Interview with Janie Dee on her career and Monogamy: ‘I didn’t need to look far: she’s in my life.’
Currently performing in Monogamy at the Park Theatre, Janie Dee is known for both her stage and musical roles (and has won Olivier awards for both). Anthony Walker-Cook met with Janie to discuss this show and her experience more widely.
Interviewing Janie Dee is a treat for any journalist. Charming, funny, honest and intelligent, Janie is one of England’s leading theatre actresses, with a recent Olivier award nomination for her role in Follies at the National Theatre as Phyllis Stone, a role that she will return to in February 2019. After a recent tour, Janie is now at the Park Theatre in the lead role of Caroline in Monogamy. We met to discuss her role, how it compares to those in the past and how Monogamy speaks to different audiences.
Our conversation begins pleasantly over a cup of tea, discussing the North, where I’d studied for four years and where Janie has worked in the past. Though she puts all her focus into each plays she does, Janie seems to be thinking of the future constantly: ‘As I get older I’d appreciate having a place, where I could say somewhere in the world is a really lovely home where everything I love is there and I can go there when I’m on a break. This career is so spontaneous and sporadic and built on the show you did last, preparing for your next show, people asking you to read scripts. It’s all so chancey.’ Yet there was little chance involved with Monogamy, a play written for Janie by Torben Betts. The actress was first told of the role at the premier of the 2015 production of The Seagull that Betts had translated and in which she was playing Arkadina. The adaptation of The Seagull ‘was in a modern setting but period costume so a wonderful bite to it and it was very punchy, accessible, cruel and sexy. He doesn’t pull any punches. After a bit of chat over a drink he says “oh, by the way, I’ve written you a play.” My heart leapt and sunk at the same time. About six months later, the first half of it came through. I loved what he had started. When we ‘ok’d’ the last draft he changed it again. In essence he started to get to what he was trying to say. It’s important for me that he has permission to write what he wants to write. The writer has to be the leader, and he is, but he is also very collaborative.’
Caroline is the UK’s second-favourite television chef and has to juggle the difficulties of an unhappy marriage, a busy schedule and being a mother. When asked what research did for the role, she first wryly answers ‘I looked at a bit of Delia’ before offering an honest acknowledgement of the connections she found between herself and the character: ‘I didn’t need to look far: she’s in my life. She is an exaggeration of me, everything in this play I relate to in one way or another. I don’t mind being horrid since I think it’s unfortunately truthful. Torben’s gift is that he is brutally true, harsh, honest and credible.’ Yet Caroline is similar to her other recent characters, including Phyllis from Follies, who also is part of an unhappy marriage, and Linda, from the show of the same name that Janie took to America a few years ago. Considering how women balance a career and a family, Dee again finds similarities between herself and the roles: ‘It is great that people recognise that when you get to this age, just when you need the support, you’ll probably be more on your own than ever before. It is partly to do with one’s self and how one evolves if you’re a career woman. The constant toing and froing of the different demands of being a good mother and wife are difficult. Phyllis doesn’t have any children, but her career is her husband and she’s bitter. What’s good about Caroline and Linda is that they have careers but they are not managing to keep all the plates spinning. We are asking questions of how women can do it all and is it ok if they sacrifice their life for their husband, but also is it ok if their husband or children are neglected, which I can tell you from experience happens. You either have to live with it or not. A woman can have a career and a husband if the husband is willing to help and support. It’s not easy to ask a man to do that. Torben said to me we need to change our consciousness in a lot of ways if we’re to survive as a species. He tackles it here through the microcosm of the family: we must not ignore the facts we hear everyday. Even Leo becomes flaky by the end – he accepts the money, has a drink and eats the sour cream – and represents a common problem of society today, that people are not listening to each other.’
