FOR anyone who has only ever witnessed Patricia Hodge reading aloud rude texts on BBC comedy hit Miranda, a visit to the Lyceum next week may prove a surprise.
Then this vintage stage actress has covered more theatrical territory than many may realise. But even she declares she has much to live up to when she appears in David Hare’s play The Breath Of Life from Wednesday.
“This is notable for having been done with Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. I saw it then and it hadn’t particularly occurred to me it would be done again,” admits Patricia, when we meet in a church hall rehearsal room in Hammersmith. “When you read it with a distance it’s something other than what you remember and that, in a way, was the interest for me.”
The play features just two actresses and pairs Patricia with friend Isla Blair, who she met when they appeared in a musical, one of Patricia’s first jobs after drama school.
“It’s thrilling for us. We’ve kept up the friendship at a distance,” says Patricia, who admits their familiarity could help with the drama, directed by celebrated playwright Peter Gill.
“It’s quite monumental because it’s a very verbose play and nothing happens other than the two of us, so we’ve got to find the dynamics of it. It’s a lot to learn and take on.
“And Peter is one of the main reasons I got involved. I knew he would take us on the kind of detailed journey I’d want to go on, and he’s safe - not in terms of being daring and the way he looks at something - but safe because he’s very thorough.”
Last in Sheffield five years ago with The Clean House and then Calendar Girls, Breath returns Patricia as part of a David Hare season which includes Racing Demon, in the Crucible, and Plenty, in the Studio (See What’s On, Page 24 for review); three very disparate plays that demonstrate the contrast of the man’s work.
Set over the course of a single night, Breath is a witty but brutal and poignant portrayal of two women who are united by their love for the same man. Patricia plays author Frances Beale who lands at the home of Madeleine Palmer (Blair) seeking the story of how their lives became inextricably linked 40 years before.
“It’s a journey of discovery; two people sounding each other out and seeing where the truth lies and where there’s a degree of fiction and cover up. It’s always difficult when you’ve had a secret that’s then blown apart and you look at the detritus from that and whether it’s going to resolve or not.”
The result is a game of intellectual cat and mouse creating tangible tension in a domestic setting.
“That’s the only way to sustain it because nobody else knocks at the door. The telephone doesn’t ring. The only thing that will sustain it is the shifting dynamics between these two people. It’s a close examination of a consequential meeting but there’s a lot of inconsequence in the playing out of that meeting.”
Certainly it is in stark contrast to playing Miranda’s mum, dramas such as Rumpole Of The Bailey and The She Devil, or The Elephant Man film with John Hurt.
“If you like the process of acting... that’s what drives me. What I’ve always done is try and change the circumstance each time. A couple of decades back when there was a lot more work in television and film and theatre, at that point I would move between the media.
“Gradually as that’s diminished I’ve looked for different things to explore. The thing of doing Miranda is not remotely reinventing myself, it’s what I’ve always done, but because it’s on television more people are seeing it.
“There were domestic reasons I didn’t do television for a while, though, because I had two young children and it was easier for me to work in the evenings at theatre. Also I hit a point in my life where I wanted to be self improving and you get much better through doing theatre than anything else.
“But all these things have their own demands. There’s nothing soft about any of them. To do live audience shows is a real tightrope act and any actor who is interested in the craft goes back to theatre all the time. It was a good moment for me having done television for the last year to say ‘Right, now I can do something for my soul’.”