Theatre: Second bite of the cherry

Sincerity, intelligence, restraint, truthfulness. Penelope Wilton has the lot, whether she's acting in Chekhov or `The Borrowers'. By David Benedict
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The Independent Culture
Robert de Niro closed down pre-production on Raging Bull for three months to scoff litres of ice-cream and plateloads of pasta to play boxer Jake La Motta. Daniel Day-Lewis not only learnt to paint with his foot for My Left Foot, but allegedly refused to come out of character on set, making the crew push him around in his wheelchair. Actors are famous for over-zealous research but making yourself homeless in order to play the lead in The Cherry Orchard is probably carrying things a little too far.

Of course, it didn't really happen like that. The notion of calm, well- mannered Penelope Wilton suddenly turning herself into an obsessive Method actor and evicting herself from her peaceful Hammersmith home in order to play distressed gentlewoman Madame Ranyevskaya is patently absurd, but she and her husband Ian Holm have sold their house and are looking for somewhere to live. Meantime, she's playing the lead in the West End transfer of Adrian Noble's RSC production of The Cherry Orchard, but there are still plenty of on-stage reminders of her forthcoming domestic predicament.

Perched comfortably in a tall armchair in her soon-to-be abandoned sitting- room, she smiles at the faint absurdity of life mirroring art. "At the opening of the play when Ranyevskaya comes home, she comes home with everything. There's more luggage in this production than in any play I've ever been in. Quite what she must have bought in Paris I've no idea. If Adrian sees a case he sort of creams himself. The arrivals and departures are major logistical problems."

Those problems should be well and truly ironed out by now. Critics champing at the bit to see this esteemed actress play the feckless Chekhovian matriarch weren't disappointed when it opened at Stratford last year. Both Wilton and the production were garlanded with praise, hence the season at London's Albery Theatre and its subsequent seven-week tour.

This is her second stab at a play often cited as the greatest of the 20th century. Twenty-six years ago, aged 23, she played Varya at the Edinburgh Lyceum. The director then was the young Richard Eyre and they've worked together many times since, not least on his 1984 film Laughterhouse, where she met Holm.

Her career has straddled theatre, film and TV - she stole the screen version of David Hare's The Secret Rapture as the supposedly unsympathetic Tory MP, and she and Holm are known to millions of children and parents as the beautifully characterised, pint-sized parents in the BBC's The Borrowers - but one of the most telling facts in her extensive CV is her becoming lack of promiscuity when choosing directors. Names like Eyre, Jonathan Miller, Peter Gill and Harold Pinter crop up again and again.

It's a reflection of the esteem in which she is held by the directing fraternity - oddly, none of the major women directors have worked with her yet - but also her feelings about directing.

She has worked with Miller on numerous occasions and admires him for his truthful readings of texts. "He gets to the nub of things," she says, simply. That, of course, is what she herself is famous for. Cast Wilton and you can guarantee a truthfulness and dedication to text that leaves other more showy actors standing.

She is not a "personality" actor bringing a known identity to whatever play she is cast in. "I wish I was Maggie Smith," she confides, as if slightly shocked by the admission. "She's someone I admire enormously. She has a particular quality. Some actors develop a style very early on. Judi Dench always had that lovely cracked voice. I don't have anything like that."

What Wilton does have is startling sincerity. Her very English manner betokens cool, intelligent restraint, but emotion sits openly on her long face, her huge, dark brown eyes registering every subtle shift of passion and perception. That accounts for her skill in comedy where she plays dramatic truth rather than going for humour. At the other end of the scale, her heartwrenchingly deluded Hester, who leaves her husband for the impossible love of a floundering RAF pilot in Rattigan's tragic The Deep Blue Sea, won her the Critics Circle award.

Not everything she touches turns to gold. Even hard work by Wilton, Jill Baker and Gwen Taylor couldn't rescue Carla Lane's ghastly Screaming. Her private life, too, crashed with her mother's death from cancer, the death of a son born prematurely and the collapse of her marriage to Daniel Massey. "Everything seemed to go wrong. I didn't believe I'd ever come out from under it," she says, bleakly, "but then, eventually, I did."

With a string of recent successes, including Vita and Virginia and the Dublin Festival production of Pinter's Landscape, her career is doing very nicely, thank you, but what would she do if the work suddenly dried up? "Maybe I'd open an art gallery." Any wariness at being interviewed vanishes as she shows me the carefully chosen paintings she owns, including several Mary Newcombes, a Patrick Proctor and even a tiny Boudin, her pride and joy. "I'm the one who likes the paintings. Ian buys them," she laughs, "a very good arrangement."

She picks roles with similar care. "The more difficult I think something is going to be, the more likely I am to have a go at it. I don't know why that is." Faced with the choice of lucrative television work or Laurence Boswell's recent revival of Long Day's Journey Into Night, she plumped for the latter. "I just had to have a go, even though I was a bit young for Mary. It was a stupid thing to do really: four weeks' rehearsal for a play that goes on forever." For her, the challenge is everything. "I really like doing things that give me a bit of a fright." She bursts into loud, throaty laughter, at odds with her seductively low voice. Sobering up, she admits to a need for safety, placing trust in her directors. "If you're good at taking direction, which I think I am, then you go with the director. You have to be very, very open as an actor. That's why it's so dangerous in a way. No more dangerous than mending the road, but you are exposing yourself."

She traces that willingness to expose herself to her training at the Drama Centre but also to a growing self-confidence. "I wasn't self-confident for a very long time. I was never a pretty young thing so I felt I had to be more interesting. Also, when I was younger I had a very light voice. It has got better as I've got older."

"I came to realise that it didn't matter any more," she sighs. "I used to worry so much about pleasing people, like actors do... being everything to everybody, and I don't mind about that now. I shall be 50 next year and I don't mean this in a vain way at all, but you just think there must be something I've got." She looks at me hopefully. "I think actors have a time. Maybe I'm coming into mine"

`The Cherry Orchard' is at the Albery Theatre, London WC2. To 25 Jan 1997, then on tour. Booking: 0171-369 1730

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