Culture Trips

‘When I paint, all the voices in my head go still’: Juliet Stevenson on how art got her through lockdown | Stage

If you go down to the woods today, you may just come across Juliet Stevenson dangling from a branch, fumbling to photograph the light falling through a caterpillar hole on a particularly disobliging leaf, with her partner Hugh chuckling, resigned, as yet another quick stroll turns into a day trip. Upside down Juliet Stevenson has been a rare constant of Suffolk’s lockdown landscape, even as snow buried it and tides hacked away at its crumbling coastline. The 64-year-old has been all over the East Anglian country, leaving a trail of snow angels on her quest to find its most picturesque – and acrobatic – angles.

What’s an actor to do when the West End goes dark? All that creative energy must go somewhere – and this actor is training the newly discovered painter’s eye that has kept her sane over lockdown. “By the time you get to my age,” she says, when I question why painting would be the basis of our interview, “you become too settled into the skills you know you have. I can sort of do my job. I know quite a lot about parenting. But to be absolutely at the beginning of something – at square one – it’s just a great feeling.”

Stevenson’s painting of the estuary in Suffolk near where she lives.
Stevenson’s painting of the estuary in Suffolk near where she lives. Photograph: Juliet Stevenson

Such a great feeling, apparently, that Stevenson admits to “cursing the canvas” when she cannot get it right, even with photographs to help. But craving new challenges is what she’s all about: she worries that some directors may be apprehensive about correcting her or pushing her. “Many actors get to a point where they’re not directed any more. But some part of you has to remain open to being directed, otherwise you won’t get any better. And the thought of getting worse is terrifying.” She’ll often opt for less well-paid, less prestigious roles if they pull her further out of her comfort zone: “The very moment you feel safe, you should either stop or jump sideways, because safety is a very dangerous place to be as an actor.”

This is how I come to be at her chocolate box of a cottage clad in overalls, paintbrushes in hand. The deal is I join her painting, but of course we never get round to laying a single brushstroke. Stevenson is 100% engaged in whichever conversation she is having, beguiling me with occasional soliloquies to Suffolk: “Oh! The reflections of the sky on the flat, wet mud banks creating two sunsets at once – one sharp, overhead, the other softened on the mud below.”

Her romance with painting hasn’t just got her out of her comfort zone. “If you look at the world as though you’re going to paint it all the time, everything is interesting,” she says, insisting it could revolutionise anyone’s daily walk. And then she interrupts herself: “This sounds so effing privileged. I should be so lucky, to buy these oil paints and brushes.”

Hugh and Millie on a walk.
Hugh and Millie on a walk. Photograph: Juliet Stevenson

But one thing she’s sure of is the importance of “finding the interesting in the everyday”. It’s how she thinks thespians will survive lockdown: “Working with what you’ve got and not wasting energy on what you haven’t.” That is how lockdown gave her the most “intensively creative week in my life”. In July, she co-created Blindness, a play about an epidemic of vision loss that reduces a city to ruins. Writer Simon Stephens adapted José Saramago’s heavily populated novel into a one-woman show, an unnerving sound and light piece brought to Covid-compliant life by astounding sound engineering, courtesy of the Ringham Brothers. Thanks to their 360-degree “binaural” recording, socially-distanced audiences have been able to don headphones and experience Stevenson’s performance from the UK to New Zealand, from the Netherlands to Mexico, all while she shields with her partner in Suffolk.

“I know it’s corny, but necessity is the mother of invention,” she says. “We really invented this whole new form.” Theatre, she points out, has been banned at periods of history, or forced to conform to the whims of rulers. “It is a very living mobile form. It has had many, many things thrown at it over the centuries – and it metamorphoses.” She is awed by the way performers have embraced Zoom. “This isn’t how we want theatre to progress. But it is a sign that creativity is unstoppable.”

