The actress talks Oscar Wilde and his enduring feminist legacy.
As part of our ongoing celebration of Women in Theatre, we sat down with the star of Lady Windermere’s Fan, Samantha Spiro, to talk about her role alongside Jennifer Saunders in the Oscar Wilde classic and how she’s enjoying the changing landscape of roles for women.
Who or what were your biggest influences in approaching a career in theatre?
Samantha Spiro. I certainly had role models at the time and I would say Judi Dench, Julie Walters and Alison Steadman were three actresses that were an inspiration to me. On a more personal level, my English teacher at school, Mr Jones, who did all of the school productions, was certainly a big influence; but I think basically the reason I wanted to do it was because I loved it so much and it was just a passion within me. I was about ten when I first went on stage and just the experience of being on stage and being part of a production just made me think I’d like to do this and that never went away.
You mentioned some amazing women there – Judi Dench, Julie Walters, Alison Steadman – have you ever worked with any of those?
SS. Judi Dench in fact directed me in my first professional job after drama school. So that felt pretty thrilling. It was a season at Regent’s Park and she was directing production of The Boys from Syracuse and so was on the audition panel for my very first audition… and then I got the job, which felt pretty amazing at the time.
Are there any other women that you admire in the industry that you’d just love to work with?
SS. Oh the list is just so long! I feel really lucky that I’m working with Jennifer Saunders at the moment, who has always been a great inspiration as far as women in comedy are concerned. And I remember from very early on just seeing her and Dawn French getting up there and just being damn funny and writing their own stuff… so it’s pretty exciting to be working with her now.
And that’s the thing with this production of Lady Windermere’s Fan – it feels like such a feminist production. Directed by the amazing Kathy Burke and with you and Jennifer leading the cast – does it feel like that backstage?
SS. I mean I think really we have to thank Oscar Wilde for that because he was such a great feminist himself. He was before his time really, writing in a time when women didn’t really have a voice and so he wrote women in such an extremely bold way that they’re still really relevant today. Especially at the moment, when we’re going through another revival of women’s liberation.
Do you think there’s something particular in the way he writes that lends these characters that strength?
SS. All the women he writes have difficulties to overcome. For my character in this production, Mrs Erlynne, she’s been shunned by society. But through her cleverness – possibly her manipulation – she finds a way through. So even with all the difficulties society throws at her, she still manages to have a strong voice and pass that on to Lady Windermere. It’s just a great story about women and motherhood, and that no matter what society is telling you, that doesn’t have to be the way it is – you can find your own voice.
And Mrs Erlynne is a very formidable woman – that must be great fun to play on stage?
SS. It’s really good fun! And as we’re getting ready every night I’m always excited to get out there and do it, and I so adore working with Grace Malony (Lady Windermere) and Joshua James (Lord Windermere) – they’re both such brilliant young actors. Every night it feels fresh and exciting, and the audiences seems to be enjoying it, so that helps!
And what’s next for you?
SS. Well we’re currently getting ready for the live broadcast of Lady Windermere’s Fan on 20 March. It’s going out to about 450 cinemas across the country, completely live.
How’s that going?
SS. Well there’s not much you can do really. You just have to pretend it’s a normal night. There’s just going to be lots of cameras. It’s just exciting to think that it’s a new way to get more people to see the show. There are so many people who can’t get to London and this gives them the opportunity to see it. Hopefully more and more people will get to enjoy it, and also it might just encourage people who’ve never been to the theatre to just go and see something else.
And after the show, are any roles you’d still love to play on stage that you haven’t had the chance to yet?
SS. I mean the great thing about aging in this business is that you’re always going into a new bracket of casting and there’s suddenly another group of fantastic women to hopefully get the chance to play. For me, it just feels like the parts just get better and better. And although there are fewer roles, the parts that are there are far juicier as you get older.
And you’ve had a great run recently, with both The Christmas Carol alongside Jim Broadbent and as Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, so you must be feeling very lucky?
SS. Oh it was so much fun! Doing those back-to-back was lovely and so different in scope in terms of how you play the role.
So finally, looking back, what tips would you like to give to your younger self if she could see you now?
SS. It’s so hard to impress this on younger actresses, but try and be brave and be yourself and not worry so much about people think of you. Just be true to who you are – of course the problem with that is that, sometimes, when you’re younger, you don’t know who that person is. So if I could travel back in time and visit my younger self, I’d want to say to her that it’ll be okay: you are valid as a woman and as a human being, and just trust in that.
Samantha Spiro stars in Lady Windermere’s Fan at the Vaudeville Theatre until 7 April. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.co.uk