancholy scene.

Photograph of a dress rehearsal of Three Sisters taken from the balcony of The Other Place in Stratford-Upon-Avon. The three sisters played by Emily (centre), Janet Dale (left) and Suzanne Bertish (right). Image by Edward Petherbridge.

But I do get awfully nervous. One evening doing Chekov’s Three Sisters I was standing in the wings visibly shaking and Edward, my husband, who was also in the play, came up behind me and said very sternly ‘nerves are waste of time.’ That told me then! You develop different rituals for coping with your nerves in different productions. I used to drink a glass of milk before the play to help calm me down. Also when I was doing The Secret Rapture by David Hare in Newcastle, I used to say to myself every night before going on ‘into thy hands oh lord, into thy hands.’ These were the last lines the actor Henry Irving said when he played Thomas Beckett before he died.

Does costume effect performance?

Edward as Feste and Emily as Viola in Twelfth Night. Photograph by Chris Arthur, courtesy of Edward Petherbridge.

‘To me costume is very important. Some people don’t like corsets but for me in certain roles wearing one has been invaluable because they make you stand and breathe differently. They are difficult to laugh in though; in 1971 when I was playing in Charley’s Aunt, a terribly funny play, I used to have to preserve my modesty by concealing my heaving bosom with my fan.

However on occasion I’ve had problems with costumes. When I played Lady MacDuff in Macbeth the costume designer had made me a dress with great swathes of material, and the coarse serge just swamped me and I said ‘I’m sorry, I’m not wearing that!’ Thankfully they came up with something more fitting - I was playing a Lady after all.’

You were in Empire of the Sun, which was a big budget Hollywood film and was chosen as the Royal Gala film in 1987. That must have been an amazing experience.

'There were women queuing practically around the block to audition for the part. I was pregnant at the time and held a clutch bag in front of my little bump to hide it. Spielberg and I talked a lot about China where the film was to be shot. During the interview he asked if I’d do something, and I said ‘of course, anything’. He asked me to put my hair up on my head, so I gathered my hair and held it up and instantly my face turned cherry red, it felt like a flashing beacon. After that I couldn’t get out of there fast enough and I thought, I don’t mind if I don’t get the job because at least I’ve had such a good talk with Spielberg. By the time I got home the phone was ringing, it was my agent. I’d got the part.

Filming began five weeks after I had my baby. So leaking milk all over the place, I left my children with my husband and I went to China travelling first class and drinking champagne all the way.

With Spielberg there’s no messing about because he is very precise. Rupert Frazer who played my husband and I just used to follow exactly what Spielberg told us to do. I think Spielberg liked working with British actors - they don’t constantly ask what their motivation is like many American ones!

Shanghai street scene. Image by Edward Petherbridge.

The first scene to be shot of the entire film was with Rupert, me and the young Christian Bale running through a panicking crowd in Shanghai to escape the Japanese soldiers. Spielberg had organised 5000 Chinese extras and then I also had special extras like bodyguards to protect me from the crowd. It all had to be very exact. We did the take a few times but then I tripped on Rupert’s legs and fell flat on my face. The camera man shouted ‘Cut, cut, Emily’s hurt’ I just said ‘I’m terribly sorry I think I’ve laddered my tights!’

Falling over isn’t great, but falling over in front of 5000 people is something else! I said ‘I just need a minute.’ So I sat on the kerb and Spielberg came and put his arm around me and said ‘Shall we talk about our babies?’ It was at this point that I burst into tears. I didn’t know he knew I’d had a baby. After a while, I was aware of a man pacing up and down in front of us tapping his watch, Spielberg said ‘Shall we go for it now?’ So Make-Up tidied me up and the next take we got in one.

Afterwards I went back to my Winnebago and Spielberg was the first to come round and say thank you. He was a gentleman.’

What have been your most important roles?

‘One of my favourite parts to play on radio was Tess in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I was part of the BBC Repertory Company which was wonderful fun. We recorded three plays in a week sometimes. Radio is particularly liberating because you are not cast by physical appearance; it’s all down to your voice. While accent is key to creating characters it is their words – their vocabulary – that gives them their individuality. Although the business is renowned for being greatly concerned with what you look like, I personally never felt in competition with other actresses purely on the basis of appearance. You have to know what you are, for example no one cast me as a sex symbol and I was okay with that.

