As Miranda Richardson prepares for her first performance on a London stage in almost three years, with a reading of Virginia Woolf’s The New Dress, Natalie Woolman finds there is no chance of a weak return from this formidable actress, who has her eyes firmly on the ball
Interviewing Miranda Richardson feels like playing a game of tennis. The interviewer serves a question and the actress considers it suspiciously before deciding her game plan. Sometimes she hits back a tidy answer, at others a drop shot - two words that the journalist has to scramble to pick up before proceedings come to a complete standstill.
She is combative in the best sense, keen to keep both of us on our toes. Flimsy questions get flimsy answers but, when she is interested, her engagement is palpable. Luckily, theatre is very much of interest. In fact, Richardson says she looks for traces of theatre in her film projects.
“My phrase has always been that I am looking for the versatility of theatre in film. I think I have been quite lucky in that so far. It is always a relief to be able to don a mask - I don’t mean just externally - [to] feel that you can inhabit some other territory for a bit,” she says.
Her versatility is much vaunted by critics, and her credits (which stretch to six A4 pages) include TV drama A Dance to the Music of Time, the Harry Potter franchise, Blackadder and plenty of new writing at London’s Royal Court Theatre - and she does not seem to be in danger of being typecast now.
“I don’t even know what the norm would be. I have never known how people see me particularly, so I don’t have that worry. I just try and do things that I haven’t done before as much as possible,” she explains.
The next thing on Richardson’s agenda is a staged reading of Virginia Woolf’s short story The New Dress in the West End. Although she did not choose the text herself, she says the story - about a woman at a party who is feeling self-conscious about her outfit - is “mordantly funny”. Reading it was like peering into the thoughts of an adolescent rather than an adult, Richardson says.
Her appearance at the Criterion will mark her first performance on a London stage since she starred in Grasses of a Thousand Colours at the Royal Court in 2009. She is not convinced that it counts as a return to the West End stage but perhaps it will give her the theatre bug again? “It just has to be the right thing, really,” she asserts.
Richardson says she likes new writing because it comes with “no baggage” and laughs at the idea that she might be sitting up in the small hours growling because she hasn’t been offered a certain part. She says she is receptive to everything but if it is a classical text the director needs to “actually have an idea about it”.
What about Shakespeare? “I always enjoy watching [Shakespeare] - you can’t argue with the language and possibilities and all that. But it worries me that if people don’t have an idea of what they are going for - I mean directors - then it is a potential hazard for an actor. You don’t want to do a disservice to the text,” she explains.
I wonder out loud whether she might want to direct something herself and she starts laughing, adding: “Watch this space.” But afterwards she insists she has no idea if she would direct.
What would her dream cast be if she was in the director’s chair?
“It is impossible to talk about that without a play. Anyway, as we all know, when the actors come in, everything falls apart before it goes back together,” she says.
As we talk through different styles of theatre, she says she loves farce and that “we need more and more comedy”. This brings us neatly to Blackadder and perhaps her most famous role - Queenie. She says people always wonder whether the team could be persuaded into creating more episodes but that they know when to leave it alone.
“You can continue to enjoy it because of the quality of the scripts as much as anything else. People continue to watch it because of the complexity and ‘all of life is here’ nature of the scripts. It seems to have lightened a lot of people’s lives, which is a very nice thing to have attached to your name,” she adds.
Richardson’s next outing on the BBC is in Parade’s End, Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of the novels by Ford Madox Ford. It features A-list casting, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall and Rupert Everett, and is due to run later this year. When Richardson starts talking about it, she seems so eager that it is like we have started a good tennis rally.
She shares: “It was absolutely delightful. Tom Stoppard was very hands-on, he really has a fondness for this project and it’s a great book. Back to reading, I heartily recommend it as a read - either before, during or after people watch it.”
The drama is only five parts and I ask whether that might feel painfully short for viewers keen to see the four novels on the small screen. At first, Richardson plays on defence, telling me that “that’s quite normal for a series”. When I point out the lengths of glossy American drama, she makes a concession. “It is sad and I remember feeling that about A Dance to the Music of Time, that everything was rushed. It was good stuff but it was under-propelled,” she says.
And then, just as she is getting into the swing of telling me how she hopes the TV drama will spark interest in Ford as an author, her agent asks me to wind up the interview. As we say goodbye, she thanks me in earnest. Maybe that means she felt it was a good match.
Miranda Richardson stars in Stories Before Bedtime at the Criterion Theatre, London, on June 1. Visit www.criterion-theatre.co.uk