To be a woman

Anna Massey has long been mistress of the Queen's English. Now she's playing the Queen herself.
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The Independent Culture
In Vanity Fair's recent show-down of the British Theatre, Anna Massey was photographed as an Edwardian nanny. Prim, pursed-lipped, buttoned- up and down. On the strength of Massey's performances over the past 41 years, you wouldn't want to leave this woman with your baby while you popped to the shops. There is rage and rancour in that restraint, poisoned passion in the prudishness. Massey has cornered the market in vicious virgins, monstrous old maids and dangerous spinsters. If there was ever a role to crown them all, it is Queen Elizabeth I, her latest part in Jeremy Sams's version of Mary Stuart, Schiller's drama in which the Protestant and papist queens confront each other in an imagined meeting.

"Do you think we are victims of our physicality?" she asks, in response to my question about why she has been typecast as a sad cardigan-wearer and never as a jolly, regular kind of mum. "Maybe I am too odd-looking... I always wanted to look like Audrey Hepburn." But Massey appears to be less a victim of her physicality than of her mesmerisingly convincing performances. In reality, she is neither Mrs Danvers nor Bambi and far, far more attractive than her roles ever require her to be. The chinlessness on stage is a mean trick of the lights. Her face is a perfect oval, her eyes large and clever behind gold-rimmed glasses, her hair an immaculate page-boy bob. Precision-dressed in a cardigan buttoned to the neck, a neat knee-length skirt and flat black loafers, she is the antithesis of actressy. She might be a librarian, at any rate the very last person you'd expect to find in a slasher movie (in Michael Powell's Peeping Tom) or with her clothes off (a film about Gwen John) or letting it all hang out in analysis (she spent 12 years on a couch). Anna Massey is a paradox, a formidable mouse.

The power is in the voice, which is ex-tra-or-din-ary. Rich, intense, astonishingly flexible in tone, at once sexy and schoolmarmy, she lets not a single vowel nor consonant slip 'twixt tongue and lip. This is Queen's English that would render Joyce Grenfell a tad sloppy. Massey hasn't a clue where it came from. "My mother was a Mancunian, my father - who I didn't meet, so it doesn't matter - was Canadian, my stepfather was an American and my nanny was Bedfordshire. I went to a diplomatic school where practically no one spoke received English. So why do I speak like I speak? God alone knows. Sometimes it's over-enunciated, but it's right for Elizabeth. She was very precise."

Massey has always felt there to be a mismatch between her bird-boned body, which is confining, and her voice, which has infinite variety. "I think my range is larger than the opportunities I've been given. I don't feel I have quite fulfilled myself in public," she says. Shakespeare barely features on her CV. "I haven't been asked to do much classical stuff," she confesses. "I think you need the Celtic voice for poetry. I can do accents, and often have, but am not very good at Shakespeare," she blurts with a rather affecting lack of confidence. "I thought I was terrible as Goneril - I was drowning. I also danced with melodrama in it. Shakespeare gives you so little to hang on to, and I found the Olivier such a difficult space - you need such guts. If you look at one part of the theatre, you feel you're in quite an intimate theatre; then you suddenly look up and you're in the biggest space you've ever been - I was at sea." It didn't show. Her Goneril was striking for the clarity of its selfish sexuality.

Massey's first role, aged 17 and fresh from her presentation at court in 1955, was in a West End production of William Douglas Home's The Reluctant Debutante. She'd had no training; it was simply assumed that she would go on the stage. The genes, after all, dictated it. Her parents were the Hollywood grandee Raymond Massey and Adrienne Allen, a West End star and dedicated socialite, though they split up when Anna was a year old, after which she was brought up by her nanny (who died when Massey was 28, having also looked after her son: "I was so traumatised my hair turned white overnight"). She rarely saw her father ("He was a fantasy figure really. He came to take me out when I was five and I was so terrified of this tall man that I locked myself in the bathroom") and was not wildly impressed by her mother's acting. "Of its genre it was fine, but not what I'd call deep acting. It was more a pastime than a vocation - she gave up in her early fifties."

