20 Questions with Eve Best

Date: 18 August 2003

Actress Eve Best, who’s currently playing Masha in Three Sisters at the National, contemplates her Utopian experience, why good teachers are important & her desire to wear pink frilly knickers.

Having graduated from Oxford University, Eve Best spent over two years trying to kickstart her acting career before opting to train at RADA. Her first job after drama school was playing opposite Jude Law in the Young Vic’s high-profile 1999 production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, a performance for which she won both the Critics’ Circle and Evening Standard awards for Best Newcomer.

Best’s subsequent stage roles have included Lady Macbeth in Macbeth at the Globe, Brothers and Sisters at the Gate and The Misanthrope at Chichester Festival Theatre. And, at the National Theatre, her credits encompass Tom Stoppard’s epic trilogy The Coast of Utopia and The Cherry Orchard (both directed by Trevor Nunn) as well as the title role in The Heiress.

Meanwhile, on television, Best has been seen in Shackleton with Kenneth Branagh, HG Wells and Other People’s Children.

Currently back at the National, Best is playing Masha, the middle sister, in Katie Mitchell’s production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, in which she’s joined by her Utopia sisters Lucy Whybrow and Anna Maxwell Martin.

Date & place of birth
Born in London on 31 July 1971.

Lives now in…
Shepherd’s Bush, west London.

I read English at Oxford and then spent two and a half years trying to get an agent. I did a couple of fringe plays, some teaching, directed three children’s operas, waitressed and got nowhere. So in the end I went to RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art).

First big break
‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore at the Young Vic. It was the summer I left RADA and David Lan (the Young Vic artistic director) had the courage to cast me. It was a wonderful experience in every way – fabulous part, a fabulous play, a brilliant cast, an inspiring and sensitive director and a great theatre. The production also got a lot of attention because of Jude Law, which was very lovely for me – a lot of people came to see it.

Career highlights to date
So many amazing things happen all the time. Sometimes just being in a rehearsal room and watching someone do something unexpected can be extraordinary. Before I went to RADA I understudied in Bill Bryden’s Uncle Vanya. It had a phenomenal cast – Derek Jacobi, Frances Barber, Trevor Eve, Imogen Stubbs, Constance Cummings, Peggy Mount. Watching those rehearsals was pretty awe-inspiring. What else? Doing Macbeth in Vicenza in the oldest covered theatre in the world. And the first time we did the three plays of The Coast of Utopia all together was an extraordinary day – a mad day. It was very odd sitting on stage at 10 o’clock in the morning in a full wig and corset thinking, “I can’t believe I’m actually here doing a play, and I haven’t even had breakfast yet!”. Having Tom Stoppard sitting in the corner of our rehearsal room, chain-smoking and still writing the plays as we rehearsed them was pretty good, too.

Favourite production you’ve ever worked on
Well, I’ve already said ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore was an incredible experience. The Young Vic is my favourite theatre in London. I love the shape of it, the intimacy, and I love the audiences there. They come from every strand of society, very old people, very young people and – best of all – often people who have never been to a theatre before in their lives. There’s a great atmosphere, a feeling that people really want to be there. I’m really fond of The Heiress. That was a very happy and rewarding time. I loved the part of Catherine and worked very hard on her. She was very different to me and it was great to be stretched in that way.

And, of course, The Coast of Utopia, particularly Shipwreck. The experience of playing parts that nobody else had ever played before, the scale and breadth of the whole enterprise, the amazingly talented and dedicated – and mostly young – cast, working with Trevor and Tom, playing three completely different people in one day – and getting to the end of it with the audience, who had to go through as much as we did in terms of stamina …. It was a real feat of courage and energy and faith on all sides.

Favourite co-stars
I’ve been lucky to work with some wonderful people. The cast of Three Sisters are a pretty good bunch. Vanessa Redgrave is inspiring, electric, she’s like a great wild horse. I love Maggie Steed; she’s become a good friend. She taught me a lot about life as well as acting and she makes me howl with laughter. And Michael Bryant, the most breathtaking actor, with the naughtiest twinkle in his eye, I’ve ever seen.

Favourite directors
David Lan obviously. Not just because he gave me that wonderful job but also because he’s piercingly intelligent, gentle, wise. He asks questions all the time, instead of giving answers – it keeps you very alive and enquiring. I loved working with Philip Franks on The Heiress. He’s an actor, so very sensitive to what actors go through. And, of course, I’d have to say Trevor Nunn. What I love about him is that he makes you feel that you are the most inventive, the most intelligent and the most accomplished person, absolutely the most brilliant person to play the part. Whether you are or not doesn’t matter because you feel empowered by his belief in you. I think you fall in love with all good directors. It’s like having a new, wonderful, exciting and somewhat terrifying lover, and you want to be the best person possible for them, you’re desperate to please them. Katie Mitchell is probably the scariest yet. She’s like an Exocet missile.

