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Arts feature

Out of this world

Lloyd Evans meets Tara FitzGerald and is struck by her uncanny beauty and her desire to hear what he thinks

10 September 2011

12:00 AM

10 September 2011

12:00 AM

Lloyd Evans meets Tara FitzGerald and is struck by her uncanny beauty and her desire to hear what he thinks

Tara FitzGerald’s beauty is fabulous. Literally, there’s something unworldly about the surfaces and contours of her face. It’s as if the codes of her biology had been transmitted to earth from a higher realm, from alien beings. The wide cheekbones are angular yet softly curvaceous. Her eyes have a luminous purity, a revelatory greenness. Her dark hair glows, and her immaculate skin is invitation-card white. She speaks in a low, smokily textured voice that occasionally surges into a throaty giggle.

I meet her at the Tricycle theatre in Kilburn where she’s currently starring alongside Antony Sher in Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass. The production is due to transfer to the Vaudeville on 14 September.

We climb a staircase and emerge on to the roof and sit at a table in the late August sunshine. Recent events have given the play an unexpected topicality. ‘Did you watch the riots on TV?’ I ask. ‘I didn’t need to,’ she says. ‘We were barricaded inside the theatre doing technical rehearsals. Things had got quite funky down on Kilburn High Road so they had to evacuate the cinema which is part of this building. We finished rehearsals early and they got us cars to take us home. It was strange because my character says, “They’re smashing windows and beating children.” So it suddenly seemed quite topical. Obviously it wasn’t as bad as Kristallnacht but there was a lot of broken glass.’

The play, written in 1994, examines the rise of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany from the perspective of New Yorkers responding to reports of attacks on Jews and the infamous pogrom of 9 November 1938. FitzGerald’s character, Sylvia, reacts by succumbing to a psychosomatic disorder which deprives her of the use of her legs. ‘It was called hysterical paralysis then,’ she tells me. ‘Now it’s called conversion disorder. Arthur Miller heard of someone who had it and decided to use it in this play.’ Sylvia’s debility is complicated by her past relationships. ‘There may be some abuse earlier in her life. And she has an abusive relationship with her husband, Phillip.’ The husband, played by Sher, is a Jewish banker working in a Wasp firm and his profound anxieties about his ethnicity start to affect his health. The characters function both as personalities and as symbols. Phillip’s debilitating self-hatred subtly raises the suggestion that the Jews connived in the atrocities committed against them. In a more obvious way Sylvia’s disability represents the failure of the Jewish community to ‘mobilise’ or ‘stand up’ to the attacks of the Nazis.

‘It’s different from the Miller plays I know,’ says FitzGerald. ‘It feels like a distillation of a lot of his ideas. And it’s not like playing a Shakespearean part with a lineage of great performances that you’re aware of. There have only been a few productions so it’s like working on a new play.’

Unusually for a celebrity, FitzGerald canvasses my views on things. Most stars will gladly motor-mouth about themselves for a solid hour without pausing for a pit stop, let alone a self-awareness check, and they regard any opinion voiced by the interviewer as an unwarranted deviation from the agreed agenda. But she’s keen to converse. She asks about Edinburgh, about rival productions in the West End, about Jude Law’s performance in Anna Christie (the Eugene O’Neill play currently running at the Donmar). ‘He’s terrific at playing a lunatic,’ I say. ‘It seems to suit him.’ ‘I saw his Hamlet,’ she says. ‘He was amazing. Incredible, and so physical. It’s unusual to see that in British actors, that rage, the use of that facility. In American actors you see it more. But I think that’s what makes him so exciting to watch. He’s so “in his body”.’

She has no work scheduled after the West End run finishes in December. ‘That’s completely normal. Whenever you make long-term plans they get changed. The classic is, you book a holiday and a really nice job comes up.’ She’s just completed a TV series, The Body Farm, and she’s developing another project as a producer. She’s always been driven and self-reliant. ‘I was a child who said, “I want to be a star.”’

In her teens, she applied to drama school twice and was turned down both times. ‘I began to think acting was just pie in the sky.’ But she applied a third time and was accepted at the Drama Centre where she was taught the techniques of Stanislavski by ‘two gurus’. They liked to excite their students with quasi-revolutionary rhetoric. ‘We’re training you for a theatre that doesn’t exist!’ It was an intense experience. Eleven hours a day for three years. ‘I was very impoverished intellectually, and I knew I was, and I felt some shame around that. So I went quite bonkers, and I read as much as I could on the classical research part of the course.’

As soon as she left she landed a role in Hear My Song, a film about the Irish tenor Josef Locke, and her career was launched. There are many roles she hasn’t played. It seems astonishing that no director has ever cast her as Desdemona or Lady Macbeth. She’s currently toying with the idea of conceiving a piece of theatre from scratch. ‘Get a writer, a director and some actors. Spend five weeks in a rehearsal space creating a play. I’d find that very exciting.’

Would she ever do a solo show? ‘No!’ she chuckles in mock horror. ‘It would put the fear of God into me. I like relating on a stage to others. You have to be prepared for whatever might come. And that’s exhilarating. I get just as nervous [in films] doing a take as I do going on stage. I don’t have the attitude “Oh, I can go again.” I don’t have that feeling of security.’ She’s not one of those actors who feels ‘most at home’ in the theatre. She strives against any sense of ease or relaxation on stage. ‘If you’re too comfortable then something’s not right. You’re having too good a time so maybe the audience aren’t having such a good time. I’m always aware of keeping a flint in my shoe.’ She mimes pulling an obstruction from under her toes. ‘Some sort of stone in there.’
That must be tough when you’re playing the entire role in a wheelchair? She chuckles again. ‘Luckily, the rake on this stage isn’t too extreme so I don’t feel I’m going to roll off into the audience.’

The first episode of The Body Farm will be broadcast on 13 September on BBC1.

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