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A Closer Look: Juliet Stevenson

28 December 2017 by Emily Moulder
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Juliet Stevenson’s name has become synonymous with quality, and quite rightly so. Known for her hard work, challenging roles and enormous list of credits, Juliet has been in so many plays, TV shows and films, you’ll likely have your memory jogged several times while reading this blog.

Although, if you’re 100% sure you’ve never seen Juliet in anything before, then you’re in for a treat because you can see her in the upcoming transfer of Mary Stuart. This political tragedy takes us behind the scenes of some of British history’s most crucial days. Playing both Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart, Juliet and Lia Williams (Oresteia) will trade the play’s central roles, decided at each performance by the toss of a coin.

To get you caught up on Juliet’s life and incredible career, we take A Closer Look.

Photo Credit: BT TV

Born in Essex, Juliet’s early life saw her moving around a fair amount due to her father’s Army career. After a little bit of bouncing around from place to place, she ultimately arrived at RADA in London. She feels strongly that without the education she received there, that her entire life and career would have been very different. Juliet described how valuable her training at RADA was:

“I can’t even imagine having had a career without RADA. It’s inseparable from who I am as an actress, that training, it completely made me. I am still learning from things I was taught there 30 years ago. There were quite a lot of things I was taught and told then that I thought, ‘Hmm, not quite sure I get that’. But I stored it away somewhere and a year, or three or 10 or 20 years later that penny will drop, and you think, ‘Oh I see what she was talking about’.”

With a solid base of training, Juliet began working successfully in the theatre, appearing in nine plays just in 1978! A part of the Royal Shakespeare Company, she dove into their productions of The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra and Measure for Measure. Through the 80s, you could catch her in episodes of TV shows here and there, and starring in Yerma at the National Theatre, for which she was nominated for an Lawrence Olivier Award. But she hit two major peaks in theatre and film between 1990-92 that would change the course of her career.

The first hit was in 1990 with the film Truly, Madly, Deeply, co-starring the late Alan Rickman.

Photo Credit: Truly, Madly, Deeply

The film followed Juliet as Nina, a woman grieving over the loss of her boyfriend Jamie. When he returns as a ghost, Nina is forced to confront her pain and the idealised version of Jamie she still carries with her. The film was a success and earned both Juliet and Alan acting trophies at the Evening Standard British Film Awards, they also received BAFTA nominations too.

Juliet spoke of the role to The Telegraph, “Success can quite often be a total disaster. You have to be wary about your choices if you have a big hit. After Truly, Madly, Deeply I was deluged with offers to play vulnerable, slightly quirky single women in sitcoms. It was lovely to be asked, but I thought: ‘No. Keep shifting the boundaries.’ Meryl Streep for me is a goddess. You never ever see her play the same character twice. She is a miracle of transformation. To end up playing small versions of yourself, an inch to the left or the right, has no appeal.”

The role put Juliet on the cinematic map, and another success on the stage was just down the road. Death and the Maiden, a powerful play by Ariel Dorfman, saw Juliet star as Paulina, a woman tortured under a South America dictatorship and raped by her captor. Years later, her husband brings home a helpful stranger and Paulina is convinced he is the man who tortured her. The play opened in 1991 at the Royal Court and earned Juliet her first Olivier Award in ’92.

More Olivier or BAFTA nominations would come for Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, political drama series The Politician’s Wife, a revival of Duet For One and Jimmy McGovern’s series Accused.

Ever seeking meatier roles for women, Juliet struggled with Shakespeare’s underwritten female characters for years, searching for something with teeth. She expressed her frustration about the lack of interesting roles for women to The Guardian.

“Very often the interesting things happen to the man. The woman is there as wife, mother, daughter, PA. A lot of writers won’t give you your own narrative because it isn’t deemed necessary. So much in our culture about women’s identities relates to their sexual value. When that is no longer of interest they, as individuals, are past the point of being of any interest either. It’s a source of frustration. As you get older, you get more experience, you have more to say, more layers. And at exactly the same time that’s happening in your life, the roles are narrowing down. It’s like you’re on the up escalator but the parts are on the down escalator. You’re waving to your actress self: ‘Byeee!’”

Photo Credit: Happy Days/Johan Persson

Fans may recognise her more for her film roles than anything else. Bend It Like Beckham, Being Julia and Mona Lisa Smile were all from the early noughties and made her a more familiar face to the non-theatre going crowd, but there was never a question that she’d leave theatre behind for the big screen.

In recent years, Juliet was once again lauded by critics for a succession of wonderful performances, beginning with Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. Then came Mary Stuart at the Almeida (now transferring), Hamlet, starring Andrew Scott and Wings at the Young Vic. For those who had forgotten, these three plays were a reminder of Juliet’s power to carry a show, her rawness on stage and the vulnerability she is willing to share with her audiences.

See Juliet on stage in this January in Mary Stuart, get your tickets now. 

Want more? Show Breakdown: The Grinning Man.

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