In theatre definitely Viola in Twelfth Night. This was the first time I did a play in the RSC with Edward Petherbridge and Ian McKellen. It was a gift of a part because Viola goes on a real journey, has great progression and speaks the most wonderful poetry.

Chinese programme for Twelfth Night. Image by Edward Petherbridge.

Emily as Viola in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Image by Edward Petherbridge.

Irina in Three Sisters was also wonderful because Chekov created such a vivid individual who undergoes profound change as her ideals are obliterated by the harsh reality she inhabits. Also, I was one of three sisters so I particularly related to the role. We performed the show in what is now the rather smart Donmar Warehouse but at the time was literally an abandoned warehouse. I have so many amazing memories from that time, one of which was when Meryl Streep waited for the cast to come out of our communal dressing room after the show. She kissed me on the cheek, as did her mother!

Emily as Kate in Nicolas Nickleby. Image courtesy of Edward Petherbridge.

Kate Nickelby in Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s 1982 RSC production of Nicolas Nickleby – from the minute we started rehearsals I knew I wanted this part, but for six weeks the cast sat in a circle devising the show without knowing which role they were to be allocated. I thought everyone would want to play Kate, but they didn’t. As it turned out the play ended up being eight hours and forty minutes long so the audience were really immersed in the action and it all became something of a phenomenon. This production attracted movie stars and huge cultural icons. One evening Liza Minnelli even told me ‘You gotta take this show on a world tour’. Ironically that’s what we were doing, but I didn’t think it would be right to correct the great Liza. Kate Nickelby was a very personally important role that took me to Broadway.

Perhaps I wasn’t such a dog after all!’


Firstly I’d like to say a huge thank you to Emily for taking the time to answer my questions. She has provided an honest and interesting insight into her life and work as an actress at a time when theatre made more of a cultural impact than it does now.

I would also like to thank Dora Petherbridge for her help with the words and Edward Petherbridge and Kathleen Riley for their help with sourcing images for this post.

More generally I’d like to say thank you to all three for their support and encouragement for the blog.

Monday, 20 September 2010

A Manifesto for Culture? Guest post by Dora Petherbridge

Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2010, image by Dora Petherbridge

Dora works for two large cultural insitutions. She has a particular interest in theatre and after attending the Manifesto for Culture event at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival I asked her to write something for the blog. In her spare time Dora likes collecting postcards and she's also been know to make a rather good carrot cake. Some of her women of note include Virgina Woolf and Judi Dench.

Here is her response to the event:

Ruth and I went to see the promisingly titled ‘Manifesto of Culture’ event at the Book Festival. After kindly asking me to write something about the event for this blog Ruth reminded me of a French mime artist I reviewed at the Fringe, Julien Cottereau. She did so as I was getting tangled in the problematic issues raised by the talk. As I concerned myself with the government’s role in the sector and all those buzz words – engage, educate, include, inspire, collaborate – that appear in the strategic aims of cultural institutions I was doing exactly what I had been so frustrated by in the speakers. I was spending all my time recognising faults and exercising grievances to no end.

The Manifesto event needed an artist in residence, someone to take us back to the germination of creative work and to lift us above the managerial, institutional and corporate. Someone to propose a daring vision, to imagine how things could be. I don’t think the audience would have minded if the vision was unrealistic or foolishly utopian, but would have appreciated an enlivening departure from the knotty problems of finance and marketing. None of the speakers, not Fiona Hyslop Minister for Culture, Vicky Featherstone Director of the National Theatre of Scotland, or Penelope Curtis Director of Tate Britian, gave one example of an artwork, artist or group of artists they took to be important today or demonstrative of the qualities of culture.

At least we could have thought of the hundreds of street performers in Edinburgh just minutes from the Book Festival tent, beacons in the resource cutting climate reminding us that art happens on the shortest of shoestrings. These performers without venues, box-offices, producers or press attention attract intimately watchful spectators and large, appreciative crowds.

