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 their home.
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.”
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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 disillusioned.
“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 the cast.
“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 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 actor's 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 hard work.”
Hay Fever, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, March 10-April 1; Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, April 5-22.