Eve Best takes the world stage by storm

Whether it be a man-eating medic or a bewitching Beatrice, Eve Best is turning heads on both sides of the Atlantic

Valerie Grove. Saturday July 23 2011, 1.01am BST, The Times

From the moment she kicks off her slippers, extends a slender ankle and dips an elegant foot into the cool water at the edge of the stage, Eve Best wins the heart of the Globe audience — groundlings and cushioned upper tiers alike — in Much Ado About Nothing.

When she overhears that Benedick is sick with love for her and feels an unfamiliar emotion — “What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?” — she catches the eye of a woman in the front row who seems to know how she must feel. Best reaches down to take her hand, and they hug. This happens at every performance. “One rainy afternoon, early in the run, I saw this girl looking up at me with such empathy and compassion — and ever since then it’s made sense at that moment to make that connection with a member of the audience in the most natural way,” she says.

Well, no wonder: Best is Beatrice — she is 39 and no man (are they all complete fools?) has yet claimed her for his wife. Is there perhaps a secret Benedick? “No — I’m looking for the Benedick in my life!” Not even a Benedick from Oxford days, with whom you made a pact that if you weren’t married to anyone in ten years you would marry each other? “No — I was really inefficient in not arranging a back-up to wait in the wings. So stupid!” (Her Oxford beau was the actor Will Keen, but after seven years they parted and he married another.) We meet in the Swan brasserie at the Globe, with House Full notices up again for her matinée. She strides across in a kind of rapture, having just heard, by chance, a visiting children’s choir singing an impromptu Ave Verum in the auditorium. Amiability and charm personified, she sits cross-legged on the sofa in a battered straw panama hat, white top, black leggings, pale pink ballet pumps, no make-up. Her face is animated and expressive with those slanting brown eyes.

She first played Beatrice at 22, straight after Oxford, at Southwark Playhouse, long before she matured into a real Beatrice. Meanwhile, she has been a perfect Hedda Gabler for Richard Eyre, a perfect Masha in Three Sisters for Katie Mitchell, a perfect Josie in A Moon for the Misbegotten with Kevin Spacey, a perfect Lavinia in Mourning Becomes Electra for Howard Davies. She is a knockout with theatre critics.

But, for her, Beatrice is the best female Shakespearean role because she and Benedick are equals. “During their repartee I can see the audience’s heads going left and right, like a tennis match. And what I love about Beatrice is that although she’s so vital and strong and independent, and has a brain, she is completely ready to cave in and be transformed, and blossom. She is how I feel, how we all feel,” she adds wryly, “especially on the cusp of 40.”

When she played Ruth in The Homecoming on Broadway in 2008, Harold Pinter was too ill to go and see her formidable performance. “But he would answer e-mails from the cast with a terse reply — ‘No, of course it’s bloody not’ etc. And he sent me flowers on the first night.” Later, in London, he and Best had lunch, shortly before he died. The last thing that Pinter said to her, as he helped her into a cab, was: “Great skirt.” (It was a mini and the subtext was undoubtedly “Great legs”.) With every Shakespearean and modern classical role hers for the asking, how does she come to be playing Dr Eleanor O’Hara in the blackly comic American series Nurse Jackie? Set in a Manhattan hospital emergency room, it stars Edie Falco from The Sopranos as the eponymous nurse Jackie Peyton: imperturbable, strong-willed, impervious to bureaucratic rules, and with a secret addiction to prescription drugs. Best plays her closest friend.

“It was completely unexpected: I got invited to audition for a pilot. There are millions of pilots, but everyone felt this was a very buzzed-about project, with Edie Falco, and great writers, Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem. I just thought, what fun.”

Perhaps, as often happens, she got it because she didn’t really care whether she did or not. She was in New York, packing for a trip to Sydney to see her sister in Australia, a mother of three boys. “The Dr O’Hara part was written as an American Wasp, and the other people auditioning were beautifully groomed, with hair coiffed, clicking their Manolos. I was in trainers and scruffy hair. I thought, ‘Well, no point in aping an American’, and just used my own voice — and they liked the idea of her being British. I got a call in Sydney saying I’d got it: you have to commit to it when you’re down to the last three. And now, four years later, I’m still doing it.”

As Dr O’Hara she gets to wear designer clothes, chic jackets, long boots and Manolos. “She’s so wonderfully adventurous and experimental. She has affairs with men, women, doctors, nurses . . . ” Best only discovered at the read-through for series two that Dr O’Hara had a long-lost girlfriend who suddenly showed up. “Well, it’s quite a controversial show,” she says, “when the heroine’s a drug addict.”

British directors may lament Best’s absence from the theatre, but Nurse Jackie gives her some financial security. “So, instead of sitting like a mouse waiting for a piece of cheese, if I’m sensible I can live on the money, and the wonderful thing is I have the rest of the time to play, to do other things — such as the Globe.”

Coincidentally, her childhood friend, Emily Mortimer, who went to the same Oxford college, Lincoln, has just signed to do a Hollywood TV series too. They used to be the two Emilies, until Emily Best had to become “Eve” (her grandmother’s name) because of an Equity clash; she’s still Emily among friends.

Best has the builders in at her Notting Hill flat, which she may sell: her absence is death to house plants, and the area has changed from when she grew up in Ladbroke Grove. Her mother, Sue Best, used to direct W11 Children’s Opera, founded by enterprising and artistic parents and still going strong. Percussionist Evelyn Glennie (now a Dame) was on drums when Emily, aged 9, made her stage debut as a sheep in Mak the Sheep-stealer.

Sue Best still gives her daughter copious notes as she was once with the RSC herself and played Viola, Rosalind, Beatrice and Gertrude. She now lives in Wales, where, in 2007, she built the Willow Globe outdoor theatre near Llandrindod Wells, a miniature version of the London Globe surrounded by sheep farms. Best seizes my pencil and sketches it in my notebook, a circle of green willow trees enclosing the stage in a natural wall of arching topiary. Here, Tim Carroll, who once directed Eve Best as Lady Macbeth, has just done Cymbeline, with the innovative guerrilla-theatre company the Factory. Eve’s father, Alastair Best, was a journalist, editor of the Designer’s Journal, who gave it all up to become a painter.

Best loves her Manhattan life, with its can-do attitude. Last year she and some actor friends rented a loft and put on Shakespeare: “Unrehearsed performances in front of an invited audience, not just actors sitting on chairs reading. Rather like being here, in spirit. I cut all the plays to shreds, so Twelfth Night was 45 minutes, almost a series of arias. Jonathan Cake was Toby Belch, the veteran actor Brian Murray was Malvolio, I was Viola, Dominic Fumusa [Nurse Jackie’s screen husband] was Orsino. And we did A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a musical.” Future performances will be in aid of Merlin, the charity that takes medical help to emergency zones.

The chief lesson she has learnt at almost 40, she says, is that life is precious, precarious — and utterly unpredictable. “I arrived to play Wallis Simpson, feeling, like her, totally discombobulated by England, being given this amazing hair and wonderful costumes for just two or three days in the snow, at Knebworth, and it turned into The King’s Speech, a quite unexpected hit.”

Best certainly contrived to make Wallis sympathetic: but then she invests all her characters with her own vivacity. It’s why the Globe audience is drawn in to share her experience; when Benedick kisses her there is wild applause, and the final dance, as she says, “sends everyone’s spirits soaring into the sky”.

Nurse Jackie is on Sky Atlantic HD on Mondays. Much Ado About Nothing is at the Globe, London SE1, until October 1 (020-7401 9919, shakespearesglobe.com)