Julien Cottereau, who was also performing only a stones’ throw from where we sat would have been my choice for artist in residence. Cottereau needs nothing but his body to create numerous realities. In his hands unsuspecting audience members taken on stage are transformed into masters of comic timing. They become dashing premiere football players, glamorous models, fairy-tale ogres, and expert marksmen. Cottereau’s clowning seemed to say much about culture’s survival instinct. Clowning? Mime? Irrelevant and passé surely! Well, yes, sometimes. But when it’s really, seriously good the ‘limits’ of the genre disappear. And this artist gave everything to his performance; his simple desire to please the audience was full of heart and courage. For me Cottereau made manifest the transformative properties of art, he is a living manifesto for culture.

Seeing, reading or listening to something good does something to the mind I’m sure – bolsters it, leaves it feeling a little reckless perhaps, but stronger.

At the end of his show Cottereau interrupted the rapturous applause we were giving him, signalled for us to stop and demonstrated that he wanted us to tap the palm of one hand with the finger of our other – as we did the sound of raindrops filled the air. This simple motion done collectively invoked a summer downpour on the suddenly realised canvas above our heads.

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” Peter Brook, The Empty Space, 1968.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Breakfast back to normality

A poem from the actor who needs no introduction -

Improvised Verse On A Rainy Sunday

By Edward Petherbridge

I'm off to buy organic eggs
I'll pass through dross and doubt and dregs

This is how I spend my day
So let the rain clouds have their say

And if I can I'll make a joke

Look forward to the golden yoke

Image by Dora Petherbridge

During this year’s Edinburgh festival one of the many things that kept me going was the promise I made to myself that the first Sunday after the fringe I’d make a glorious breakfast of scrambled eggs. It’s funny how these simple things can keep you going, for after a month of eating pre-packaged sandwiches and more takeaways for dinner than I care to recount, all I craved was a decent, honest Sunday breakfast.

Image by Dora Petherbridge

Coincidentally this day falls on tonight’s close to the Edinburgh International Festival, when a beautiful fireworks display will light up the sky above the castle. Yesterday I noticed the first leaves of the trees beginning to make the change from lush green to rusty red – autumns’ not far from us now (although we are experiencing what I assume are the last summer days with unseasonably warm sunshine). All good things must come to an end though and with the change of seasons will bring the good – a new wardrobe, oh how I enjoy winter clothes, and the not so good – shorter days and darker mornings. As we bid farewell to another crop of Augusts’ festival characters Edinburgh will for a short time enter a slightly calmer phase. This is at least until the hustle and bustle starts again with the beginnings of the winter festival.

Hello to all my new readers!

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Edward has the last word ... for now ...

Image by Dora Petherbridge

So that’s it for another year. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe comes to a close. As always it’s been emotional and I’m officially festival fatigued. I had high hopes to blog more during this year’s run but alas the daily grind of reviewing and the rush of seeing many shows left me with not enough hours in the day. I will endeavour to post a few belated festival posts, as I have seen some fantastic and fabulously cultural stuff that I really want to write about. I’ve said this before but the festival really is a wonderful opportunity to remind oneself that culture is alive and well in the 21st century. Indeed it has been humbling to have had the opportunity to take part in a festival that at its core celebrates art and performance on a level playing field – from the street level up (with street performers and the like) to the theatres of the top venues. The variety of the programme itself is a reminder that talent comes in many forms.

Amnesty International art exhibition in C Venues. Image by Dora Petherbridge

In the meantime, in something which is becoming somewhat of a tradition around here, Edward Petherbridge shares these words. Given he’s something of a ‘fringe veteran’ perhaps it is fitting that he should have the last word on the festival. For now at least ...

'I very much liked the ‘Festival Food’ post. It felt like an evocative elegy for the Edinburgh Festival and I wish I could have chatted (no more) to the lady with the Chanel bag.

I remember one Festival wind up - in both senses of the phrase - it was on the last night of the 1978 Festival Fringe when my wife and I had been playing in Trevor Nunn's production of Three Sisters. We were having a drink after the fireworks in the Festival Club on George Street. Most of the cast were there, Trevor was with us and Ian (McKellen, who played Andre) - when two rain coated men came up to the table and one said, “It's midnight. The Festival's over. Finish your drinks.”

I recall an Edinburgh actress telling me she remembered a woman on a bus the day after one Festival saying complacently to her shopping companion, “Oh it's nice to have the city to ourselves again!”

