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'The arts of this country are the most vital thing': Mousetrap's evening with Zoƫ at Club at the Ivy

17 March 2017 22:57

On 13 March, London's prestigious Club at The Ivy provided the gorgeous setting for an entertaining, insightful interview with Zoƫ. The fundraising event was organised by arts charity Mousetrap Theatre Projects, of which she's a patron. Several dozen club members, Mousetrap supporters and fans listened to Zoƫ discuss her fantastic work with The Ivy's well-known Director, Fernando Peire.

The thoroughly enjoyable evening began with Mousetrap's Director, Susan Whiddington, giving a brief overview of Zoƫ's career highlights, as well as the charity's efforts to help thousands of young people experience the Capital's vibrant theatre scene. As the interview got underway, Peire pointed out that he'd known Zoƫ (who looked sophisticated in a smart black ensemble teamed with a colourful scarf) for 'many, many years'. That fact, coupled with Peire's decision not to rely on pre-prepared questions, ensured that the conversation flowed naturally and was therefore all the more engaging.

When asked why she believes it's so important for children and teenagers to have the opportunity to enjoy plays, Zoƫ explained that 'without our young brains being allowed to grow' by watching, discussing and taking part in creative activities, 'we can't develop as people'. You need to discover 'the joy of expressing yourself'. It saddens Zoƫ to think that high ticket prices can act as 'a barrier' and prevent people from underprivileged backgrounds from experiencing the magic of live performance. She emphasised that theatre should never be reserved solely for society's elite; it needs to be available to everyone. Mousetrap would surely agree with that sentiment, as its team strives to give disadvantaged youngsters the chance to go to the theatre and get involved in related, educational projects.

Peire wondered how Zoƫ feels the experience of watching a stage show differs from tuning in to TV programmes. For Zoƫ, theatre is 'the most exciting thing' because it's 'a live place'; the performance unfolds in front of your eyes, right there and then. Theatre's immediacy and emotive power transports audiences to 'another place'.

Zoƫ's enjoyment of theatre and performance is possibly one of the reasons she 'giggle[s] a lot' during the rehearsal process. (Her comment reminded me of the lovely photo (below) from rehearsals for Arthur Miller's The Last Yankee in the early 1990s.) Starring in Love Hurts (1992-4) with Adam Faith was also a hugely positive, enjoyable experience for Zoƫ. 'I had a really good time with him,' she remarked.

Zoƫ revealed that another of her most popular TV shows, My Family (2000-11), has a connection to The Ivy. It was there that Robert Lindsay initially suggested to his friend that she might like to make a sitcom with him. The appeal of trying something new and acting with someone she 'admire[s] so much' encouraged Zoƫ to accept the offer. She describes My Family, which was filmed in front of a studio audience, as 'one of the scariest things I've ever done'. As millions of viewers know, she certainly rose to the challenge, and eleven series were made (which was a 'pretty damn good' run, noted Peire).

Zoƫ's favourite style of comedy is what she calls 'New York humour'. It's 'naughty and rude but [made] with love' (like the jokes in My Family, which was created by Manhattan-raised producer Fred Baron). She believes that playing a comedic role requires a different set of skills to being an entertainer or 'personality' and is more comfortable with the former. 'I'd rather speak someone else's lines than my own.'

In recent years, Zoƫ has noticed that the number of women writers and directors working in TV and theatre is increasing, which can only be a good thing. 'I think there's more happening for women now [in those industries],' she observed. However, Zoƫ is concerned that their salaries don't always match men's, and so there's clearly still room for improvement with regards to gender equality.

ZoĆ«'s father, Sam Wanamaker, was committed to making society fairer. The actor and director had a 'passion for liberalism and socialism' and clearly believed in the power of the arts to enhance people's lives. During the late 1950s, he led Liverpool's New Shakespeare Theatre. It became a creative hub and opened for around 17 hours a day. The New Shakespeare was, in Peire's words, 'a visionary project'. It's widely known that Sam Wanamaker was also the driving force behind another pioneering theatre, Shakespeare's Globe on London's South Bank. In honour of his incredible contribution, the Globe's recreation of an indoor Jacobean theatre is named after him. ZoĆ« describes the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse as a 'beautiful [Ā…] gorgeous' venue. Her father would surely have agreed with her that 'the arts of this country are the most vital thing'. They're certainly thriving on the South Bank, thanks to him.

Since leaving drama school in 1970, Zoƫ has seen the UK's theatre industry change considerably. In particular, the repertory system has now largely disappeared (the companies 'don't exist anymore, really'), and so today's young actors have lost a valuable training ground. As Zoƫ pointed out, it's through 'the doing [that] you learn'.

She told Peire that her parents didn't push her into acting; they both had first-hand experience of the demanding, difficult nature of the profession. 'I'm not good at rejection,' Zoƫ said, reflecting on one of the toughest aspects of life in the acting business. At drama school, she briefly considered changing her famous surname, perhaps wishing to avoid the weight of expectation or create a fresh identity. She decided against the change after talking to her father and realising that people could easily find out who she was whether she called herself Wanamaker or not. What's more, Zoƫ concluded that even if her surname opened doors, it was up to her to prove herself.

When preparing for a role, she gathers a wide range of research material. 'I grab anything I can,' ZoĆ« remarked. You need to find a way to 'get a hook' on the character. For instance, she has a 'massive postcard collection' that can act as a source of inspiration. After being asked to perform Terence Rattigan's All On Her Own during Kenneth Branagh's inaugural Plays at the Garrick season in 2015, ZoĆ« put together 'a lookbook' that reflected the disturbing monologue's mood. Peire remembered being 'absolutely swept away' by her performance as the grief-stricken, guilt-ridden widow, Rosemary. 'She becomes [her dead husband]; she inhabits him,' ZoĆ« emphasised. She views All On Her Own as 'a little bit of a jewel', which she 'loved doing' and would 'love to do [Ā…] again'. ZoĆ« would also relish the opportunity to see another actress's interpretation of the intriguing character.

A similarly important aspect of preparing to play a character is, of course, learning the lines. Zoƫ's dyslexia can make that process challenging, but for a number of years now she's benefited from working with someone who helps her to master each script.

Performing a play over a number of months requires great energy and stamina. Eight shows a week is the norm. During the brief break between a matinee and evening performance, it's impossible for the cast to switch off. In Zoƫ's words, 'you never leave [the play] completely'. What happens when the run ends? '[Y]ou usually get ill'.

Zoƫ explained that she has no dream roles, though she'd like to have played Shakespeare's Juliet in her youth. She also achieved a long-held ambition in 2011 by starring as tragic aristocrat Ranyevskaya in Howard Davies' production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. Zoƫ prefers to adopt a 'reactive' approach to her work rather than chasing specific parts. 'My mum always said don't be too pushy,' she added.

As the interview came to an end after about an hour of fascinating discussion, Zoƫ brought everyone's attention back to Mousetrap's aim of making theatre more accessible to young people. She emphasised that it's 'the most wonderful charity'. Mousetrap has more than returned the compliment with an enthusiastic tweet.

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