Interview: Zoe Wanamaker

Posted: Mon May 9 2011

Zoe Wanamaker shares her notes on Chekhov's 'Cherry Orchard' and 'Actors I Have Met and Liked'.

Zoe Wanamaker zooms in for a quick interview between rehearsals for 'The Cherry Orchard'. During her lunch break from fin-de-siécle Russia, we verbally visit nineteenth-century Paris (the impressionists), 1920s America (Wanamaker starred in an adaptation of the play 'His Girl Friday', also at the National, in 2003) and the Soviet Union that Chekhov, who died six months after 'The Cherry Orchard's premiere in 1904, didn't live to see.

It's aptly freewheeling. 'The Cherry Orchard', whose heroine Ranevskaya is forced to sell the family home after squandering the last of her inheritance on a Parisian lover, is all about movement.

'To some extent it's an optimistic play,' says Wanamaker. 'Think about “Three Sisters” - you know they're never going to go to Moscow. These people are actually moving on.' Which raises the question of whether change is necessarily a good thing.

'It's life!' cries Wanamaker buoyantly, high ponytail bobbing. She plays a woman in love with a vanished past, where she was rich and young and where childhood homes did not need to be sold to stay solvent. Wanamaker describes Ranevskaya as 'the intellectual heart of the play. Someone holding on to something that doesn't exist any more.'

She also represents a class which is about to become abruptly obsolete. If you're at the top of the pile, movement can only ever be in one direction.

Wanamaker is hard at work wriggling her way into Ranevskaya's impractical head - at one point, she brings out a notebook (sweetly entitled 'Actors I Have Met and Liked') and reads from her notes about the character, quoting Chekhov's comment to the first Ranevskaya (his wife, Olga Knipper): 'The only thing that can chasten a woman like that is death'.

Ranevskaya is wonderful and infuriating, 'endearing and so exasperating - stupid! Because she doesn't listen - but hopefully, three-dimensional'. It's a great part despite the fact that she annoys the audience: as Wanamaker points out, without conflict you have no theatre. She is delighted with Andrew Upton's new translation, which 'has kept the wit of the play but brought it up to date.'

'Chekhov',' she says 'is timeless, like Shakespeare, which is why his plays are constantly being reinvestigated. We're not doing the Stanislavski 1904 production, we're doing it in the now - but also constantly researching where it's come from.' Which is where the impressionists come in: the French art movement was part of the cultural excitement fizzing through Europe as young Dr Chekhov sat in Yalta, writing his short life away.

The National Theatre has been very Russian recently. Trevor Nunn and Katie Mitchell both staged Chekhov plays here and Howard Davies, who is directing this production, also worked with Upton on his masterly production of Gorky's 'Philistines' and Bulgakov's 'The White Guard'.

'Howard has an ongoing passion for Russian drama of this period and that passion is infectious,' says Upton, who doesn't actually speak Russian but doesn't let that stop him: his adaptations are adventurous and kinetic, modernising without disrespect.

Wanamaker is on the side of the modernisers. When she did 'Much Ado About Nothing', director Nick Hytner 'took out over 100 lines. If you have a bit of Shakespeare where the audience goes, “Ah... er… what?!” then the energy evaporates. So those jokes - which were pretty bad even then - cut them out!'

This fierce practicality is entirely alien to Ranevskaya ('It's so obvious that the cherry orchard has to be sold!') but Wanamaker can suborn it when necessary - her Kate Keller in Arthur Miller's 'All My Sons' at the Apollo last year was a magnificent portrayal of a woman whose energy is invested in suppressing awful truths. When being herself she is irrepressible. Did she take her parents' advice, I ask? They were both actors (although her father, Sam Wanamaker, may be best remembered as the driving force behind the reconstruction of the Globe). 'Oh,' she says, without a pause, 'I took lots of advice. Well, I didn't, really, they didn't want me to become an actor because they knew how difficult it was. But I loved my parents and when I could get their input I did.'

She seems to have evaded any anxiety of influence; her long-running TV sitcom 'My Family' has finished but she's clearly in no danger of experiencing the stasis an actor fears most: unemployment. In a way she has come full circle because Ranevskaya's daughter Anya was one of her first roles after drama school.

It's never easy to realise that the role of the daughter has shifted to another generation. Ranevskaya cannot do it. Wanamaker, however, has no truck with staying still. She is metaphorically off to Moscow, via the National Theatre's smoking area - and bugger the cherry orchard.