Being a veteran of four Festivals, I certainly remember being on the Royal Mile and thinking - if I see one more juggler or stilt walker ... but there was the extraordinary day about 12 years ago when there was a band from Russia playing. Suddenly they struck up a Russian march I had only ever heard in the last act of our Three Sisters in that poignant off stage music as the soldiers leave the town at the end of the play.

Thank you for stirring the sediment – that is partly what blogs are for, that and topping up the drinks - not finishing them because 'the Festival is over.’

Here's a small selection of Dora's snapshots from the Fringe.

Image by Dora Petherbridge

Image by Dora Petherbridge

And finally ...

The E4 Udderbelly - a venue literally in the shape of a giant purple cow! Image by Dora Petherbridge

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Festival Food

The life of a festival reviewer can take many forms - a regular routine goes out of the window as days can start at 2.00pm and not end until 10 or 11 in the evening. Suffice to say a balanced diet can also suffer. Still, I tell myself that all the exercise I’m doing running from one venue to another is burning off the unprecedented amount of carbohydrates I’m probably consuming this month. Indeed random eating in venue bars and quintessential Edinburgh establishments are all part and parcel of being at the festival. It sits happily alongside using your fringe programme as protection from the rain and consuming all your drinks (including wine) in plastic cups.

The other night we had legendary Negociants’ nachos for dinner after a splendid evening of vintage Edinburgh festival comedy. A while ago I wrote a somewhat literary post about this place and I thought while I’m in the midst of writing a few longer festival related blog posts I’d recycle it so to speak, here. In some ways it is a bit of a continuation of the many Edinburgh insights I’ve come to write on this blog.

Image by Dora Petherbridge

Negociants’ Nachos

Flanking Bristo Square, Negociants gently nurses the art students' quarter, and by day the faint hum of the skater boys in the square are its musical accompaniment. By night the tables and chairs outside are surrounded by artsy student revellers swaddled in paisley print scarves as they usher themselves into its basement nightclub Medina, the throb of the sound system under their feet.

Although overshadowed by McEwan Hall's austerity, its faint bohemian quality still sits well with the burgh's darker Calvinistic history. At the weekend Negociants is open into the witching hour, historically the time when Auld Reekie's less savoury grave digging characters got all their best work done. Tonight, although its cold and faintly wet there's not so much as a shovel in sight. But this bar's interesting mix of clientele surely come with their own stories.

Across from our table there is a tall lady huddled over her laptop. She sips from a perspiring glass of white wine. On her knee rests a Chanel handbag curled over like a resting, gentle lap dog. The scene is almost achingly Parisian if we discount the less subtle nods Negociants' decor makes to its more southern European sisters. The wicker chairs and potted plants, the terracotta hues and chalk boards give off a Latin Tapas feel, while the eclectic mix of magazine covers, black and white photographs of models and movie stars pasted to the ceiling give the look of a funky late night New York haunt.

And it's in this mode that Negociants really comes into its own, for it lends itself well to the shabby funkiness of the last place open in town. A place where the clubbers can come down from their highs over curly fries, powdered with cayenne pepper and washed down with coffee. This is where, safe from the metropolis, the late night writers, insomniacs, the people with nowhere to go and the outsiders can congregate. They can even have fish finger sandwiches if they like.

And if you are a regular you know there's only one thing really worth ordering on the menu. Piled high, greasy and carbohydrate laden, the Nachos fly out the kitchen's hatch to the tune of the bell being tapped to summon the waitress. They are an un-showy creation, but not unlike the establishment they have a charm; the comforting finger food shared between a couple of friends over bottled beer or glasses of totally drinkable, always crisp, white wine.

Dora's fringe snapshot for the day. The colourful lampshades are so pretty.

Image by Dora Petherbridge

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Edward on the Critics

Image by Dora Petherbridge

Star ratings mean an awful lot in Edinburgh this month. It seems every performer is holding out for that elusive number of twinkly stars that will catapult them into the big time. Indeed they play on the mind of critics too. Probably for different reasons in so far as the critic only has their own opinion to go on, whereas a production has to take into consideration the writers, the performers and the crew when they open the paper and discover their labour of love has been given a pitiful write up and horror of horrors a one star rating.

At times likes like these we could all succumb to an existential crisis.

But I prefer to turn to the wisdom of Edward Petherbridge.

Here in this email he turns into something of a philosopher on the whole business ...

