Rachel Stirling with her 'An Intervention' co-star John Hollingworth (pic: Phoebe Cheong)

The Contradictory Miss Stirling

11th April 2014

Unusually for a celebrity, Rachael Stirling is early for our interview. The actor, who appeared recently as Millie in ITV’s The Bletchley Circle, is busy rehearsing for her forthcoming role in 'An Intervention' (at Watford Palace Theatre, 16 April – 3 May) but keen to talk. The breathy eagerness about everything she says sometimes makes her sound more like a sweet, if slightly hyper, PR girl than a serious actress and, rather touchingly, she sounds genuinely thrilled that I’m planning to see the play.

Her previous appearance at the Palace was in 2012, when she took the title role in an updated interpretation of Euripides’ play Medea about a ruthless Greek princess who kills her children to avenge her husband’s infidelity and then laughs at his grief. On that occasion, Medea was adapted by Mike Bartlett, who has also written An Intervention, and Stirling stresses that it is the quality of Bartlett’s “ballsy” writing that has enticed her back to Watford.

“Mike’s writing is so exciting to perform,” she enthuses. “He has this uncanny knack for observing human beings at their most vulnerable and funny, to see the epic nature of living and dying and the funny side to human nature, along with all our foibles.”

'An Intervention' is, by Stirling’s acount, “brilliant, something you couldn’t see on television,” and it certainly promises plenty of surprises. For one thing, neither character in the play is named and the script gives no indication as to their sex.

In this case, Stirling is playing opposite Yorkshire actor John Hollingworth, but the play could, she tells me, just as easily be performed by two actors of the same sex, or of different ages or races. “It is a simple journey of friendship between two people who adore each other, but cracks appear.”

She talks generally about friendship and how important it is to her, but deftly sidesteps my attempts to find out which actors she hangs out with – “that’s private” she giggles – although she waxes positively lyrical about the friends she made at school.

Before Edinburgh University, where she studied Art History, she attended prestigious girls’ school Wycombe Abbey, which she credits with teaching her the value of female friendship.

“We weren’t exposed to male criticism and, as a result of the slightly insular environment you get at boarding-school, our childishness was preserved for longer, for which I’m very grateful. Girls can be particularly unkind, but there was great solidarity between us and we looked after each other.”

No wonder, therefore, she is such a success in 'The Bletchley Circle', in which she plays one of four lifelong friends and former World War II code breakers, who are reunited in 1952 when they try to uncover the mystery behind several deaths that they believe were linked.

“I love working with them [Anna Maxwell Martin, Sophie Rundle and Julie Graham]… we are great buddies on and off set and it’s lovely to pretend that you are infinitely cleverer than you are.”

Now 35, Stirling says that she brings her own personality into her performances in a way that she didn’t in her youth.

“The older I get, the less I try to prove myself by doing something completely different and the more I find something identifiable in the character. When you are cast, it’s because there’s a bit of you in that character – so I put myself into characters, rather than doing something different.”

So what, I ask, was there of Stirling’s own character in the bloodthirsty Medea, a role that Stirling’s mother, Diana Rigg, has also played (on the London stage in 1992).

“I admired Medea’s sense of humour, I loved her cojones, how she challenged people, how unafraid she was and I enjoyed embodying that.”

As Stirling has no children of her own – “that’s still to be decided” is all she says on the subject – I enquire if her mother ever felt like murdering her when she was little.

“You’ll have to ask her that,” she says brightly, once again cleverly dodging a personal question. All she will say about her famous parent is that working with her on a 2013 episode of Dr Who was “great fun”.

I mention Stirling’s versatility – playing Nan in BBC TV’s Tipping the Velvet in 2002, along with Medea, Millie and Ewan McGregor’s prissy wife in the 2011 film Salmon Fishing in the Yemen to name but a few of her roles – but, refreshingly, for such a talented performer, she gives a delightfully down-to-earth response.

“It’s so boring to discuss technique. I don’t want to sound like a luvvie, because it’s self-important and up-yourself.” She pauses, adding. “I find all roles hard to play because there is always a sense of dread and doom to see if I’m capable, but it’s a ‘play’, not a ‘serious’, and what we do is ‘play’.”

Acting is, of course, harder work than she makes out, certainly harder work than just ‘playing’ and when she relaxes, Stirling, who lives alone in Kensal Rise, North London, unwinds by doing ballet and boxing and spends her Saturday mornings teaching children in deprived areas to read with the Butterfly charity.

“I try to take the focus off me, because acting, like modern life, is so full of vanity. You’re in front of a mirror before you go on stage, so I avoid mirrors!”

Last October she spent a fortnight’s holiday riding across Patagonia with a group of Chilean cowboys, an experience she found exhilarating and frightening.

“It was remote,” she recalls, “the terrain was extraordinary, we travelled so fast and I’m not a natural camper. And when the horses went up sheer rock faces that were almost at right angles to the ground, I just had to cling on.”

So can we look forward to seeing her in ever more gutsy roles, I ask. She may not like luvvies, but her reply is typically actressy in that she takes it for granted that I’ll know the plays to which she refers. “I’d love to play Hedda [Hedda Gabler by Ibsen], especially as it is about a woman in her late 20s who thinks she’s getting on, but nowadays, this would suit a woman in her late 30s better. And I’d love to play Rosalind and Beatrice (in Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing respectively). They’re wonderful, so empathetic, so gloriously contradictory.”

And as if to prove how contradictory she too can be, for one moment Stirling turns PR girl again. “I’m incredibly proud to be in An Intervention because the dialogue is fast, funny, rude and modern and you really understand the point of theatre in this. It’s fantastic that Watford puts on plays like this…”

For tickets, see www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk
or call the box office on 01923 225671

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