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ARTS Truly, madly, discerningly

JULIET STEVENSON is making a slow but steady progress from critical esteem to household fame. She won over West End audiences with Death and the Maiden. She won over art-house cinema audiences - and the discerning video-rental crowd - as Nina in Truly, Madly, Deeply. And she is currently wowing them in The Duchess of Malfi at London's Green-wich Theatre. But for those who don't have a clue who she is - still a large slab of the British population - the series that will put the name to the face is Channel 4's The Politician's Wife, due on our screens in May.

A Tory cabinet minister (played by Trevor Eve) cheats on his wife. Cue scandal. Sounds familiar. The spin is that Paula Milne's script deals not with the politician but the wife. How does she feel?

It's an odd choice of role for Stevenson. She says: "I really detest the Conservative party and anyone attached to it. I find it very hard to be charitable about them. So I was quite intrigued by playing someone I didn't really like. I don't like that whole background from which she comes."

Juliet Stevenson herself sounds as though she could be a good Tory. She was born in Essex in 1956. Her father, Michael Stevens (she took Stevenson as her stage name), was a Brigadier, who was awarded an MBE. She had an army childhood, moving from Australia to Malta to Germany. When she was nine she went to her first boarding school in England, Hurst Lodge in Berkshire. Sarah Ferguson was a contemporary: a rare example of two old girls getting cast as duchesses.

Stevenson went to Rada, won the Gold Bancroft medal, and joined the RSC for eight years. From there she went to the National for Trackers of Oxyrhynchus and title roles in Yerma and Hedda Gabler. She was in the West End as Mme de Tourvel in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, as John Malkovich's co-star in Burn This, and as the ex-torture victim in Death and the Maiden. Her films have been marginal rather than mainstream. She was in Drowning by Numbers by Peter Greenaway and The Secret Rapture directed by Howard Davies. She has just completed another in Canada. But despite all this, she will almost certainly become best known this year for playing the sort of person she least likes.

"I found myself quite fascinated by these Tory women because there had been so many of them, with 20-, 30-year marriages falling apart over-night, seemingly, and yet there they are the next morning, doing a photocall at the front door, or as in the case of Judith Mellor, over the garden gate - in the midst of this pain, presumably. And they do. To a woman."

In the first episode of The Politi-cian's Wife, she has surprisingly few lines. A big speech early on and it would blow the suspense. We want to know what it is that she's not saying. "It's thinking and absorbing, quite silently. And not always being clear. Trusting that you can go behind quite a lot of cloud and hopefully take the audience with you long enough to wait for you to come out. Acting is 70 to 80 per cent listening. It's an absolutely huge proportion of it. It's the hardest thing to do. Most actors want to go out there and do things to each other."

When Juliet Stevenson was at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the Eighties, she had a reputation, along with Fiona Shaw and Harriet Walter, as an outspoken feminist attacking the RSC itself and any other part of the Establishment in her sightlines. Now she can be found in the breaks from rehearsals telling stories about her seven-month old baby or juggling rehearsal times with the nanny. She's 38, and lives in north-west London with her partner, an anthropologist, and their daughter, Rosalind.

The Duchess of Malfi is Steven-son's first classical role for six years. Awards aren't everything, but when she has played classical roles in the past - Isabella in Measure for Measure or Cressida in Troilus and Cressida, for instance - she has been nominated for and won gongs. When she made her last West End appearance, as Paulina in Death and the Maiden, she had won two Best Actress awards.

Stevenson has pulling power. The box-office advance at Greenwich was £70,000, its second highest ever. Not bad for a Jacobean tragedy with no television names. (The box-office record is held, more predictably, by Patricia Routledge appearing in The Diary of a Nobody.) The press night of The Duchess of Malfi also saw Greenwich's biggest ever turn-out of national and international critics.

They watched an ill Juliet Stevenson ("I had a hacking cough and no physical power") go on, after three and a half weeks of rehearsal, feeling pretty much the way her character would end up. The result: the Evening Standard said she was "unforgettable"; the Telegraph "magnificent"; the Express "marvellous"; Irving Wardle, in this paper, wrote that she had "sensuality, fun, commanding authority, and guile". Seeing the performance for a second time, later in the week, confirmed it was going to grow. When she moves into the West End with it at the end of April, Steven- son may even allow herself a smile.

She was late when I met her and apologised profusely. She wore a silk shirt; her hair was blonde, her eyes bright blue. She doesn't have - as the euphemism goes - Hollywood looks. But she's very attractive. She's quick and energetic and her thoughts tumble out in unfinished sentences. If you'd never seen her in anything you would guess what she did for a living.

Playing the Duchess of Malfi is not part of her career plan. She doesn't have one. She's playing the part because she was asked to, by her old friend, the director Philip Franks. (He is also an actor: he played Tom Pinch in Martin Chuzzlewit). This is one of the changes in Juliet Steven- son's life. "I'm becoming - definitely have become - as interested in who I work with as what I work on. I'm always in search of collaborators. They're thin on the ground, I guess."

Robert Butler

! `The Duchess of Malfi': Greenwich Theatre, SE11, 081-858 7755, to 18 Mar; then touring, before opening in the West End at the end of April. `The Politician's Wife' is on C4 in mid-May.