Tracy-Ann Oberman: ‘With Pinter, you don’t always need to understand why you’re saying something’
The West End has been lately upping its game when it comes to serious theatre, with recent hits like The Jungle (the astonishing immersive production that took audiences into the heart of a Calais refugee camp) and The Inheritance (offering an intimate and shattering account of gay experience in the wake of the legacy of HIV/AIDS and the generation that was lost to it).
But one of the more extraordinarily ambitious seasons of late has been to honour the late, great playwright Harold Pinter, at the theatre that bears his name, marking the 10th anniversary of his death with the presentation of all twenty of his short, one-act plays, presented in six different bills, with actors that have already included Lee Evans, Antony Sher, David Suchet, Russell Tovey, Tamsin Greig and Janie Dee. Rupert Graves, Jane Horrocks and Nicholas Woodeson are currently appearing in Pinter Five and Ron Cook, Phil Davis, Celia Imrie, Gary Kemp, John Simm and Tracy-Ann Oberman are in rep with it in Pinter Six.
How has Jamie Lloyd, who has masterminded and programmed the season as well as directed the lion's share of the plays, pulled this off? It turns out that he only had to ask - and actors either cleared their schedules or kept them free.
Tracy-Ann Oberman - who is probably still most famous today for her two-year TV run as Chrissie Watts, the alcoholic second wife of 'Dirty" Den in EastEnders, who finally murdered him with an iron doorstop in the series' 20th anniversary episode in 2005 that was watched by over 17 million people - tells me that the director first asked her when they did a one night Shakespeare charity gala for Syrian refugees at the same theatre in October 2017. "He told me he was planning this Pinter season, and he just asked if I'd like to be in it if it came together. At that time, it just looked so massive, and it seemed unlikely that everyone he wanted would come together - so I accepted cautiously, and as it was a year away, I thought, let's see what happens. But slowly more and more people were added, and it is fantastic!"
For Tracy-Ann, the pleasures are personal as well as professional. "I knew so many of my co-stars already. I did my first-ever professional acting job with Ron Cook - the play A Jovial Crew at the RSC. John Simm did a play I wrote for Radio 4 called Mrs Robinson I Presume."And I just did Present Laughter at Chichester with with Kat [Katherine Kingsley] over the summer, and were very friendly down there. Eleanor Matsuura was also in the benefit in 2017, and Abraham Popoola is a future major star in the making. I hadn't worked with Phil Davis but I'd long admired him. Celia Imrie I'm just obsessed with.
"It’s wonderful to be in such a prestigious crew and with a director who practically channels Pinter because he knew him so well."
She has never done Pinter before - "it's been a bucket list year for me, I'd never done a Coward play either so I was very happy to do one at Chichester. Now I'm doing Pinter, and there are so many preconceptions you have about his work. I'd seen a lot of his plays, including the original production of Celebration at the Almeida, which we're now doing as part of this double bill with Party Time. It was written for television and is rarely seen, and it's a revelation. It's very interesting to work in the way we've worked with Jamie in understanding the music of Pinter - that you sometimes don't even need to understand why you're saying something.
“Party Time, which is about a totalitarian regime who cover up its horror in niceties of dinner and cocktail parties, is so chilling and so apt. Underneath is this seeping fundamentalism. I play Charlotte, who is at this party; her husband died at the hands of the regime, but she has to keep smiling. I have a fantastic, brilliantly written scene with Gary Kemp."
The play is brief - it runs for a mere twenty minutes - but it packs a powerful punch. Celebration is only double that length - "so the other thing that makes it the best job in the world is that we finish early! But it's like a very rich truffle - it makes you feel like you've had a very rich meal, but they're so intense, you couldn't take any more if it."
But theatre is something that Tracy-Ann can't get enough of. It has always provided the backbone of her career. "I started my career at the RSC, where I spent four years, and I did so much rep back in the day, I worked with Jude Kelly at Leeds, at the National and in the West End. I remember one year doing 15 different TV shows, and thinking I really need to do some theatre now! There's nothing more miserable than being in a production that doesn't kick off and looking around the room at the other actors and everyone's thinking, this isn't want I've signed up for; but when it works, as this has, it’s the most exciting thing. There's something very chemical about it - these two shows are very ensemble-based - as a group, we're putting flesh and clothes on them."
She also writes her own plays - particularly for radio. "I'm currently doing a trilogy of Hollywood tales, and I'm trying to do one about Marlene Diedrich in the Med set during the summer when her career was going down the tubes; and another about Judy Garland, Jane Fonda and Liza Minnelli meeting every ten years for lunch. I get approached a lot to write, but it’s hard because acting is my first love - I often get a commission and it gets waylaid because I work so much!"
Away from the stage, Tracy-Ann has also become an avid spokesperson on social media campaigning against injustice and, recently, anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. "I joined Twitter early on, when I was doing a film with David Schneider and David Baddiel and they told me about it. At the time it was a lovely fun village, full of witty people being amusing. But it's become weaponised and toxic, and it is used for abusive reasons, and I saw how it is being used to target women, and promote racism and anti-Semitism. When I did Fiddler on the Roof at Chichester, I did research into my family background and I feel our generation need to speak out because my relatives couldn't."
Though she finds herself subjected to abuse on social media, she says, "You have to stand up and say, you can't say that. It's about bravery. Pinter was a brave, political writer who was Jewish and faced anti-Semitism - he inspires me and I take courage from that and my grandparents who did, too."
EastEnders was now a long time ago, but it was also a moment of standing up and being counted: she played a strong woman who stood up to her abuser. But professionally, she says, the show was also important: "When I left, I could do an adaptation of Chekhov - it gave me choices."
And today she couldn't be happier: "I've spent the last six months doing theatre that I love - and to be here with these people, watching the A-team, is just joyous."
Pinter Six tickets are available now.