There's something familiar, if not instantly recognisable about Rachael Stirling. The Scottish-born actress may have been playing a leading role on prime time telly the night before in the first episode of three-part mini-series The Bletchley Circle, but, as she sits munching on a salad in the garden of the Union Chapel, Islington, you'd never guess it.
Stirling is on a lunch-break from rehearsals for Mike Bartlett's new contemporary version of Medea, which opens the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow's new autumn season in a co-production with Headlong. In the early September sunshine, however, with her claret-coloured hair tied up, she could be any north Londoner seeking sanctuary in the Union Chapel's leafy quietude. Only the much thumbed script in front of her with the words 'Why am I here?' scrawled across the first page in big inky letters in Stirling's girlish hand-writing is a give-away.
“It's the most amazing, exciting – I could lick the script – extraordinary part I've ever, and probably will ever play,” she gushes in the throaty, jolly-hockey-sticks voice she picked up at boarding school. “It's not going to get better than this.”
Part of the appeal, one suspects, comes from Bartlett updating Euripides' tale of Medea's ultimate revenge on an adulterous Jason to a modern-day suburb.
“I couldn't believe how brilliantly it updated, this play,” says Stirling. “We don't hide away from the tragedy or pretend it isn't a Greek play, but by putting this spurned woman in the suburbs, where she's ostracised by the community, and is being evicted, the emotional journey of that woman is just as prescient as the Euripides original. In fact, if anything, in the modern day you've got more references for women who've killed their children.
“Medea is a spurned woman, but she's also incredibly clever. It's really rare you're playing a Professor Higgins rather than an Eliza. You're the one with the great brain and the greatest articulacy, the one with the greatest ability. She's got nothing to lose, and she's brilliantly clever and funny and bright, so it's a joy to be that verbose, and witty with it.
“For all her brilliant articulacy and wordsmithery, there's something incredibly simple about Medea, in that she's a woman spurned. There are aspects of her which are naïve, which is unusual. She's incredibly powerful, but she's isolated in her community, and even within her circle of friends, which a lot of quite strong or clever women are. But she's funny. She's funny as fuck, man. She's violent, but she's funny with it.
“You want to be her friend, but you want to give her a wide berth, and there is an element of magic about her. You need a strength of mind, a passion, a fortissimo, a duende. But what I love about it is that all of this is motivated by the absolute simplicity of a broken heart. It's a survival process, it's a simple form of self defence, la, la, la, la, so put that in your pipe and smoke it.”
When she drops such funny, archaic slang, sweary words and all, into her conversation like this, Stirling sounds just like Millie, the posh-girl socialite she plays in The Bletchley Circle, in which a quartet of World War Two code-breakers are brought out of hum-drum post-war retirement by team leader Susan, played by Anna Maxwell Martin, to track down a serial-killer. Julie Graham and Sophie Rundle complete the circle.
“I love those women,” says Stirling. “Julie Graham has been one of my best friends for years, Anna and I, and sweet Soph, we were as dirty as anything. We were very vulgar, like a bunch of hyenas. My Bletchley bitches, babe, I fucking love 'em!”
Stirling and co had been on breakfast TV earlier in the week to punt the show and everything, but there hasn't been a glimmer of recognition since.
“I was on the tube this morning, thinking, did anyone watch Bletchley last night?,” Stirling guffaws, “but it's always been a bit like that.”
It was the same last year when she worked behind the bar at a friend's pub. She'd just split up with her boyfriend, was being offered a lot of mediocre scripts, but needed to keep busy.
“The manager told me to get my head out of my ass,” she says, “so I did, and I was fucking good at it. I was good at getting the drunks out at night and washing vomit off stairs. It made me howl with laughter, but it also made me tired, and I was pleased to be tired.”
If any of the punters asked her if she'd been on the telly, Stirling would deflect them by telling them they must be thinking of Martine McCutcheon.
“I was cagey,” she admits. “Only in case – no offence – some bastard journalist came in and wrote this thing about lesbian star works in pub shock.”
Stirling is talking, of course, about Tipping The Velvet, Andrew Davies' racy small-screen adaptation of Sarah Waters' novel, which combined lesbianism, Victorian music hall and posh frocks with ratings-friendly, tabloid-baiting aplomb. The programme left Stirling and co-star Keeley Hawes exposed in every way. Not that this helped Stirling's career much.
“No-one would touch me with as barge-pole,” she says. “We didn't take it seriously, but if you're naked and painted gold while wearing a dildo, it's probably safe to say no-one else is taking you seriously either. But no-one told me that. I wasn't afraid of the content, but I wasn't prepared for how sensationalised it would be, so I was out of work for ages.”
All that was a decade ago, however, since when Stirling has carved out a healthy career on stage and screen without any tabloid help. She played Helena in Peter Gill's revival of Look Back in Anger in Bath, and Yelena in David Mamet's version of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya at Wilton's Music Hall. Stirling has done guest slots in both Poirot and Marple on TV, so Agatha Christie friendly is her demeanour. More recently, Stirling was nominated for two Olivier awards; the first for a supporting role in Michael Wynne's play, The Priory, at the Royal Court in 2009, then again a year later playing Lady Chiltern in Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband on the West End.
