'I'd always done prostitutes and girls with potential,' says the droll and unsentimental Debra Gillett. But now, two-thirds of the way through a stint at the RSC, she has been playing some uncharacteristically quiet and demure parts: Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice, and the composer's daughter in Elgar's Rondo. It can't be easy being an independent-minded Nineties woman in those roles. 'Elgar's daughter never says a word,' she sighs. 'Apparently she wasn't allowed to speak at home in case it disturbed her father's concentration.' And in an updated production, like David Thacker's contemporary Merchant, the servility of female characters like Portia's 'waiting gentlewoman Nerissa, or even Shylock's daughter Jessica, becomes uncomfortably anachronistic. 'We're approaching it as Nineties women,' says Gillett, 'but we haven't got the power to really change anything. Graziano (who Nerissa marries) is such an oik] I thought it would be better if I divorced him in the last act. People used to stop me in the street and say 'why did you marry him, he's awful',' she laughs.
They may say the same of her role in The Country Wife (with Robin Soans, right), previewing now, though at least it gives her a little more meat to bite into. She plays the innocent wife of a jealously protective husband who ends up being gulled by a rake pretending to be a eunuch. Director Max Stafford-Clark has brought out the dark and misogynistic elements of Wycherley's play, rather than disguising them with what Gillett describes as the usual 'fans and fop-acting'.
'As soon as you have boys in high heels and wigs you don't relate to them as real. Even though it's not in modern dress, Max wanted to relate it to now, so that people come out saying, 'I've had conversations like that'. All the women are hard, but they're not stupid. They know what they're doing.'
All plays in repertory at the RSC (071-638 4141)