Off-stage affairs that heighten the drama

When an actor's role in a play mirrors a troubled private life, there is an added enjoyment for audiences, says Michael Coveney

Always in theatre, the vicarious thrill of seeing folly exposed and passion sated comes with the territory and the price of a ticket. Sometimes that pleasure is illicitly enhanced when an actor is caught in a web of intrigue that relates directly to his or her own personal experience. No one watching Imogen Stubbs embroiled in the matrimonial meltdown of Ibsen's Little Eyolf at the little Jermyn Street Theatre in London will fail to make some obvious connections.

Stubbs's character, Rita Allmers, is lamenting the disintegration of a 10-year marriage to an obsessive workaholic at the very moment Stubbs's own marriage to non-stop theatrical director Trevor Nunn has hit the headlines. Stubbs says she is involved in another "long-term" relationship, while Nunn's friendship with high-profile lawyer Nancy Dell'Olio, the former partner of football manager Sven-Göran Eriksson, has been ratified as a going concern.

Interestingly, the situation seems to have been resolved with common sense and maturity on all sides, just as it is in the Ibsen play, with Rita finding redemptive marital salvation in the aftermath of tragedy. Stubbs and Nunn are still living under the same roof, and continue to share the upbringing of their two (fairly grown-up) children.

But maybe the blueprint of the Ibsen drama is the latest in a series of shadow plays to modern marriage. In 1998, Sir Trevor directed Imogen Stubbs at the National Theatre in Harold Pinter's Betrayal, a play we now know to have been prompted by Pinter's own offstage affair with broadcaster Joan Bakewell, then the wife of his own good friend, the television producer Michael Bakewell.

And just three years ago, Nunn again directed Stubbs, at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, in Ingmar Bergman's lacerating Scenes from a Marriage, originally a television series (then a film) based on Bergman's consuming love affair with the actress Liv Ullmann. In marriage, says the husband, you lose everything except weight: "I still love you, but I'm sick to death of you."

As one critic said at the time, one begins to wonder what the breakfast-time conversation was like in the Nunn household. Not dissimilar, perhaps, to that between Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens, 40 years ago, when they made a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage by playing the fractious couple in Noël Coward's Private Lives: "Two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle."

One of the side issues in that failed marriage was Stephens's affair with Lady Antonia Fraser, who was wrongly thought to be the "Joan Bakewell character" of Pinter's play when it was first produced in 1978. She did, of course, supplant the actress Vivien Merchant in Pinter's private and (as an inspirational muse) professional life. And, right on cue, Betrayal returns to the West End stage this month starring Kristin Scott Thomas, who divorced her French gynaecologist husband six years ago after rumours of an affair with a British actor...

All drama reflects what happens: it wouldn't be drama if it didn't. Hamlet is only defined by the actor who inhabits him. Maybe this is truer of all characters than we think. When, for instance, Will Knightley plays Sorin in an adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston next month, will we think of him as the brother of a famous actress, Arkadina, in the play, or as the father of Keira?

Perhaps the best "fit" of all is the casting of ex-EastEnders star and Strictly Come Dancing champion Kara Tointon as Eliza Doolittle in Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion at the Garrick Theatre this week. She ticks every box: she's cockney (well, from Southend in Essex), cheeky, aspirational and quick on the uptake. And, most importantly of all, she fell in love with her last "Professor Higgins," her Russian dance partner Artem Chigvintsev. I look forward to reading about her torrid offstage affair with his Shavian doppelgänger, Rupert Everett, even if it never happens.