When asked about her career and which play she found the most formative for her personal development, it’s clear the mass of performances makes it difficult to choose. ‘I’m learning all the time’, she says, whether that be watching or performing. ‘I guess All’s Well That Ends Well at the Globe. I played the mum and Peggy Ashcroft played it before me so I thought there must be more to it. As I worked on it, it grew inside me and became so multi-layered. I kept painting pictures for myself and kept considering the backstory. In the end of rehearsals I was thinking I needed to know a backstory for myself, so I wrote it.’ For Monogamy, however, such an exercise wasn’t needed: ‘Torben wrote a backstory, which I told to Leo as a long speech. But he realised it didn’t quite work: it’s too relaxed and too long. From it I gleaned Caroline’s childhood was lonely and what she really wanted was a family. Now she has a family it means more to her than what may appear on stage, and now there’s the threat she’s going to lose it. All’s Well was a great learning curve. John Dove was director and used to talk about brownie points, and I loved that, since he’d say ‘right, we need to lose brownie points here.’ So when Caroline says something awful we recoil and she loses points but then later she wins them back. But you have to be aware this is happening in the writing and the writer is making this happen. It was the first time it was described to me like that: Dove was a fantastic director and the Globe a wonderful place to work and a free place. The audience are so live and full, so it was a great joy.’
Janie explains how she doesn’t consider there to be a difference between musical theatre and straight acting, and in Monogamy she warms up in exactly the same way as she did for Follies: yoga, dance and singing practice. Yet whereas Follies was first performed in 1971 on Broadway, Monogamy is a new play, which brings fresh challenges: ‘It’s harder to know what it is. It took us a while to work out the tune of Monogamy: I think we started to get it on the very first performance in Malvern. You need an audience to tell you. By the time we got to York, which was our fourth date, we knew the rhythm of the show. It’s like a symphony and you have to know the tempo.’ I ask Janie whether Monogamy is trying to ask one question in particular. With grace, however, she throws the question back to me and I answer ‘Is anyone listening?’ Though I don’t know if the play posits an answer to this question, Janie thinks talking and listening is a central question to the play and a problem for our society: ‘We don’t say the truth with our loved ones. We don’t say the truth openly. If you can find someone you can openly talk with, then that’s a blessing.’
When asked what’s been her favourite recent production, the answer is simple: ‘I think I’m about to see it: I’m seeing Hamilton next week.’ Another contender is Romeo and Juliet, in which Janie’s daughter Matilda had the title role earlier this year. ‘That Romeo and Juliet was in the Arts in Cambridge, but the director Tom Littler changed it: he set it in Spain but what was wonderful was that he put flamenco dancing in it and it was so passionate and caught that lacquer feel of the blood and passion perfectly. I saw The Ferryman, which I enjoyed very much and Collective Rage was also a fantastic new play with Emma Hall’s new company Antic Face.’ Reversing the question onto shows she wishes she’d seen, the focus on conversations and listening comes again to the centre of our discussion: ‘I go to the theatre and hope to go more in the future. I learn so much when I see other people perform. It’s so good to have these conversations and to watch life. I’d like to see everything, which I know isn’t possible.’
Before finishing we inevitably talk about Follies. The opportunity to reprise a role is one Janie’s been presented with before – with Comic Potential and Noises Off – and one she sees as ‘another chance to paint it and meet new people and play to new audiences.’ When asked of the potential difficulties of a new cast, she is assured that Dominic Cooke, the director, will lead the group once more to a superb production: ‘Whatever happens I totally trust Dominic Cooke, having worked with him and having seen how he brings things out of people. How he highlights certain beats of a piece and I’m excited about getting really fit again. I’ll be doing lots of dancing.’ She’s pitched an idea to the National Theatre to turn the terrace restaurant into ‘Lucy and Jessie’s’, the cabaret club hinted at towards the end of Follies. ‘Cabaret is such a good way of audiences to meet the characters and the performance and for other views to be aired.’
So, why should audiences come and see Monogamy? ‘I think the first thing is that they’ll experience something they’ve never experienced before. They will be surprised and put in a position they’ve never been put in before. They’ll be provoked into talking or thinking about it. It has great insight into relationships, really one of the best plays I’ve ever done about relationships, and it makes you feel less lonely if you’ve had any kind of trouble.’ When asked to describe the play in one word Janie gives the most personal answer of the interview: ‘Companion. This play is a companion to me. It’s talking about a lot of things I can’t talk about but it’s all there.’ Truly, we could all do with a friend like Janie Dee: honest, funny and smart, she represents much of what is great about the British theatre industry.
You can see Janie in Monogamy at the Park Theatre until the 7th of July, 2018. Our thanks to her for taking the time to speak with London Student.
Feature Photograph: Helen Maybanks