Zoë Wanamaker: Kenneth Branagh? He’s just like Jeremy Corbyn
Zoë Wanamaker talks to Nick Curtis about her return to the West End, her father’s failed attempts to keep her away from theatre — and why you should never call her a luvvie
Evening Standard, 30 October 2015
“He took a lot of flak years ago, just like Jeremy Corbyn, people throwing stuff at him because he is an individual,” says Zoë Wanamaker. “I think it’s to do with envy in this country.”
The fiercely pixyish 66-year-old actress is talking about Kenneth Branagh, who was bashed for presumption during his early stage career then seemed to forsake the theatre and the UK to direct Marvel’s 'Thor' and Disney’s 'Cinderella', but who has now recruited Wanamaker for the first West End season of his new, eponymous repertory company. “His enthusiasm is infectious and his energy is quite phenomenal,” she boggles, and it’s hard to argue.
This month at the Garrick, Branagh will star alongside Judi Dench in 'The Winter’s Tale', and with Wanamaker in 'Harlequinade', Terrence Rattigan’s fond farce about a superannuated post-war troupe putting together two touring Shakespeare productions.
Branagh is co-directing both plays, which will run in rep, with Rob Ashford. He is also directing Wanamaker in Rattigan’s eerie solo piece 'All On Her Own', in which a woman addresses her dead husband, which will accompany Harlequinade.
Later in the season he will mount his own production of 'Romeo and Juliet' with the stars of his cinematic 'Cinderella': Lily James, Richard Madden and Derek Jacobi.
Do you need well-known film and TV faces to make Shakespeare work in the commercial West End? Yes, and not just Shakespeare, Wanamaker suggests: “It seems to be the case that if you want to do a serious piece on Broadway or in London you need to have a hook. Ken has chosen a young company, a very eclectic group of people — not the usual suspects — which is very refreshing and also very bold.”
As she points out, former Donmar boss Michael Grandage is doing starry seasons with his own company in the West End, and ex-National Theatre supremo Nicholas Hytner will take charge of a new theatre near Tower Bridge in 2017; you wait ages for a visionary to revitalise commercial theatre then three come along at once.
Wanamaker, a peerless tragedian and comedian, is cautious, thinking hard before answering questions, if she answers them at all. She was attracted to Branagh’s season by Rattigan’s solo piece, originally written for television in 1968, because “I’d never seen anything like it, I found it really mysterious and I thought it could go anywhere”, although she prefers the title of the 1976 stage version, 'Duologue', “because it’s more enigmatic”.
Her role in 'Harlequinade' is a show-stealing one (“God, I hope it is”) as Dame Maud, a boozy theatrical éminence grise who belongs to a tradition even older than that of Gosport, the ageing postwar actor-manager played by Branagh.
The play establishes a continuum of performance, she says, from David Garrick in the 18th century to Edmund Kean in the 19th, to Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in the 20th: “We have to keep remembering where we come from and why we do this.”
Wanamaker acknowledges that 'Harlequinade', “which is a love affair with the theatre of the past, could confirm some punters’ beliefs about actors”. She’s steering clear of the L-word — luvvie. “Yes, well, I don’t use that f***ing word. Because it’s f***ing patronising,” she snaps, tartly.
Wanamaker is herself part of the acting continuum, the daughter of the Canadian actress Charlotte Holland and the American actor and director Sam Wanamaker, both non-practising Jews, her father of Ukrainian extraction.
Although Sam is now best known as the man whose terrier tenacity brought Shakespeare’s Globe into being at Bankside — he died in 1993, four years before it was completed — he was also “the first method actor to come to Britain”.
Zoë was born in New York in 1949 but her father decided not to return to America three years later after being blacklisted for supposed communist sympathies by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
“They were a hard act to follow, my parents,” she says. They steered their three daughters away from acting: the eldest became a speech therapist in California, the youngest works for Newham council, and Zoë herself initially studied art at Hornsey. But it was already too late.
“When dad went to Stratford with the Royal Shakespeare Company, he used to row up the River Avon to work,” she recalls. “That was the year of Sputnik  and it all seemed very romantic. Backstage you could smell the size [costume-stiffening solution] and the Leichner greasepaint and I was totally blown away.”
She does a mean impression of her father as a harsh but fair critic (“Goddamit, Zoë, after three years of drama school dontcha even know the basic principles?”) but clearly adored him.
He lived to see her first Olivier win, for 'Once in a Lifetime' in 1979, but neither parent saw her second, in an electrifying 'Electra' at the National Theatre in 1998, or her subsequent ascent to prime-time national treasure-hood in 'My Family' in 2000. That show initially had a wisecracking New-York-Jewish humour she responded to, as she does to the work of Arthur Miller: she and David Suchet recreate their crackling stage partnership in 'All My Sons' on radio for the author’s centenary celebrations this month.
Although Zoë Wanamaker’s was the first voice heard from the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe, she has never acted at the theatre her dad built. “I think it would be too much pressure on myself and also them — I don’t know why — at the moment,” she says. “If I walk into the Globe he’s still around, and I would have to prove myself to him. But it’s a great, magical space, with an electricity. Actors love working there.”
She tells me — and I think this is the first time I’ve heard it — that her father sounded Branagh out as a potential director of the Globe in the mid-Eighties but Branagh was then preoccupied with his own Renaissance Theatre Company, the forerunner of the Garrick troupe.
A couple of times Wanamaker refers to “my kids”: these are her stepchildren from her 1994 marriage to the actor and writer Gawn Grainger, 12 years her senior. Wanamaker says she did suffer from the panic of the biological clock but was “too selfish and not grown-up enough” to have children of her own before her marriage. “But it’s worked out well. I got two for free, without ...” she does a grotesquely elegant snapshot mime of childbirth. “They didn’t come out of my womb but they are just as good.”
From pensive beginnings, Wanamaker has become more like the antic figure I’ve encountered before at parties and awards ceremonies (Gawn loves them, she hates them, she claims).
What are your ambitions for the future, I ask? She fixes me with bright blue eyes, emits a throaty cackle and says: “I just want to keep ducking and weaving.”
Harlequinade/All On Her Own are at the Garrick, WC2 (0330 333 4811) in rep until January 13.