Theatre: Play it any way you like it except safe
Wednesday 08 October 1997
I have always believed in the right to fail - if you see a piece of work that does not work but you see that somebody has been very brave, I find that more pleasurable than playing safe.
Take my production of Ibsen's A Doll's House. Who would have thought that strapping Janet McTeer - six-foot-one-and-a-bit - could play that fluffy little bird? But Janet was so brave there was no way she could have been just "all right" in that play. She was either going to give a definitive performance - and I very rarely say that - or fail so miserably it would have been embarrassing. [As it was, McTeer won both an Olivier and a Tony award for her performance.]
The most dangerous thing I ever did was to take a huge financial risk when I left the National. Since I had no investors, I mortgaged my home to do The Three Sisters with the Redgraves. Eventually, though, we were laughing all the way to the bank.
Another time, I brought the Rustaveli Theatre Company over from Georgia just four days after the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. Each night there was a bomb threat, and we had to clear the theatre. It was some man from Stoke Newington, but he was terribly considerate because he always made the hoax at the same time. And every night two bus loads of police arrived to help evacuate the audience. On the last night, I asked if I could invite the police in for a drink with the company - something which was unheard of to the Georgians. And when the Rustaveli left, the No 2 at New Scotland Yard gave me a badge to give them. They just couldn't believe what it said - they couldn't take it home, let alone wear it. Because what the badge said was: "Help the police - beat yourself up."
It's nice to live on the edge, because there's a chance that you might go somewhere you've never been before - and neither has anybody else. It might be a very unpleasant place, and you'll want to come scurrying back as quickly as possible, but danger makes my adrenalin flow. Maybe it's because never in my life has there not been some kind of turbulence. I was a little girl during the Second World War; while I was at Rada, there was Korea; and when I started to be a thinking creature, there was Vietnam.
But I was spoilt rotten as a child: my father died when I was very small, and I think my mother over-compensated. When I went to Rada, that was the first real world I ever saw: it had not occurred to me for one second that everywhere I went they weren't thrilled to have me. I came down thinking I was 24 carat gold, and soon found out that I wasn't. I'm not 9 carat, I'm 18. I'm right to be aware of my own worth because I can immediately recognise talent in others. If you don't have any skills, you can't recognise them in anyone else.
Thelma Holt's production of Ninagawa's `Shintoku-Maru' is at the Barbican, London EC2 (0171 638 8891) from 15 to 18 Oct
Interview by Andrew G Marshall
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