Author’s awful truth brings Blair despair

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THEY may share the same birthday and London postcode but it has taken acting buddies Isla Blair and Patricia Hodge most of their adult lives to work together again.

Now veterans of stage and TV, they were cast early in their careers in a musical.

Next week they lock horns in David Hare’s tough but witty play about infidelity and matrimonial betrayal.

“A lot of women and men will find something in it because it’s to do with all our lives, not just marriage but all relationships we have,” Isla says of The Breath Of Life.

“It asks: ‘How truthful are we being? Are we protecting ourselves or another person by lying?’

“Audiences like to go through the emotions that you’re going through. You have to carry them with you and you feel you want to bring them with you.”

The story centres on the fall-out when novelist Frances Beale (Blair) visits the home of Madelaine Palmer (Hodge) to write the story of how their lives became inextricably linked 40 years before when Madelaine had an affair with the author’s husband.

“It’s quite a thing to discover your husband’s been having an affair, a shattering thing. It must be,” says Isla. “So she’s trying to find Madelaine’s perspective on what our marriage was, what it is from her he needed

“You’d think Patricia’s was the tougher character in that she’s an academic who has chosen to never have any relationship; she’s had relationships but no commitment. She’s a very political animal too.

“I see my character as much more nurturing, cooking lentils on an Aga.

“She’s come over to the Isle of Wight having come into writing popular novels late in her life. I imagine her being a bit like Joanna Trollop.

“She’s very well known but she didn’t find out her husband was having this affair with Madelaine until a few years before he left her for a younger model.”

With just Isla and Patricia cast in Breath, a play previously featuring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, the focus is on the dynamics and emotional tension conjured by Hare’s brilliant dialogue at the hands of Blair and Hodge.

“There are times we get quite heated but we don’t stop talking to each other because I need to know, the pain of my husband leaving me and secondly the knowledge that I clearly haven’t been enough for him all the way through our marriage,” says Isla.

“In order to get some sort of end to it all she finds it cathartic to talk to her about how it happened, why it happened.

“Why was I sharing my husband with this other woman? What is it he liked about her? And I’ve come to write a book, a memoir about us.”

Certainly it isn’t light relief from Isla’s previous project, a challenging play in which she was in a wheelchair with motor neurone disease and committed suicide on stage.

Then she admits to an appetite for riskier things.

“It’s playing different people that’s interesting.

“I’m not like this woman I’m playing now, but we’ll find something about our personalities that will fit.

“You find out more about yourself. Always and in all sorts of ways.

“One of the great things about being an actor, however well or not educated you are, you always find out more.

“I played a botanist and had to cross pollinate a plant on stage so I went to Kew Gardens.

“And for that horror film I learned to ride side saddle.

“And sometimes, because you’ve got to look quite deeply into a character like this, you learn things, like ‘How would Isla Blair react to the situation?’”