If Susan Wooldridge hadn't have grown up in an artistic household, she may not have gone on to become a distinguished star of stage and screen in era-defining TV drama The Jewel in the Crown, for which she was nominated for a BAFTA. This was an award Wooldridge went on to win as Best Supporting Actress in John Boorman's film, Hope and Glory. Wooldridge's parents were actress Margaretta Scott and composer John Wooldridge, who exposed her and her brother Hugh, now a theatre director, to a world of culture that saw many bohemian types around.
All of which sounds like the perfect
grounding for playing Judith Bliss in the Citizens Theatre's
forthcoming production of Noel Coward's play, Hay Fever. Written in
1924 and first produced a year later, Coward's play is set over one
lively weekend in the bohemian Bliss family's country house, where
they hold increasingly crazed court to assorted guests from a less
hysterically inclined world. Together, they become witnesses to the
Bliss' indulgences. At the heart of these is Judith Bliss, an actress
and the family matriarch who can transform any minor crisis into a
drama on the grandest of scales.
“Judith thinks of herself as a grand
dame of the theatre,” says Wooldridge, “but she's been retired
for a year in this little place in the country, and she has no drama
in her life anymore. She wants the glamour and she wants the glitz,
so she has to create it for herself. For her, everything is a play,
and she's not alive if she's not acting.”
Over more than forty years in the
business, this is a state of mind Wooldridge has seen first hand.
“I wouldn't cast myself as a grand
dame, but I've been in the business long enough to recognise that
sort of behaviour, if you know what I mean. I've spent my whole life
working with great actors, who have all been very talented, and
they've all been generous and kind. It's the ones who aren't so
talented who aren't so kind, because they've no confidence in what
they do. I've only seen that once, and I'm certainly not going to
name them, but there's something sad about it as well.
“There's also something in the play
about a woman getting older. At one point Judith's son says to her
that she looks sad and beautiful, and she lives in this little bubble
of glamour. The other thing I think is fantastically important about
the play is that it's only a few years since the end of the first
world war, and everyone still has a sense of loss and grief, so they
have to flip things to try and put some gaiety back in their lives
Dominic Hill's co-production between
the Citz and the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, where the show
opens prior to its Glasgow run, won't be the first time Wooldridge
has appeared in Coward's play. Back in 1984, not long before she was
cast in the lavish TV series of The Jewel in the Crown, Wooldridge
played one of the Bliss' house guests, nice but dim Jackie, in a TV
production which featured Penelope Keith as Judith.
“Before,” says Wooldridge, “I was
a guest in this very frightening house. Now I'm the owner of it, and
that's absolutely riveting. It's fascinating to play someone as
selfish and self-involved as Judith, who would never have an inkling
why a poor little thing like Jackie is having this terrible time
while she's having the time of her life. Isn't Coward clever to know
women so well.”
Wooldridge had been acting for twelve
years before she was given what she considers to be her big break
after being cast as Daphne Manners in The Jewel in the Crown. While
she had already played small television roles in the likes of The
Naked Civil Servant alongside John Hurt, by the 1980s she had grown
“I wasn't getting the parts I wanted,”
says Wooldridge, “so I decided to do some more training, which I
did at the Lecoq school in Paris, and which gave me more confidence.
Being lucky enough to be cast in The Jewel in the Crown meant I was
recognised, not just in the street, but by people in the industry who
were kind enough to ask me to do things without me having to sell
myself from the off.”
While Hay Fever will be Wooldridge's
first ever appearance at the Citz, her mother graced the Gorbals
stage back in the1940s, when she played Lady Macbeth opposite Duncan
Macrae in a production that also featured a young Stanley Baxter in
“I always remember my mother
mentioning it,” says Wooldridge, “because Duncan Macrae broke his
leg before the first night, and the director went on in his place.
Then when he came back, his leg made a knocking sound as he walked,
which created a really eerie effect.”
Wooldridge's mother was half Scottish,
so when Wooldridge comes across the border, “It always feels like
I'm coming home. I know that's sentimental, but it does, especially
when you're working at the happiest theatre there is.”
Wooldridge's father sadly died in 1958.
“My mother brought me up as a very
brave single mum,” she says, “and I grew up with a lot of people
around the place, not the ones who are mentioned in Hay Fever, but
people like them. The very first Judith Bliss was played by Marie
Tempest, and my mother's very first job was with her, so there are
lots of little threads of synchronicity going on here. When we open
Hay Fever I'll be performing on the same stage as my mother did, and
who knows, maybe the dressing room I'm in now was the one she used.”
While Wooldridge has carved out a
distinguished career both on stage and screen, including turns as
Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest and an appearance
at the Almeida last year in Uncle Vanya, unlike Judith, she is under
no illusions how an actress' life can pan out.
“Sadly there comes an inevitable
point when you hit fifty when everything stops,” she says. “In
some ways it's a tragedy, because you're at your most confident.”
Wooldridge's response was to start
writing. At first she tried script-writing, until her partner, actor
and writer Andy de la Tour, suggested it might make a good novel. The
Hidden Dance was published in 2009, and Wooldridge's fourth book is
due out soon. Not that her acting work has dried up in any way.
Prior to Hay Fever, Wooldridge spent
three months in Spain filming the first season of Still Star-Crossed.
Styled as a sequel to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the show
focuses on Rosaline, who rejected Romeo, and Benvolio, and what
happens when the pair are betrothed against their will in an attempt
to end the inter-familial violence. In a cast that includes Anthony
Head as Lord Capulet, Wooldridge plays the Nurse. The series is
produced by Shonda Rhimes, who created Grey's Anatomy.
“It's been extraordinary, seeing how
these big, sexy, glamorous series are made,” Wooldridge says.
Judith Bliss would undoubtedly approve.
“Hay Fever holds a mirror up to all
of us,” says Wooldridge. “Through all of the laughter that comes
from the play there is a truth and an understanding of what lies
behind it. It's like a fluffy soufflé, and while that looks simple
and a lot of fun, to make a really good soufflé requires a lot of
Hay Fever, Royal Lyceum Theatre,
Edinburgh, March 10-April 1; Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, April 5-22.