Favourite playwrights
Chekhov, Shakespeare, Ibsen and now Stoppard. Tennessee Williams is very sexy. I’m embarrassingly badly read with modern stuff so I don’t know much apart from what I’ve done or studied. I have a feeling I’d like Arthur Miller, but I don’t know enough of his plays.

What roles would you most like to play still?
Oh everything; Shakespearean heroines, Chekhov heroines. I’d love to have a go at Hedda Gabler one day. But I’m getting a bit tired of wearing black. I’d love to put on a pair of pink frilly knickers and sit on a piano swinging my legs and singing a song.

If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I couldn’t have done anything else. I wish I’d been good enough at singing or dancing to have been able to be a brilliant ballerina or an opera singer.

What’s the best thing you’ve seen on stage recently
Gregory Doran’s production of The Taming of the Shrew at Stratford. It’s a wonderful love story. I laughed and cried and had goose bumps up and down my spine. You can’t ask for much more.

What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I don’t think the government has any direct power over the future of British theatre. What I mean is that theatre exists outside or perhaps in spite of government. Russian and Eastern European theatre thrived during the most oppressive of regimes. Theatre will always happen while people are alive and have imaginations. Perhaps, on that score, the best thing the government could do is pay teachers properly. Good teachers inspire children and fire their imaginations.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
A man in the court of Elizabeth I. What an exciting time to be alive that must have been – and I’d love to know what it’s like to be a man. Somebody like Walter Raleigh would be great.

Favourite books
I don’t read nearly enough. Pride and Prejudice, The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe and anything by PG Wodehouse are my favourites. But Georgette Heyer is what I love to curl up with on a rainy day.

Favourite holiday destinations
Jersey. That’s where my Dad’s family come from. It has the best beaches of anywhere I’ve ever been.

Favourite after-show haunts
The Green Room bar at the National is, sadly, usually as far as I get.

Why did you want to accept your part in this production of Three Sisters?
It’s a brilliant part in one of the best plays ever written. I’d always hoped I’d do it. Last year, having done Utopia and immersed myself in Russian things, it was very much in my thoughts. At the same time, Katie’s production of Chekhov’s Ivanov was on at the Cottesloe, and when I saw it, I thought to myself, “I’d dearly love to be in her production of Three Sisters one day.” And then it came up!

Whatsonstage.com theatregoers recently voted Chekhov the Greatest Playwright of All Time (after Shakespeare). Do you agree that he deserves this accolade?
Yes, I do agree. Why? Gosh, that’s hard. Chekhov portrays life in all its banality and all its bizarreness – a man going to his death asks for a cup of coffee. He puts things under a microscope, he shows the extraordinariness in ordinariness. And the economy with which he writes – just showing the tip of the iceberg all the time and it’s up to us, actors and audience, to fill the spaces in between …. Do you know that bit in Middlemarch which goes something like: “If we could hear the grass grow and the crickets sing, we’d die of the roar that lies the other side of silence?” It’s like that.

Why do you think Three Sisters in particular is performed so often?
Because it’s a brilliant play. Painful, funny, tough, delicate, silly, ordinary, agonising, frightening, ridiculous – all the things life is. Everybody wants to have a go at it, I suppose. But I don’t think Three Sisters is necessarily done more than Chekhov’s other major plays – though this year it does seem everyone’s decided to do it. Perhaps some things get into the ether, they go into the collective consciousness at the same time, like Hamlet a few years ago.

I didn’t get a chance to see Michael Blakemore’s production so I don’t know how ours differs. It’s a shame because I love Kristin Scott Thomas and was desperate to see it, but it was probably best not to in case I’d have her performance in my head.

What’s your favourite line from Three Sisters?
“We live in a climate where blizzards are practically a daily occurrence and yet we stand around having polite conversations.”

What’s the oddest thing that happened during rehearsals of Three Sisters?
Katie Mitchell giving us Saturday off.

What are your plans for the future?
I’m staying at the National to do Mourning Becomes Electra with Paul Hilton and Helen Mirren, directed by Howard Davies, which I’m thrilled about. The only trouble is, I’ll be wearing black again. But next year I’m going back to the Young Vic to do As You Like It with David Lan, for which I intend to wear all the colours of the rainbow.