Tuesday, December 5

When Covid shut the theatres, I became my mother’s carer. Returning feels defiant | Rachel Stirling

Mand beloved and I were married in a theater. Reader, I popped the question on a leap year by graffiti-ing my local footbridge in chalk, with a layer of hairspray in case it rained. He said yes, after collapsing on his knees in shock. We did the legals in Manchester town hall, followed by a curry (his choice of him) then a blessing and a shindig in a theater in London (mine). The theater is the closest thing I’ve got to church; at least, it’s the place I have frequented from nappies till now, where people come to lend their belief.

Last Wednesday marked two years since the world came to a grinding halt. At the time I was playing Sandra, the booze-fueled, fag-ashed, unapologetically selfish and morally questionable baby-boomer heroine in a revival of Mike Bartlett’s Love love love at the Lyric Hammersmith theatre. The audiences gasped and howled at what an appalling mother she was, while being beguiled by her eye-bleeding honesty. Our press night performance was riotous. There was delicious rowdy chaos in the audience, and audible wincing as Sandra informed her daughter de ella, on her 16th birthday de ella, that both parents have had affairs and ella will soon be getting a divorce, all the while cheerfully handing out slices of cake. Something in the airwaves told us to enjoy the moment while it lasted. It lasted for four performances.

I had just found out that my Ma had cancer, so while the show being forced to shut down was sad, in truth my world was already shattered. Pro that she was, Ma didn’t want to tell me until after that first night. She always came to first nights. She always gave notes. My first newspaper review in a show was mostly a review about Ma arriving late, looking glam in her leopardskin shawl: “No need to Rigg Rachael’s verdict” was the headline. Love love love was the last play she ever saw. She didn’t have any notes. But as I packed up my dressing room that day, I had no idea that I was about to become my mother’s full-time carer, or that in six months she would be dead.

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A year later, and people, like theaters, were trying to survive. Some more successfully than others. I was on set in Cardiff, doing a pretty job. I got a text from Mike Bartlett saying: “I’m writing a play and I seem to be writing a part for you in it”. I have worked with Mike for more than a decade now, but I still like to think it was the spirit of Sandra bullying him into reincarnation, because Susan Climber is definitely a relative. She is larger than life, a shoot-from-the-hip heroine for our times.

Mike’s new play was called scandaltown. He had sent it to Rachel O’Riordan, artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith, and our director of Love love love. Mike and Rachel had talked about how the architecture of the Lyric was made to stage Restoration drama. Fast-forward to Christmas 2020 and someone had given Mike’s son a cardboard toy proscenium arch theater with cardboard actors you could push on and off. (If only.)

“In the midst of lockdown,” Mike remembers, “it reminded me of the Lyric Hammersmith, and that conversation, and the subject of those plays – facade and gossip and a corrupt elite in London. Exactly where we are today. The form and the content fit.”

Rachael Stirling, right, as Sandra in Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love at the Lyric theatre, March 2020. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Wouldn’t it be great, thought he, to come back to theater with a new play that had the energy of restoration, the joy of Love love love but that speaks to an audience directly about today. “I want it to be a really good night out,” Mike says. “We’ve got less money, there is still Covid. How can it be as provocative as a new play should be, but you aren’t being hit over the head with something too blunt… you’re really pleased you came.”

Hello, March 2022, and I’m once again standing on the stage of this beautiful Frank Matcham gold’n’gilt auditorium. You can whisper from up here and still be heard at the back of the gods. No member of the audience is more than 64ft away. This is particularly juicy because that delicious conspiracy between audience and actor is the game-changer in Restoration comedy. There is no fourth wall malarkey. I am bona fide allowed to talk to the audience and play with the congregation and to be as naughty as I please. In fact, it is actively encouraged. If they don’t like it, the audience can say so, they can heckle.

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scandaltown is a great big, sexy, smart, occasionally crass, rock’n’roll piece of theatre. It takes the form of Restoration comedy but is set now. It makes merry of the cross-generational cyber-divide, while never making judgment. It reflects the facade of social media and hypocrisy of politicians, while smiling with real kindness at our shared human folly. It embraces modern life, and gently points out we are all a bit ridiculous to boot.

This is the stuff that brought people flooding back to the theater after it was banned for two decades under Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century. Restoration theater became the Church of the Outrageous. Not only were there real live women on stage but there was piss-taking of the powers that be, indecorous behaviour, cross-dressing, sex of all kinds between all genders and classes, and extravagant costumes as the icing on the toothsome cultural cake. From king to pauper, houses were packed: people were hungry for joy after the drought of Puritanism.

The Lyric Hammersmith is subsidized, but it is really owned by its community, more so than by the actors who play in it. The first preview of every show there is free to the locals. It is always very loud and totally different to those with paying audiences. If they stay for the second half, it’s a triumph, because the audience haven’t spent anything to be there so it has to be genuine interest that makes them stay. I imagine that there might be a kid in the audience that night who falls in love with theater, and I do it for them.

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Stirling with her mother, Diana Rigg, at the Love, Love, Love press night, March 2020.
Stirling with her mother, Diana Rigg, at the Love, Love, Love press night, March 2020. Photograph: Dan Wooller/Rex/Shutterstock

I have so missed the chaos of live performance. Over my 25-year career, I have slipped in a pool of blood and luged gusset first into the front row. I have been garrotted by scenery. I’ve seen a game dame slowly roll down a raked stage after a fairy forgot to put the brakes on her bower de ella. I have seen wonderful actors completely forget the plot and occasionally forget to come on altogether. It’s surprisingly easy to filibuster in the style of Terence Rattigan, less so Shakespeare. I once whacked an actor over the head with a fan so hard that it snapped altogether. The two of us were unable to speak for laughing at the floppy prop. The audience saw what had happened, and there followed communal hysteria. It spread like a giggling Mexican wave. It was heaven.

Ffirst day of rehearsals for scandaltown and, as per norm, everyone stands in a circle in the rehearsal room and says who they are and what they do. It’s a bit first-day-of-school-y, but this time it feels different. Sixty theater people in a room together feels like “a statement of intent for the future of theatre”, says Rachel O’Riordan, and it does, it feels like an act of defiance. Our first-aider makes a gag about rashes, and everyone laughs. Meanwhile I am projectile crying at the sight of so many familiar faces in this same rehearsal room, two years on, without my Ma in the world. I manage to get away with it, just about, by making a lame joke about being really grateful to be employed. (This is also true.)

I miss my ma more than words. I shall do this joyous job in her honor of her, and with her spirit of her by my side of her. I imagine what she would say to me before our first show. She would say to me what she always said to me before every show, she would say: “Go fly, my girl.”

scandaltown is at Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 from 7 April to 14 May


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