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Charlot speaks with Abigail Thaw

I'm so thrilled to share this interview I did recently with Abigail Thaw for so many reasons! Abigail is such a talented actor, and to hear her insights about the profession is a huge privilege. She has acted as lead on stage in many well-known plays, as well of course in Shakespeare. She is also loved by so many for her outstanding performance in in the television drama, Endeavour. Without further delay, I bring you Abigail Thaw!

Charlot: What led you into acting, and what keeps you acting?
Abigail: I joined a youth drama group, The Royal Court Activists, when I was 15, and that sealed it. They came to our school and even though my father and step-mother were actors, it was something I was discouraged from doing. Some of us got to perform in a professional production at the Royal Court by a then unknown young director called Danny Boyle, I failed all my mock GCSEs and was hooked! (I passed some of the real ones, thank God!)

I often ask myself why I stick with it. But that’s when my agent hasn’t rung for a while. And I berate myself for not having trained at something else and long to live in the country and run a tea shop that sells books as well! At other times it’s the best job in the world. You meet some extraordinary people and have to get to know them in a very short space of time which makes you develop an intimacy, and it's a bloody good laugh. That can recharge batteries. And keeps your brain young and active! And ideally, you can be using all your creative faculties; imagination, physicality, your voice, storytelling, interpretation of the written word… But as I say, that's at its most exalted.

Abigail in 'Private Lives' by Noel Coward, photographed (above) with Simon Robson

Charlot: You've acted in so many productions, both in the theatre and on screen. Which characters have stuck with you?
Abigail: Of all the characters I have played on stage, Amanda from 'Private Lives' has stuck with me the most. She was extraordinary. You get to play so many different levels of passion and rage, as much as any Shakespearean heroine, and you get the wit and glamour on top. Helena from 'Midsummer Night’s Dream' is also a favourite. I’ve played Titania too, but Helena touched me. Maybe because I was very young at the time and I made friends for life in that company. It was great fun. As was playing Viola. In fact, the joy of playing Shakespeare's comic heroines is that they are invigorating, whereas the tragic parts tend to take it out of you. Maybe that's just me. But I long to play Tennessee Williams’ heroines. Hopefully one day.
And with television, well, it has to be Dorothea! She's the longest-running character I've played and Russ Lewis has written her for me. He seems to adapt her around me even though our worlds are generations apart. I love her. I will be devastated when I have to stop playing her.
Abigail on the set of Endeavour with actor James Bradshaw, who plays Dr Max DeBryn
Charlot: You performed with the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company. Which plays were you in, and can you share some of your experiences of performing in a troupe?
Abigail: I did one play at the RSC called Moscow Gold that was written by Howard Brenton and Tariq Ali about the collapse of the Berlin Wall and consequently Eastern Europe. It was being written as the real events took place, so the writers were in rehearsals with us every day. I love working like that. I’m not sure how I managed to get in to do the one play, I was lucky. Being in a troupe, working for a prolonged period of time together was fantastic. I had just come from Cheltenham Rep where I’d done 5 plays straight, and the older actors would constantly tell me how lucky I was to have that experience because the days of Rep were over. They were right. The experience was priceless. That’s where I really learned my craft. It’s a shame young actors don’t get to do that anymore, or not often. There’s nothing like performing at night and rehearsing something else during the day. It’s seat of your pants stuff where some of your best work comes from.
The next time I was in a company was with the Theatre Director and writer, Mike Alfreds. He had run a few theatre companies, all with a consummate reputation in quality and he was and is renowned for his particular method of acting or rather directing it in his productions. Some great actors have come from his school of thought, and I was very excited to be a part of his small troupe for over a year. Just four actors and three plays. We fought and made up and loved and hated each other, but I don't think I've ever had a better time on stage as with those other three. I worked with him again at The Globe with Mark Rylance, who was one of his “disciples". It was equally satisfying. I owe Mike a lot. I've taught his method at drama schools and taught workshops etc. because his technique is invaluable and many actors are keen to learn his way of working.
Abigail (photographed below) in 'Cymbeline' directed by Mike Alfreds, with Mark Rylance, John Ramm, Fergus O'Hare, Jane Arnfield and Richard Hope 
Charlot: Of course, you are famous for playing the hugely popular Dorothea Frazil, a journalist for the Oxford Mail, in the TV Series Endeavour. How did you approach that character, and how has it developed over the years?
Abigail: Playing Dorothea has been a joy from the very start. Not just because Morse was first characterised by my father. It has become our own over the years. My father will always loom large, but I like to think he would have enjoyed Endeavour enormously.
Of course, you probably know the "in joke" that Russ is very good at putting in his scripts: Frazil is a type of ice, and my initial is D. So d-ice = Thaw! So Russ wrote this for me, really. I had asked for a bit part at the very beginning when I heard they were making a one-off prequel to Morse. I just thought it would be fun for me and the Morse fans to be a desk sergeant or something. Russ went beyond and wrote that lovely scene, “have we met?”. I thought that would be that, but then it became a series, and to my delight, they asked if I would stay part of the team.

