Nancy Groves meets Maureen Lipman to talk about the play in which she will be appearing this week at Watford Palace: the theatre, as it just so happens, where she made her professional acting debut in 1967
Reclining on a battered brown leather sofa in the café of the otherwise shiny new Park Theatre in north London, Maureen Lipman manages poise and ease in equal measure, despite being mid-run in arguably her most demanding stage role yet, in a career that spans some five decades.
“I’m possessed,” says the 67-year-old, her brown eyes flashing. “It just takes me over. I wake up every two hours thinking, ‘Ooh, that’s good’ or ‘I should practice that’. But you can’t. Because then you get really overtired. And then you get ...” – the Lipman eyebrows raise – “symptoms. From the first read through I’ve been emotional to say the least.”
The source of this high emotion is Daytona, a new play by Lipman’s friend and fellow actor Oliver Cotton, which opened at the Park Theatre this summer before setting out on a national tour*. A dramatic and witty tango à trois, it’s the story of Elli (Lipman) and Joe (Harry Shearer), an elderly Jewish couple whose ballroom dance practice is disturbed one night by the arrival of an unexpected but all-too-familiar face (John Bowe) at the door of their Brooklyn apartment.
Each corner of this troubled triangle conceals a secret, making Cotton’s plot hard to write about without betraying his carefully drawn characters. Suffice it to say: “It’s a play about the validity of revenge and of compromise… two people who compromised love for some stability in their lives after everything that happened to them during the war. And into their lives comes a figure from the past who’s about to shatter that – who’s done something monumental.”
Lipman continues: “It’s love, sex, death – always. And when you’ve been in close proximity to death, as they have, then love and sex are very very attractive. You want to prove you’re alive.” It’s no spoiler to say, of course, that Lipman is talking about the Holocaust.
“All these survivors (and I’ve met many) are made of steel, because they’re the ones who survived. But along with the survival comes” – she pauses – “guilt. ‘Why me?’ Sometimes, if I’m at one of these Holocaust events, I look at these fantastic women and men, so cultured and beautiful, and they’ve got their gorgeous grandchildren around and I think, “F*** you, Hitler, you failed.” She chuckles unapologetically. “They’re the proof that you can cull but you can’t destroy.”
As survivor Elli, Lipman has received rave reviews. “Everyone who comes says: ‘God, but you’re so different. We didn’t know it was you.’ But I knew her. Even before we started rehearsals, I knew her. She’s witty and dry and restrained, very restrained. There’s a lot going on inside but she doesn’t want to look at it. The status quo makes her happy. As Joe says, ‘Elli and I have a made a life for ourselves. We don’t want to look at the past.’ I think a lot of people feel that way.”
Being a Jew in England has pluses and minuses, says Lipman. “I once counted up the number of chicken soup bowls I’ve brought in on various sets – I got into double figures!” But then there’s the anti-Semitism, the extremist websites, the Holocaust deniers. “You have to tell the story in every generation,” she urges. “They’ve just dug up Richard The Third. Did he have a humpback? No, he had scoliosis. Did he kill those people? History and Shakespeare said he did, so he did.”
The only thing to do, she says, is keep on talking. Just not on social media. “I don’t think so, love! I can get a bit obsessive, which is why my kids won’t let me go on Twitter. They said: ‘If you start with your opinions, you’re going to get killed. People are going to start pushing stuff through your letterbox like they did to Miriam Karlin.’ Besides – when do you do it, when do you Twitter? When you’re with your partner? Just before you go to bed? I’m bad enough with my phone! He’s always looking at me, saying, ‘On that phone again?’”
‘He’ is Guido Castro, an Italian businessman and Lipman’s ‘gentleman friend’ (her words) for the past five years, following the death of her husband, the playwright Jack Rosenthal in 2004. The couple share a roomy basement flat in Paddington, west London, where Lipman spends many hours pottering about in her courtyard garden. “I’ve got the worst social life of anyone you’ve met,” she protests. “I’m so boring, it’s not true!”
But anything to escape the angst of modern life. “Guido has a theory about why everyone’s so angry: we’ve stopped smoking. When you smoked” – she holds an imaginary cigarette to her mouth – “you had a moment to think. When you’re in the car now, the anger! The fingers flying. And you can’t help thinking: I don’t want a war, but Martians would be very good for us. Send in a green person with an antenna!”
Or failing a green person, a grandchild. Lipman dotes on 15-month-old Ava Sabrine, even though, as she says, “everyone’s called Ava now”. The baby eats olives and kippers and squeezes lemons into her mouth, Lipman reports with delight. “Sometimes I even see Jack in her which is really, really something. I knew I’d enjoy it: I liked being a parent, I’m going to love being a grandparent.” And a cultured, beautiful one to boot.
There will be a review of Daytona on www.optimamagazine.co.uk
on the afternoon of Tuesday 10 September