Massey is reluctant to call acting her vocation, but she admits that it has a grip from which she has never been able to free herself. Had she been educated beyond O-levels, she believes, she would have chosen something other than the stage.

"I find acting incredibly difficult - it demands much more of my time than it does for some people. I'm not instinctive. It takes enormous discipline and bravery to get me there." She once shared a dressing-room with Dame Judi Dench, and recalls how one evening Judi said, "I'm so longing to go on tonight." "And I thought to myself that I've never felt like that in my life."

The first few years were particularly fraught. "I paid for that early success very dearly. I fell frankly a lot on my face. I had terrible reviews like `the disappointment of the evening'. It was a baptism of pain." Off stage, too, there were trials and errors, not least a tricky relationship with her brother Daniel (their non-speaking feud is legendary) and a very brief marriage to the old Etonian Jeremy Huggins, better known as Jeremy Brett."Actors marrying one another is not a good idea." For 27 years she remained single, working fiendishly hard and going to bed with a novel.

For 12 years she was in analysis, an experience that inevitably changed her approach to acting. "If you understand more about yourself, then your capacity for understanding the characters you're playing is enhanced. But that doesn't mean all actors should do it. I needed unblocking. I now know that I wouldn't be here if I hadn't done it - I would have been on major tranquillisers and gone through life in a veil or a mask without letting the sadnesses - or the joys - penetrate."

But the incident that changed her attitude to her work most radically was her second marriage, a transforming experience. She met Uri Andres, a Russian metallurgist, at a dinner party and married within three months in 1988. "Work now takes up a more ordinary place in my life. I don't get so terrified. If one's career comes to a grinding halt, there's life still. But I come out of mothballs very infrequently to do theatre nowadays. It's very very nice to spend evenings with my husband and to have our life together. I don't want to look in the mirror at 4pm and begin preparing myself for a role. So if I do a play now, it's something that I really really have to do."

Elizabeth was one she couldn't resist. Years ago, Massey confessed that Queen Elizabeth I was the historical figure with whom she most identified "because of her looks". But the affinity is more than superficial. "I think her attitude to her role in life was imbued with a lot of pain and she sacrificed a great deal. It cost her a lot. My work is of course so lowly compared to her extraordinary work, but I know something of the pain. She is riveting, so brilliant that she could berate the Polish ambassador in fluent Latin; she was a fantastic dancer - and she was completely hysterical. Once, when she was on her way to her chapel, she heard some disturbing news of a political event and she literally had to stop while she had her stomach massaged so that she could breathe again. She took everything in very deeply and she did sacrifice the feminine luxuries of life. She was extraordinarily highly strung. I am quite highly strung and marriage has helped. She didn't have that, poor soul."

In this role, Elizabeth's loneliness is the key. "She lived a life of solitude and yet she was never alone - she never even slept alone. I have the line `I had to strive but to be a king while she strove to be a woman.' There is terrible sexual jealousy between them." Massey has read "everything" about Elizabeth but her first task when researching for any part always concerns the physical space the character would have occupied and inhabited. "For me it is imperative to know as much as you can about the image of where a character lives. It enriches your visual sense of them. Elizabethan rooms were much smaller than you'd imagine, the furniture was very sparse. Elizabeth's sense of smell was incredibly acute and the floors of her bedroom would be strewn with herbs." Another detail Massey attempts to establish early on is her character's walk. "Celia Johnson taught me that. She was an inspiration, a really brilliant actress, a totally natural instinctive actress and she gave me some wonderful notes. She said once you've found the walk a lot of attitudes and feelings will fall into place - well, I've discovered that Elizabeth walked very fast, she was always corseted and she also wore silk stockings because they were so comfortable. Details like that make all the difference. She was a very sexy woman. Not quite as sexy as Mrs Danvers. Now, she was the sexiest woman I've ever played. Hideous, but so sexy..." and she laughs, a decidedly unspinsterly, unregal laugh.

n `Mary Stuart' previews 15 March at the Lyttelton, RNT, London SE1. Booking: 0171-928 2252