On The Boards Again
Stella Gonet and Haydn Gwynne talk to Al Senter It is a standard refrain fiom every actor's interview. How they hunger, they sigh, for a chance to commune again with a live audience. If only if it weren't for this "wretched BAFTA-award-winning cops-'n'-robbers thing on the box, they'd be back on the stage like a shot, especially if it meant doing some - here a sharp intake of reverent breath - some Shakespeare!
For Stella Gonet and Haydn Gwynne, who have turned such pious hopes into hardworking reality, the labour camp which is an RSC Straford season may have induced a nostalgic warmth for the comforts of the television studio or location caravan with attendant armies of make-up and costume assistants, AFMs and production runners to ensure that the stars' every whim is satisfied. When I spoke to them both recently. Stella was snatching a cigarette and a cuppa in between rehearsals for Measure for Measure and performances of Afier Easter and A Midsummer Night's Dream: Haydn, squeezing in an interview sandwiched between her 0livia in the afternoon and her Helena in the evening, was longingly anticipating her first night off since the spring, to be spent under the subtropical skies of Mauritius.
Haydn's theatre career is no less versatile or distinguished. Though her sharp-tongued Alex, Deputy News Editor in the first two series of Drop The Dead Donkey, brought her to a wider audience, Haydn had already given an outstanding performance as the icily-haughty academic melted by Warren Clarke's industrialist bruiser in David Lodge's Nice Work for the BBC. In the West End she was embroiled in the much publicized disaster of Ziegfeld but had better luck with City of Angels, where her belting rendition of the show-stopping 'You Can Always Count On Me' invariably brought the house down. In the classical theatre she has played Lady Macbeth at the Ludlow Festival, Hedda Gabler in Bolton and, in The Way of the World at Northampton, millamant - a lady in company with Rosalind and Beatrice, the five-foot-ten Haydn was surely destined to play. More recently the role of Sylvia in The Recruiting Officer took her back to Manchester's Royal Exchange, one of her favourite theatres where, among other roles, she had previously played opposite Susan Fleetwood in Pinero's The Cabinet Minister.
For Haydn Gwynne the offer to come to Stratford may have appeared from out of the blue but it chimed with the direction she wished her career to take. 'Of course it wasn't as if I said to myself one day "I'll leave Drop The Dead Donkey for a season at Stratford" and it all fell neatly into place. But it fitted in with what I wanted to do. You have to think in terms of longevity and it is much tougher for us girls to maintain a career through the years. If you want to immerse yourself in classical roles then this is the place to be. But it's a six-day week and represents a very long commitment, so you have to think very seriously before you take the decision to come here.'
Of her four Stratford ladies, Solveig/ Aase in Peer Gynt, Olivia in Twefth Night and Helena in The Dream, it is the latter which at the moment she feels is not quite 'run in' - 'I'm not on top of her yet' - although as the 'painted maypole', her bewilderment at seeing the men who have formerly spurned this gangling wallflower transformed into ardent suitors is very very funny. And she is contrasted to nicely comic effect with Emma Fielding's petite Hermia, all of six inches below.
Haydn's height, her air of worldly hauteur and her facility with both language and accents have kept her clear of the demure ingenues and helped her largely avoid typecasting. 'Having started relatively late and being equipped with what is seen as a sophisticated face, I missed out on the very young kind of part. In the wake of Nice Work and especially Donkey, however, I could see that I was in danger of becoming identified with the Alex type of role - I was being offered more and more English, middle-class smart-alecs who were usually required to get their kit off at some stage in the proceedings?
There has, she says, always been a streak of restlessness in her and acting was only one of the career options which she could have taken. From Nottingham University she set off on a worldwide odyssey but stopped off in Rome, where she remained for two years teaching English at the city's university. A similar bout of wanderlust brought her back to this country in order to break into the business, and it was Alan Ayckbourn and his Scarborough company who opened the door to her. 'There had always been flashes or moments of thinking that I wanted to act but the actual decision - though it took a split second - was probably years in the making. I felt that I didn't want to reach a stage later in life always regretting that I had never tried my luck, and so I gave away my furniture, uprooted myself and came home.'
Nice Work was an undiluted pleasure - 'It was only when I started work on it that I realised it would be quite a long time before I would get a sniff at anything comparable' - but Drop The Dead Donkey was more problematical: 'It's not as if the first script arrived with the promise to turn into an award-winning cult comedy series written on the front page, so I was initially a bit wary. I'd never considered doing a comedy series, but I was intrigued by the plan to record each episode on the eve of transmission in order to keep the show as topical as possible. Would it work? My decision to do it was almost down to the toss of a coin.'
It turned out to be 'huge fun' but that familiar restlessness made her baulk at the prospect of committing herself a year in advance to the third series and she took the decision to leave, with practically no regrets. 'There's no point in torturing yourself by dwelling on what might have been? says Haydn firmly. 'But watching the show for the first time since I'd left was very weird. I kept expecting to see myself walking through the door.'
The off-stage excitements of Ziegfeld, though wearing at the time, offered a good grounding in survival technique as well as providing incidental pleasures during its brief run. 'You can do a lot worse than taking the stage of the Palladium in an eight-thousand-pound dress to sing a couple of Gershwin solos,' says Haydn with a wry smile. 'It was quite terrifying to be exposed to commercial pressures at their rawest. It was the sort of theatre where, if you're no good, you're out and if you're not doing justice to your number, it's cut. But it does toughen you up - after Ziegfeld, I felt I could cope with anything.'
How does she assess her Stratford line of parts? 'Roles surprise you. What you think you'll get off the page doesn't always materialize in practice. Once you start working on them they can throw up problems, or challenges or rewards you didn't anticipate. Each of them is currency at a different stage. On paper Solveig/Aase offered the biggest challenge, but I'm thrilled to be doing at least one show in the Swan and working with Alex has been great.'
During the Stratford summer, Haydn has discovered a hitherto unsuspected talent. 'I've taken up rowing,' she declares. 'Emma Fielding, Olivia Williams, Tanya Moodie and myself glide down the Avon in our coxed rowing four. You're out on the river, you forget all about learning lines and you switch off completely. It's wonderful!'