And many years later, here we still are. You become a gang as you all get to know each other over the years and we whine that our characters don't overlap enough! Any excuse to have a laugh. Russ has made many an attempt, but it's tricky finding a scene in which Dorothea, Mrs Thursday, Max and Bright all get together! It inevitably ends up on the cutting room floor.

The plots are very tight. Russ and I have discussed Dorothea much over the years, where she's been, what she's done and where she's going, but each episode holds a lovely surprise that reflects some playful or intimate part of her relationship with Morse. She's like an older sister to him, and I like to think Shaun and I convey that through our own friendship. She doesn't do much, but I hope what she does is effective. Either way, it's a treat for me.
Dorothea is a lot braver and driven than I am. To be an editor of a newspaper in the 1960s is quite an achievement, to say the least. And her ability to not care what people think of her but to follow what is important - the story in most cases - I find admirable. And I like her hard-bitten attitude. Her take it or leave it way of relationships with men and that everything looks better at the end of the day with a drink and a cigarette and a little music! There's nothing sentimental about her, but she cares deeply. Yes, I wouldn't mind a bit of that attitude. She could definitely drink me under the table and write something brilliant at the same time.
Charlot: You are an actor who has successfully crossed between stage and screen. Can you elaborate on what you love and perhaps some of the challenges about each format?
Abigail: I've never had a preference as an actor as to what medium I play in. I enjoy them all. Television and theatre offer different challenges, but I enjoy the satisfaction of a well-executed voiceover as much as doing a radio play! Television is a more technical exercise, and there's a lot of waiting around, so you need stamina of a different sort. Theatre is a more let-your-hair-down experience which also involves a lot of technique but of a more visceral nature, perhaps. If I spend too long on one, I long for the other. Keeping it all in the air is the ideal, and if I can do a bit of everything in a year, I consider that a year well spent.
Abigail in Shaun McKenna's Ladies in Lavender, playing Olga. Photographed (below) with Robert Rees
Charlot: Are there any projects you are involved that you can speak about?
Abigail: No, nothing exciting to speak of work wise! There’s a play I’ve agreed to do in the new year, but it's not finalised so I can't really talk about it. A commercial in Amsterdam for a few days, a voice over or two and that's my lot right now other than filming. I'm not complaining. That's enough for me right now. Family life keeps me busy, and when we finish filming in November I'll worry then if nothing comes up!
Charlot: Whether writing, performance, music, painting, sculpture and more - I think the arts have never been more vital at this time of great uncertainty in the world. To help us make sense of it. To help cushion fear, to help heal division. What is your take on the arts and their role in society?
Abigail: Yes, that is a big question! We are living in dark times: Trump, Climate Change, a prime minister who doesn't believe in anything except power and Brexit. I find the latter utterly depressing at a time when we should be embracing the world and coming together, not closing ourselves off in bitterness and fear. This last year I have found myself listening to more music and at more art galleries and theatres than ever before. As the news gets worse, I have craved "escapism". But actually, it's not escapism at all. Art offers up another way of looking at things. Looking at someone's work in an exhibition or reading a novel or seeing a play, from whatever period it is, offers up someone else's life. We can identify with it, but we can also experience a different way of interpreting current events, whether directly or through metaphor. It's uniting, and that is what we ultimately crave as human beings. There is a reason we need to tell and hear the same stories over and over again. It is an innate element of human nature. I have watched my children draw and sing and act out different parts as they played with their toys from when they were tiny. It's how we first understand the world. And I think it's very sad that the arts are not at the centre of our national curriculum along with maths and science and English. And I say this not just because I'm an actor; I was brought up by historians (not actors in spite of my father) and know the importance of academia, but I also know that it goes hand in hand with storytelling and how much that has been a part of my family's life. Every time you turn on your television, you are experiencing 'art'… ideally!

Charlot: I would like to thank Abigail Thaw for a thought provoking and highly illuminating interview. I know you will have enjoyed this. If people would like to follow Abigail on Twitter, they can find Abigail at: @abigailthaw

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