A woman of substance: How Zoë Wanamaker got lucky in love and why her father Sam was her biggest critic

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The actress is returning to the West End as a betrayed wife in the black comedy Passion Play

Zoë Wanamaker is no stranger to playing sorely tried wives. Her populous gallery of women in this fix includes, at one end of the social scale, a gutturally Germanic and frizzy-wigged Princess Caroline of Brunswick whose fate – as the arranged spouse of Simon Russell Beale's future George IV (himself already secretly married) – was seen to foreshadow that of Princess Diana in Battle Royal at the National Theatre in 1999.

Wanamaker flooded the stage with the betrayed woman's comically oddball, strongly poignant presence just as, over in suburbia in Terry Johnson's Dead Funny (1994), she projected a scathingly mordant end-of-her-tether wit as a woman who discovers that it is no joke to be 41, desperate for a baby, and married to a humourless comedy buff.

Now, in David Leveaux's revival of Peter Nichols' bruisingly frank Passion Play (1981), which is running at the Duke of York's Theatre, there's a twist to the presentation of the heroine that poses a fresh technical challenge for the actress. Her character, Eleanor, is a music teacher and keen choral singer who has been equably married with children for 25 years to art restorer James (played here by Owen Teale).

When the latter embarks on an affair with a sexy young photographer, it would be case of so far, so conventional, if it weren't for the fact that the new tragicomic duplicity and dividedness within the marriage are signalled by a graphic device. James and Eleanor sprout alter egos, Jim and Nell (Oliver Cotton and Samantha Bond); this transforms the eternal triangle into a pentagon – to decidedly Cubist effect.

I meet Wanamaker at her hotel in Brighton where the production is having a pre-London run. Because of transport problems, I was 40 minutes late but she wafts away my gabbled apologies: "I used the time to have a nice, healthy jog on the beach." She was born in 1949 but looks a good decade younger. Her face (familiar to a wider public through the Harry Potter films and the BBC sitcom My Family) has been likened to that of a sad Pierrot but, offstage, the ironic twinkle, curvy grin and rascally laugh are in constant mutiny against that impression.

Earlier that week, Shakespeare's Globe had announced the opening seasons of its new indoor Jacobean-style Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, named after her visionary actor-father who, when she was three, was forced to flee his native US because of the McCarthyite witch-hunts, and later became the definitive driving force behind the Globe's re-creation. She's been known to say that he would not like the idea of a theatre in his name.

"I think it was because when he was looking for funding of the Globe, so many people said, 'Well, you can have some money, if you will name a pillar after me', and so on. And he got really tired of that." She agrees, though, that in age when it's become routine for entire venues to be rechristened on the grounds of finance (the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre, say, the great man (who died in 1993) might find the thought of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse easier to bear.

"Dad would talk to anyone in the street and take taxi drivers into the Globe site to show them what was going on." As a father and fellow-professional, "the first Method actor in this country", though, he could occasionally be "quite scary". She has said in the past that he would give her notes on her performances. I asked whether she would like to share an example and, after a little hesitation, she replied with an instance that shows how bracing and daunting it must have been to build a career under so sharp a gaze.

In 1986, she was in Wrecked Eggs, part of a David Hare double bill at the National – "very, very well directed" by the author. "Dad said, 'That's the worst performance I have ever seen you give. You are acting listening but you aren't really listening." What he'd realised is that I was trying to get Irene Worth to do what she had done in rehearsals and that I was too busy attempting to re-create that to do my job properly – which was to concentrate on what she was now giving me. It was a painful thing to hear from him." And ironic, in the long run, because as we will see in relation to Passion Play, the psychological texture she gives to art of listening onstage is one of Zoë Wanamaker's many great strengths as a theatre artist.

Our encounter takes place the lunchtime after the press opening of the new Adrian Lester/Rory Kinnear Othello at the National and she is keen to hear how it had gone. This leads to talk of her own groundbreaking portrayal of Emilia, wife of Iago, in Trevor Nunn's celebrated 1989 chamber production set during the American Civil War.

Her Emilia smoked a pipe – historically "the soldiers were given a ration of cannabis and Emilia had contrived to get some" – and she was evidently in an abusive and sex-starved marriage to Ian McKellen's buttoned-up Iago who was, revealingly, a tidiness freak ("He got tidier and tidier through the run," laughs Wanamaker). "I did a lot of research into women who are in denial about relationships that have gone terribly wrong – even the wives of convicted murderers – and who delude themselves that one day it will get better."

It's this close naturalist exploration of the hinterland that gives her characterisations their depth and density. She points out that when she played Beatrice to Simon Russell Beale's Benedick, in Nick Hytner's NT production of Much Ado About Nothing, they decided that the witty, self-protective sparring between the characters was the result of "unfinished business. So we imagined a whole back-story in which they had already had a secret physical affair that had gone wrong. Perhaps she had risked too much and one day he did a runner. Simon and I then went away and thought up other details that we deliberately tell each other" so that their versions of the past would realistically be contested and rivalrous.

Wanamaker says that she understands, from personal experience, how this line on Beatrice "encapsulates the experience of a lot of women of our own era who don't feel that they have to get hitched and yet because they are deeply romantic think that a marriage has to be perfect". She always reckoned that she would be a singleton for life – "but then I got lucky" – and, at the age of 45, she married the distinguished actor (and dramatist) Gawn Grainger.

Hytner praises Wanamaker's earthiness: "Zoë and Simon are in many ways very different as people. But they are both beer-and-cigarettes. They can do 'airy' because they are so earthy." David Leveaux, who last directed her in his 1997 Donmar Warehouse production of Sophocles' Electra (which won her an Olivier Award) wanted to constellate Passion Play around her from the outset. "I sent her the script a couple of years ago and she called me and said, 'This is going to take brutal honesty. I'm in.'" He describes her as "a complete modern" (even in classical texts) in the sense that "with her ability to pack an awful lot of melody into a very little tune", she works in short, disarmingly immediate units. And this is perfect for "Nichols' black diamond of a sex comedy".

The relationship between the characters and their alter egos is, Leveaux explains, never a simple question of official self and inner voice but shifts, richly and messily, through mentoring, collusion, antagonism et al. Because the quartet very often have overlapping, "simultaneous" conversations, this means that the characters very often have to keep their response to what has just been said to them suspended until the other couple have finished". How aware are they of the entire conversation? "Luckily, Zoë is supreme at living in the moment. Every beat of her suspended silences in those scenes is a mosaic-like piece of complex subtext." Sam Wanamaker's note about Wrecked Eggs seems to have been taken to heart.

Applauding her dark "inner clown", Leveaux says that, in her luminous emotional candour, she is, for him, "like a walking Rothko". It's an initially startling analogy that soon makes a lot of sense – even if, as Passion Play will doubtless remind us, Wanamaker's colours are rather more resistant to fading.

'Passion Play', Duke of York's, London WC2 (0844 871 7627; passionplaylondon.com) to 3 August

Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game