Stella Gonet on playing Margaret Thatcher

Stella Gonet in Handbagged. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Stella Gonet in Handbagged. Picture: Tristram Kenton

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FORMER House of Eliott star Stella Gonet has gone from glad rags to handbags to conjure up a very funny Thatcher, says Jackie McGlone

I hear Margaret Thatcher before I see her. Those scarily authoritative tones soar into the rooftop room in deepest, darkest Kilburn, north-west London, where I await an afternoon audience with the Iron Lady.

When she eventually erupts into the room in a flurry of stylish anorak, leggings and ankle boots, toting a shoulder-bag, silvery-blonde hair in tangles, I wonder whatever has happened to “Boadicea in pearls?”

This is not a séance, however. Obviously, I’m not meeting the late Baroness Thatcher but her newest incarnation in the shape of Greenock-born actor Stella Gonet, who has the ferrous-metalled Lady down to a T in Moira Buffini’s mischievous play, Handbagged, about the Queen’s uneasy association with Britain’s first woman prime minister.

Indeed, 53-year-old Gonet’s character in the play, which has just transferred to London’s West End from Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre, is actually called T.

Buffini’s sparky, satirical comedy opened to rave reviews and a sell-out run in Kilburn in October. It has young and older versions of the Queen (Liz and Q, Clare Holman and Marion Bailey) and Thatcher (Mags and T) in a series of icy conversations at their weekly meetings, contradicting and bickering with their alter egos. (Two male actors play everyone else, 17 characters in all, from Nancy Reagan to Arthur Scargill.)

As one critic noted, Gonet’s stellar performance perfectly captures T’s “tough-talking pragmatism”, while another thought her “manic imperiousness and unhinged drive” stunningly well conveyed, hinting at the dementia to come.

Fresh from a morning rehearsal of the play’s opening “rant,” on which I was earwigging, the former House of Eliott and Holby City actor, sinks into a chair and sighs: “This woman is not easy to live with. She was so driven.” It’s Thatcher’s certainty, her conviction that she’s always right that spooks Gonet, whose Thatcher spars with her “younger, blonder, bluer” self, Mags (Fenella Woolgar).

“Of course some things I have to say stick in my craw, despite the fact that I’m not a political person. There are times when you hear what she said and then look at what she did to the miners, for example, and the blood boils. But I have to speak with her mix of absolute conviction and apparently profound sincerity,” she shudders, tilting her head and seguing brilliantly into Thatcher’s honeyed timbre.

“It’s the sincerity that really gets to me. Also, there’s a moment when she says she had nothing to say to her mother after the age of 15. As a daughter who adores her mother, and a mother myself, I find that chilling. She didn’t support other women at all, even her own daughter. Only her son.

“I was 19 when she came to power. I was still living in Scotland where she was hated with a passion and indeed still is. In fact, when my sisters – Gonet is the seventh of a family of 12 – heard I was playing her they said, ‘What are you doing, Stella? You know we all loathed her.’ The thing is the play is very funny – the Queen has all the best lines, although no-one knows what transpired between them. Which means that Moira has been able to have the Queen say to Thatcher things we’d all have liked to say.”

Luckily, Gonet has seen few other actors’ interpretations. “I saw the brilliant Meryl Streep in the Iron Lady because my husband Nick [the actor Nicholas Farrell, with whom she has a 14-year-old daughter, Natasha] was in the film.” He played Airey Neave, the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, assassinated in a car-bomb attack in 1979.

Gonet has immersed herself in YouTube videos of Thatcher in full flood, listening to that extraordinary voice, watching the quick walk, the hold on the handbag, the body language. “There’s loads of stuff out there. I spent so long listening to her voice that I can’t hear it anymore. No, I don’t take it home!”

It’s a gift of a part, nonetheless, even if T is the “strangest” woman she’s ever played – Gonet’s distinguished stage career has embraced seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre, as well as the Traverse and the Royal Court, where she was in John Byrne’s The Slab Boys.

She first played T during the Tricycle’s 2010 project Women, Power and Politics. “I know we’re always banging on about it but there aren’t that many great parts around for women in their fifties and this has been so much fun, from the 30-minute sketch to the full-length play,” she says, adding that it’s a far cry from the role that made her name, that of Beatrice – Bea – Eliott in the BBC’s 1920s costume drama, the House of Eliott. The much-loved series told of the struggles of two penniless sisters (Gonet and Louise Lombard, now starring in the American CSI crime franchise) to build a fashion empire. With a viewing average of 12 million an episode, it ran for three series from 1991 until 1994.

“It’s always on satellite TV somewhere,” says Gonet, whose late father, a Pole, and Scottish mother met during the war. “I watched an episode one afternoon recently with my mum when I went home to Greenock to see her. I feel really proud of it.”

But is Thatcher that far removed from the original Great British Sewing Bea, who was as steely and determined as Thatcher? Couldn’t Bea be a bit of a sew-and-sew, so to speak? “You know, there’s nothing I disliked about Bea. She was spirited, like so many women I’ve played, whereas T is like no-one I’ve ever known or indeed met,” she responds. So, there’s a lot she dislikes about Thatcher?

Gonet arches her eyebrows into ironic quotations marks, then says: “When you are playing someone, you can’t make judgments. I am not impersonating her; it’s not an impression either. I just put on the armour – dark-blue suit, pearls, brooch on the lapel, which my daughter says is ghastly, and the helmet of ‘hair’ – and I go out on stage and, hopefully, I become her.”

Meanwhile, it’s “handbags at dawn” for the next four months since the one thing the sovereign and her PM had in common was a penchant for Launer handbags – sturdy, black, expensive.

What’s in Gonet’s stage handbag on which she exerts a vice-like grip? “Only a wee bottle of water. I promise you it’s only water,” she replies. “I take surreptitious sips whenever I can because I get very thirsty – all that talk!”

Who does she thirst to play next? Gertrude in Hamlet perhaps? She was Ophelia to three Hamlets at the National Theatre: Daniel Day-Lewis, who suffered a breakdown mid-performance, Edinburgh-born Ian Charleson, who was dying of an Aids-related illness, and finally Jeremy Northam. “My three Hamlets were absolutely wonderful,” says Gonet. “But it was a painful experience; I never want to do Hamlet again.” Unless she was playing Hamlet himself? “Of course!”

The role she lusts after is Lady Macbeth. “No-one has ever asked me,” she says mournfully. Ah, the archetypal evil woman. Well, there are many who believe she’s already playing her.

• Handbagged is at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, until 2 August.

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