Eve Best: ‘I thought Wilde was a misogynist — now I slap my own wrists for having that thought’

Eve Best: ‘I thought Wilde was a misogynist — now I slap my own wrists for having that thought’

Torn between the US and the UK, Eve Best is returning to the London stage as a feminist heroine. Lucky us, says Nick Curtis

By Nick Curtis @nickcurtis 16 October 2017

Earlier this year, Eve Best, one of our greatest and most mercurial stage actresses, who has also added brio and ballast to the onscreen likes of Nurse Jackie, The Honourable Woman and The King’s Speech, was contemplating moving to the US.

“God yes, that was the plan,” says Best, 46. “I didn’t know if I was necessarily going to move there but I was on my way to Australia to see my sister and her family and I stopped off in LA to ‘have meetings’, in inverted commas. It was the time of the [Trump] inauguration and there was just a very, very unhappy feeling there. The atmosphere felt incredibly toxic and I thought, I have to get out of here.”

The next day Trevor Nunn emailed to ask her to appear in the “lost” Rattigan play Love in Idleness, in London, and in the middle of that show’s successful run, Dominic Dromgoole asked her to star in A Woman of No Importance in October.

The play launches his year-long season of Oscar Wilde plays at the Vaudeville Theatre with his new company Classic Spring, and allows Best to add another iconic stage role to her Cleopatra, Hedda Gabler and Duchess of Malfi, and the Eugene O’Neill and Harold Pinter heroines she has played here and on Broadway. So, lucky us: London has something to thank Trump for. And lucky me to be sitting under a tree with Best, alternately strafed by rain and showers, she having vetoed the dingy interview room.

Best had appeared in Much Ado About Nothing and directed Macbeth at Shakespeare’s Globe when Dromgoole was running it, “so I have a huge amount of trust and massive faith in him and love for him, and was very inspired by the Wilde project as a whole. As he says, we have this idea that these plays are always on, but they are not. To take a proscenium arch theatre and simply present the plays as they are written is a breathtakingly simple idea but feels completely unique in terms of what’s going on in London at the moment.”

Dromgoole was adamant he wanted her. “Eve is unique, a wonderful match of heart and fancy, bridged by a sharp intellect,” he says. “She can take any text, whether Shakespeare or Nurse Jackie, and make it seem equally fresh and like it just spilled into the world. Add to that an easy physicality, and a lively sense of the absurd, and you have a unique package which should at some point become a national treasure.”

She initially had reservations: eight shows a week is exhausting, plus she had misconceptions about Wilde. “I thought — unfairly — that he was a misogynist,” she says, “and that his writing was two-dimensional, filled with witty epigrams and cardboard- cut-out characters saying things that were too clever by half. Now I slap my own wrists for having that thought.” Her character in the play, Mrs Arbuthnot, is the mother of a secretly illegitimate son and faces a moral dilemma, as well as the double standards of Victorian England, when the boy’s louche, aristocratic father reappears in their lives. “The psychological accuracy of it is extraordinary,” she says. “It feels so modern: it’s like coming across a new play that is the love child of Ibsen and Chekhov.”

Rachel is an “extraordinarily resilient, intelligent, strong, brave, rebellious, good woman”, part of a proto-feminist sisterhood in late 19th-century fiction that includes Hardy’s Bathsheba Everdene and Ibsen’s Nora and Hedda. She is also the least witty character in a play that is, for all its depth, also laced with clever epigrams. “I’m not thinking about it in those terms because I am just being inside her,” Best ripostes. “But she has the wit — the literal wit — to survive as a single mother, which I know from the experiences of friends and family is difficult beyond imagination. A woman who has committed the “sin” of having a child out of wedlock was in Victorian eyes almost as much of a criminal as a man who slept with other men… she sets herself free at the end of the play in the way Wilde clearly yearned to do for himself.”

Best was born in Ladbroke Grove, her father a design journalist who is now a painter and her mother a director who worked on the English Stage Company’s famous Wars of the Roses cycle, which gave Best and her younger sister early exposure to Shakespeare. Her parents split when she was 18 — “old enough to understand but still young”.

She boarded at Wycombe Abbey, acted during her studies at Oxford and got into Rada on her second attempt, changing her name from Emily to Eve as there was already an Emily Best in Equity. Shortly after graduating she won the Outstanding Newcomer award (as it was then called) at the Evening Standard’s 1999 Theatre Awards for her role as Annabella in ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore opposite Jude Law.

Although she still owns a flat in Ladbroke Grove, Best moved to a cottage near Lewes two years ago. “Yes, I am a traitor and I am sorry for that,” she says. “But the effect of moving out has made me appreciate London more. I always felt in my heart that I was a country bumpkin, but if you’ve got to be in a city, London is the best city to be in.” She knows whereof she speaks: she has spent long stints in New York, playing Dr Eleanor O’Hara, the free-spirited foil to Edie Falco’s fraught and drug-addicted Nurse Jackie, between 2009 and 2015.

Even though it was written and led by women, Nurse Jackie also introduced her to the misogynist side of American showbiz, when she was measured for Dr O’Hara’s designer wardrobe. “I was deemed to be far too fat by the producers,” she snorts. “I was so cross about it but I was told to go off to a personal trainer. Now I would just say ‘shut up and pass me the cake’.” In earlier days, she says, she never checked to see if she was paid less than male co-stars “because it didn’t cross my mind that I wouldn’t be. But now I jolly well am making a point of it. The pay gap is absurd, laughable. It’s a nonsense that we are even having a conversation about it.”

Professionally, she is not sure what the future holds after the Wilde play, though she has a long-held ambition to direct opera. On the personal side, she won’t say if she is in a relationship (“pass!”) but does say that she would like children. The play has focused her thoughts on this but she struggles to put them into a form of words that won’t sound like a soundbite, and eventually asks me to leave her answer as a simple “yes”. A day later she emails me the following.

“At 46 I’m facing the realities that time takes on the female body. Sometimes I feel sad about that and sometimes I feel happy about that, and sometimes I feel like I have kids already …. I think what I mean by that is that I don’t feel I have to have literal physical children in order to exercise that part of me that is a mother — that part of me that is unconditional love. That’s there as a possibility in all of us, whoever we are, all the time, isn’t it?”

A Woman of No Importance is at the Vaudeville Theatre, WC2, until Dec 3