AS RACHAEL STIRLING returns to the stage in a revival of David Hare’s classic play Plenty, her appearance has a special family significance. Her mother, Diana Rigg, was in line to play the lead role of former World War II resistance fighter Susan Traherne in the original 1978 production, not long after giving birth to Rachael, only for Rachael’s father, theatre producer Archie Stirling, to suggest Diana should turn it down.
‘He didn’t want a depressed person coming home every night, because of the size and scale and demands of the part. So Mum didn’t do it,’ Rachael explains.
Forty-one years on, however, she’s ecstatic to be taking on the character at Chichester’s Festival Theatre. ‘I walk to the theatre every day and take a photograph of it in my mind because jobs like this just don’t come along that often.’
Traherne is considered one of the greatest parts in modern theatre — a heroic maverick at odds with the dulled, diminished post-war Britain in which she finds herself. But although Traherne is often seen as going mad, Rachael insists that she is absolutely sane. ‘Nothing that she says or does seems to me remotely odd. She’s a woman in these pretty medieval circumstances where women have no place, no voice, no nothing. Her story and her development is a result of the limitations imposed on her by society — she’s not a madwoman.’
Traherne was played by Meryl Streep in the 1985 film and by Cate Blanchett in the West End in 1999. Rachael was blown away by the latter’s take, but she’ll be bringing a different flavour to her performance. ‘Maybe I’m a bit naughtier,’ she says, wryly. ‘And so I’m enjoying imbuing Susan with some of the naughty.’
Indeed, naughtiness was Rachael’s calling card, when she first lit up the screen as a lesbian music hall star in BBC2’s racy adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Victorian romp Tipping The Velvet in 2002. ‘I had a ball,’ she says. ‘The sexual nature of it meant that I was sent scripts that I didn’t take for a quite a long time afterwards. But I got thrown in at the deep end and I swam with it.’
Since then, she’s gravitated towards theatre, while making acclaimed TV appearances in Capital and Detectorists. There’s also been the odd film role, though her sole flirtation with Hollywood came when she [unsuccessfully] auditioned to play Vesper Lynd alongside Daniel Craig’s 007 in Casino Royale. ‘I sat there feeling like the least Bond-y Bond Girl in a very expensive dress thinking “I need to get out of here’,” she recalls. ‘I didn’t feel sexy. I feel sexier in my 40s than I did in my 20s and 30s.’
In fact, Hollywood has now come to her latest endeavour in which she plays opposite Rob Lowe in the unlikely sounding new ITV cop drama Wild Bill. ‘I got a text from a friend last night saying, “If you get to snog Rob Lowe, my teenage self is going to explode.” It was quite surreal but I liked him enormously.’
After Plenty finishes its run, Rachael plans to spend more time with Jack, her two-year-old son with husband, Elbow frontman Guy Garvey. Rachael was one of the key lyrical inspirations on the band’s last album, 2017’s Little Fictions. ‘I remember listening to some of the lines and thinking “oh yes, of course, what we do and what we say is going to be the mainstay of your material.” I hadn’t registered that.’
Despite her current slate of work, she has no illusions about how harsh the industry can be for older actresses. ‘I’ve got a friend in her 50s who’s got children to support without a partner, who said, “It’s just s***.” The frustration is very much still there. I want to see craggy old faces on the telly. I find them infinitely more fascinating than pretty young ones.’
■ Plenty is at Chichester Festival Theatre until June 29, cft.org.uk