Rachael Stirling starts Plenty at Chichester Festival Theatre with a considerable advantage.
“I find that I totally understand why Susan Traherne does what she does. I don’t find it extraordinary at all. To me, she is utterly rational… and maybe that’s a good sign!”
In the piece, which runs on the main-house stage from June 7-29, Traherne is a former secret agent. Her heroic work with the Special Operations Executive in Nazi-occupied France brought her extremes of danger as well as adventures and romance.
20 years on she is living a very different existence in London as the wealthy wife of a diplomat. Her strained marriage and altered circumstances have threatened her identity and she finds herself trapped in a destructive nostalgia for her wartime idealism…
“She experienced SOE and she was incredibly good at being undercover in France from the age of 17 to 19, false name, false identity, able to carry messages past the Gestapo, but also able to carry codes and arms and petrol. She was very successful as a spy for two years, using her brain and her body and her language ability. She felt totally fulfilled as a person in this role.”
But in post-war England, there is just no place for these skills and these talents: “In fact her brain and her bombast are seen as being in the way. She is told to get back in her place and is considered vaguely inappropriate. But she rails against that. She is a rebel. All these women who fought as she did had faith in the fact that everybody should have the right to live in a state of freedom from tyranny, and she has kept that belief.”
But in the post-war world, she finds herself up against a different kind of tyranny: “She tries to find her place in the world. She takes various jobs. She tries anything and everything, but she knows she doesn’t quite fit. She is just too big for it. And she also has this idealised romance from the war that is imprisoning her.”
Plenty of people will know Plenty from the 1985 film starring Meryl Streep.
But playwright David Hare, who also wrote the screenplay just as he wrote the play, cautioned Rachael against watching the movie as she prepared to take on the Streep role on stage.
“He said don’t see the film. It is not the play, and they are two quite different beasts.”
Plus there was simply no need to watch it, to step outside the text.
“It is all in the writing. I am very much for gilding the lily and then you realise that with somebody as brilliant as David, you just don’t need to. It is all in the writing. You just don’t need to be adding bells and whistles.”
As Rachael says, the play was famously met with froideur on its premiere – a reaction to its portrayal of a woman who rebels. But that’s not to say it is a feminist play, Rachael says: “I wouldn’t slap that on it. That would make it far too narrow.
“David’s ‘feminism’ in the play isn’t about beating men. He is very balanced in that although we cheer for this independent spirit, who happens to be a woman, we also see the fall-out of her self-determination which is to the detriment of everyone around her.
“I suppose what he is really asking is, is it better to live life as we wish to, however that may affect the people around us, or to acquiesce to society and live within its expectations.
“He doesn’t answer that question for us. Susan is by no means the victor. But she is the conduit through whom we ask ourselves the question.”