Still life.
Still life. Photograph: Juliet Stevenson

Ultimately, she’s sentimental about the stage (“my natural habitat”) and laments that “the arts are being left to flounder”. “I’ve marvelled at what people have managed to make happen online,” she says. “But I absolutely do not believe that theatre is anything other than the live event. Theatre on a screen is a contradiction in terms. It’s something else: really creative, really interesting, but being in a room with a whole bunch of people shrieking with laughter at the same line, recognising the same piece of human frailty at the same moment? Never.” Live performance is “an alchemy I will never understand. I don’t even want to understand it.” She just wants to feel it again.

This is pure Stevenson, a passionate mix of the old and the new: a woman who sees “my tribe” in the “activist youth” but who thanks the fierce redheaded Welsh teacher who barked her lisp out of her at military-funded boarding school; who thrills at her own binaural virtual performance, but balks at the thought of a screen permanently separating her from her audience; who relishes younger directors roasting her Shakespearean-trained precision but still takes “joy in language having energy” and is not quite on board with “this modern obsession with muttering on screen … Sorry, I can’t hear my cue!”

Until lockdown, Stevenson had toyed with giving up acting to focus more on charity or other areas of work. “I am very driven by a need to feel that I’m useful. Useful is an unglamorous word. But that’s the feeling that I think I’m haunted by – the fact that what I do for a living may not be useful.” Nevertheless, when she can’t act she “feels the gap, the absence, in such clear shape”. This was filled by painting, but it is not the only hollow in her life. There is also grief. In November, Stevenson’s eldest child, her stepson, died suddenly at the age of 37. “Tomo was one of the most beautiful human beings who ever walked the Earth,” she says. “He was incapable of lying. And he was amazingly good at love. Losing a child, it’s so frightening. So much of the year has been about survival, the whole country watching these terrible statistics nightly on the news. But the young people were supposed to be OK.

“We’re a joyous family, full of humour. And it’s been so strange, this identity of being a tragic family. Not being able to mourn together, it was like Alice in Wonderland or something. We’d fallen down some rabbit hole and everything was just wrong. The truth is that when you get a shock like that, when you get lost like that, you just stagger from moment to moment.”

Painting has “rescued” her. This is why we’re in overalls. “Sometimes I feel the more I’m physically constricted by lockdown, the more my mind is roaming around. But when I’m painting, I just can’t think about anything else, probably because I’m so bad at it. So all those voices in my head go still.”

The estuary in Suffolk near where she lives.
The estuary in Suffolk near where she lives. Photograph: Juliet Stevenson

Art and, of course, her partner Hugh, a love of 28 years but no vows. As the daughter of an army wife, Stevenson says, “I grew up seeing what incredible restraints marriage imposes on women in certain situations. I felt my mum sometimes metaphorically beating at the walls.” Yet she is now feeling the urge. “Same-sex marriage has reformed the institution, hasn’t it? I mean, I’m ridiculously soppy about him. And it would be amazing to say that to the world. So why not?”

As life cranks up again, Stevenson fears losing the stillness of art and the sanctuary of family that have silver-lined a year of thunderclouds. “I’ve missed acting terribly, but I have loved the stopping of the other stuff, the noise.” She’s ecstatic to be filming again: an ITV thriller, The Long Call, based on the Plymouth Brethren, an evangelical Christian movement. But she is not so sure we’re free of all this yet. “I can feel those forces poised. They’re like leopards waiting to pounce on us again as soon as they can.”

Stevenson admitted she was not ready to accept an invitation to present an award at this year’s Baftas, red carpets being just the kind of “torture” she’s enjoyed tuning out. Instead, she and Hugh dedicated the week to their three children. Together, on the Suffolk landscape she loves so much, they planted a tree for Tomo. “It’s not about being in a beautiful place,” she says. “It’s about seeing the beauty in everything. It’s about remembering what we have amid everything we’ve lost.”

This article was amended on 21 April 2021 to clarify that Stevenson’s upcoming ITV thriller, The Long Call, is based on the Plymouth Brethren, but not about them as an earlier version said.

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