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Georgina Hale - The Cherry Orchard

Only an actress of magnitude could get away with wearing specs to match her outfit, but, elegantly clad in various shades of red, Georgina Hale carries it off with surprisingly understated aplomb. With such a display of well-coordinated show-stopping flamboyance in mind, you might expect such a veteran of stage and screen, including a Bafta winning-turn in Ken Russell's musical biopic, Mahler, to come on strong with a winning set of well-worn anecdotes and name-dropping bons mots, all ready-made for the prime-time chat-show circuit.

Expectations, however, are decidedly confounded. Because, as Hale trawls through her back pages, as she knows she must, during a break from rehearsals for the Citizens' Theatre's production of The Cherry Orchard, in which she's playing Madame Ranevsky, there's a world-weary languor about her.

It is as though she's just come across something in her bottom drawer she'd long-since put out of her mind, or given up for dead in another life. When reminded of her Bafta win, at first she looks a little put out, as if incredulous at the very notion of what you're saying, you silly boy. Then a casually murmured: ''Oh, yes, I'd forgotten about that,'' is followed by the most fleeting of gazes into the middle distance as her head dips ever so slowly to one side. Very Madame Ranevsky.

Not that there isn't an artistic temperament buried in there somewhere. A defiant eyebrow is raised when Ranevsky is carelessly described as ''an ageing matriarch'', as if some kind of parallel is being drawn between character and actress. Then again, Hale's high-profile bright young years during the sixties and seventies might well tell a few stories, but, more recently, reality has bitten a whole lot deeper for the fiftysomething actress. She may have spent last year on the West End stage in Philip Prowse's production of Noel Coward's Semi-Monde, but not long before had been washing dishes in a basement restaurant during a two-year spell out of work.

''Once I reached 51, my life drastically changed,'' she says. ''The parts aren't there, the people you've worked for have retired or died, and there's nothing. Four years ago I tried to change my agent, and 11 agents turned me down. One told me they didn't take actresses over 45 because it was too depressing to talk to them on the telephone. You felt as though you'd never been an actor. I had periods where I wondered if I'd actually done all these things, or whether it was somebody else.''

This isn't some fly-by-night soap star talking. This is Georgina Hale. ''After that,'' she says, wizened by the experience, ''I say to any young actress they should make sure they can do something else, or, if they make money, invest it wisely, because once they hit middle age it gets very tough out there.''

Such self-reliance does, however, seem strangely in keeping with Hale's unorthodox and somewhat humble origins. The daughter of cockney

publicans with an accent to match, she had ''a really bad education. I couldn't write, spell, or read, so it was a real problem, because that sort of thing wasn't acknowledged then. There was a real shame in it, and you were the dunce of the class, always getting whacked around the head. We were on the move a lot as well, so going to so many schools, always being the new girl, it was so frightening and so nerve-wracking as a kid, and it really affected me.''

She had never visited a theatre until, aged 19, she was given tickets to see West Side Story, ''which, of course, blew my mind''. By that time her sights were set on art college, but she wasn't allowed to go, and worked as a Saturday girl for a hairdresser in Knightsbridge. Down the road, in a hall behind Harrods, a method-acting studio had opened, which Hale visited four nights a week.

''Someone came down and said, 'Can you read a script?' I thought, God, I can hardly read, and I certainly didn't know what a script was.''

Nevertheless, she auditioned for Rada. ''It didn't dawn on me to read a play,'' she recalls, 'I just learnt the shortest bit of Juliet from a book of speeches and stood there like a petrified beetroot.'' Once in drama school, learning to walk and talk at the same time was as tough as losing her cockney accent, while her method origins made her a small-screen natural, even though she still suffered from word blindness.

Hale relates all this in the quietest, most undemonstrative of voices, with little flashes of humour now and then. ''When I started going up for TV plays, if they hadn't sent the script beforehand, I'd be outside, grabbing someone and pointing at the script saying, 'Quick, how d'you say that word? Tell me'.'' She acts this out, leaping forward to grab my notebook. ''And, of course, by the time I went inside I'd forgotten it,'' she says, leaning back in repose.

Being cast as Nina opposite Alan Bates in a production of The Seagull that was destined for the West End was a shock to Hale's still delicate system. ''I hated the theatre. Hated it,'' she says. ''There's still times up there I get scared.''

Somewhat serendipitously, her first job straight after The Seagull was a BBC production of the same play, only this time playing Masha.

''I love Chekhov,'' she says. ''There's magic there. Magic.'' Magic, too, in her ongoing working relationship with director Philip Prowse, for whom she's graced the stage ''from time to time'', over the past 18 years, including playing opposite Glenda Jackson in Mourning Becomes Electra, and with Rupert Everett in The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. The Cherry Orchard is ''number six, I think'', and follows his epic turn with Semi-Monde.

''It was a really strange piece for me,'' Hale reveals, ''because 29 of us were lined up on the stage throughout, so there were no possibilities for private moments offstage.'' Many of her colleagues from Semi-Monde, including Simon Dutton and Lucy Russell, are also appearing in The Cherry Orchard.

Hale is warming up now, talking up Ken Russell's tyrannical ways, telling me about her trips to Egypt, and the charity she's involved with there. But, before we can get any further, she checks her watch, and she's off, a vision of red on the endless road to Moscow.

The next day, word comes through that Hale wants to talk to me, something to do with the interview. Maybe she thought it was too downbeat, or perhaps she said something she shouldn't have. As it is, she ends up leaving a message on my mobile. It's something and nothing, but speaks volumes.

''Hello . . . hi, it's George again. Sorry I've missed you, but just to double-check, this is No7 with Philip, and I've done quite a few plays, and this is the best company I've ever worked in. So that's wonderful, and we have a great working atmosphere, and I just couldn't wish to be with better, better actors. So that's a wonderful bonus, and I'd like that to go in your article please,'' (she laughs on the word ''please'', which she stresses so you know she means it), ''under the direction of Captain Philip Prowse'', (a chuckle), ''the captain of our ship. Thank you and God bless, and talk to you whenever.''

Better than any Bafta speech, only an actress of a certain magnitude could get away with it.

The Cherry Orchard, Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, from Friday until March 30.

The Herald, March 5th 2002

ends

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