‘Your vivid evocation of Camille’s cabaret performance set me thinking about high praise - Time Out having thrown convention to the wind and awarded her six stars. I opened the Sunday Times Culture this last weekend and there was Steven Fry advertised as doing a one man show at The Albert Hall no less, with a quotation from a review calling him "a towering genius" (The Melbourne Age). The Albert Hall is used to towering genius: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart - but it is not often it is used as a venue for one night solo stand up comedians - or, as he is billed "The UK's consummate raconteur." I was called a genius recently, not towering I admit, but a 'genius turn' which was rather nice, almost believable, then again it was only in the West End column of a local Islington paper (but then I know what talented writers even ThreeWeeks has amongst its critics). How does The Islington Gazette compare with The Melbourne Age I wonder? I know what the critic meant by calling me a genius, but nonsense of course - I didn't change the way mankind and womankind thinks about the world, which is surely what a genius does?

But I was struck that you talked about Camille's candour and that struck me as a very rare and powerful attribute in a performer...’

And now for a few examples of the creative ways in which performers use their star ratings to their advantage when promoting their shows.

Image by Dora Petherbridge

We particularly liked this one for handing the job of 'critic' over to an audience member:

Image by Dora Petherbridge

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Tales from the Fringe: Camille O'Sullivan

The poster for Camille O'Sullivan's 'Chameleon', Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2010. Image by Dora Petherbridge.

Camille O’Sullivan is always one of the more polished acts on the fringe. Often defying publications’ rigid five star ratings with special six star status reviews she’s an alluring prospect too. She’s the Irish-French cabaret singer with the gravelly voice, who seemingly explores the multi-facets of femininity or rather womanhood, as she emotionally unravels on stage with orchestrated costume changes and cheeky banter with the crowd. However she’s no flake. Never once do you get the impression that she’s losing her audience to introspective hysteria, rather one, especially as a woman is partly mesmerised by her candour and certainly swept along for the ride.

Last year’s performance ‘The Dark Angel’ encapsulated this sense of emotional exploration particularly well with its deceptively feminine backdrop of crochet rugs and sparkly frocks adorning the stage. It is as interesting then as it is ironic that Camille favours the songs of male singers: Nick Cave and David Bowie to name a couple. And all this perhaps sets her apart from other cabaret singers, for she refuses to sing quietly and simply look beautiful and the more feminine songs she sings neither pander to romantic notions nor lost loves. Indeed her version of ‘Look Mummy No Hands’ seemed to engage with the complex relationship between mothers and daughters in a spooky pool of light amongst a crowd, many of whom were tearful women.

This year’s show ‘Chameleon’ marked a change in setting (this time there was a fairy light lit swing, mini piano and neon bunny rabbit light). Perhaps the electric pull of blue light was a tell tale sign that Camille was taking a different approach to proceedings – the songs had changed, she’d added a rocky element to her set and she, adorned in cape and sparkly black trousers banged drums under flashing lights. Indeed this was Camille engaging with the music, darting around the stage giving gutsy whistles. Given last year’s emotionally charged fare all this was somewhat of a diversion. Still she’s not the ‘Chameleon’ for nothing.

In many respects this new show appears to engage with the more masculine aspects of the music she chooses to sing. There’s a new sense of danger as recordings of dialogue from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ are piped from a stereo over the live band. And under the glow of green light, Camille’s delicate facial expressions transformed her from something of an Absinthe fairy to the Wicked Witch. Camille the cabaret singer is evolving. Yet there were still hints of the dark angel - the on stage persona that rests on a volatile trajectory spanning sultry all woman singer to clowning around geek. At one point in her set as she makes her way over to the swing she accidentally trips over her bunny rabbit light, jokily uttering ‘Oh dear cruelty to animals!’ The Celtic humour and Gallic charm seem to both fuel and allow her to get away with the randomness.

Camille O’Sullivan shows are always a hot ticket at the fringe and well worth a look if you are heading to Edinburgh. I hear that no two nights are ever the same so each new audience is in for a unique experience every night. Indeed it is fascinating to watch a multi-layered performance by a woman who is not going through the motions with her material, for one senses she feels it deeply.

Camille on stage. Image by Dora Petherbridge

The set with the bunny rabbit light. Image by Dora Petherbridge

Random Chandelier. Image by Dora Petherbridge