On top of all this, Stirling is the daughter of Diana Rigg, who similarly straddled a classical stage career with popular film and TV, most famously as leather-clad secret agent Emma Peel in The Avengers. Not that Stirling had ever exploited her family ties, though she's never denied them either.
“When I got an agent and told her I was Diana Rigg's daughter, her face fell,” she says of being picked up following playing Desdemona in Othello and other Shakespearian leads with the National Youth Theatre. “I think she thought she'd found some left-field thing, and it's such a boring cliché to be the daughter of an actress and to become one as well. I think she sighed a little.”
That's probably why Stirling could see the funny side of taking the role of Miranda Lionheart in the stage version of Theatre of Blood, originally played by Rigg in the hammed-up comic horror about a theatre critic killing actor. It's probably also why Stirling and Rigg, their names a detective agency in waiting, have filmed a yet to be screened Dr Who adventure in Cardiff last year. Not that Stirling can talk about it.
“I can't tell you anything about it,” she says, “except to say that it's camp as Christmas, and we don't take ourselves seriously. What we wanted to do was play together, and Mark Gattis wrote a script that royally takes the piss out of both of us, and is totally irreverent. I didn't know anything could be that camp, but it's rather moving at the same time. Babe, I saw the Tardis, that's all I'm saying. I'd have to kill you if I told you anything else.”
Long before her encounter with the Tardis, Stirling saw her mother play Medea twenty years ago, when still a teenager, a couple of years after Rigg and Stirling's father, millionaire Laird of the Keir estate near Stirling had split up.
“I saw it several times, and I don't remember it brilliantly, but I do remember the effect it had. I didn't know the story, so, aged fifteen, the concept of a woman killing her sons hadn't occurred to me. It's bit like, as you get older you realise there's people who do bad things to children, but at that age it's not in your canon of awareness. I remember...ooh, that was disappointing,” she says, as
the plastic fork she's just stabbed into her salad snaps with the force of her assault. “FUCKING CHEAP TOURING FORKS!” she bellows in-between guffaws.
Stirling says she didn't know she wanted to be an actress, but “I knew I had to act, but I didn't know what form that would take. I inhabited the theatre at boarding school more than anywhere else. All I knew was that when I was at school and you're reading out Anthony and Cleopatra or whatever, I could write an essay about it, but I could much better read the part, and tell you what I think of Cleopatra that way.
“I'm also a live in the moment kind of lady. I wasn't the sort of girl who'd sit there at fifteen planning what theatre I was going to be working at by the time I was twenty. I'm really shit about saying what I'm going to be doing in a year's time. Or a week's time for that matter.”
Even so, by the time she was studying History of Art at Edinburgh University, Stirling was already making films. Her screen debut was in ageing rockers comedy, Still Crazy, followed by Complicity, starring Johnny Lee Miller as a young journalist in an adaptation of Iain Banks' novel.
“I think I got slightly on my tutor's tits,” she admits, “but I didn't want to narrow my options, and I needed to get a degree.”
Despite such a safety net, Stirling clearly plays by her own rules. Ask her what's in store for her beyond Medea and The Bletchley Circle, and “Fuck knows, my friend,” is the candid reply.
“I've never done that thing of borrowing a dress and gone to a party,” she says. “I can't be arsed with all that. I probably should've done, but I'm not a celebrity, and I definitely don't have the currency of a celebrity, so I don't get offered certain parts, but then I get to play parts like Medea, so who gives a shit? Medea's my fave. She's my main bitch.
“There aren't that many good parts for women, which is why the Bletchley Circle's so great. It's four feisty birds. Clever women. Somebody described it in the press as Charlie's Angels with tweed. It was hilarious in costume, Anna's looking at my rack of bohemian outfits, and she's wearing various shades of shit brown and piss yellow.”
While Stirling was working in the pub last year, she chanced upon The Butterfly School, a charity which teaches literacy to children in deprived areas in London, and ended up running Saturday morning sessions there. Stirling only mentions this when asked what she might have done if she hadn't become an actress, although it illustrates too how “I quite like to disappear.”
It's this singular sense of self-possession, one suspects, that makes Stirling both so grounded and such a free-spirit.
“I'm familiar with the world in a way I wouldn't be if my mother wasn't an actress,” she says. “That's where my knowledge about the profession is helpful, because I don't feel any crazy sense of competition. I know that you can be the most photographed star one minute, and unemployed the next. You can be the world's most famous person, then you go out of fashion. Everybody has peaks and troughs, but your career doesn't define your life. Your life defines your career, I think.”
Medea, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, September 27th-October 13th. The final part of The Bletchley Circle airs on ITV this Thursday at 9pm.
A version of this article appeared in the Herald, September 15th 2012