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‘I don’t think there’s time to have opinions and not act on them’

Doctor’s orders: Juliet is starring in The Doctor, a play which looks at identity politics PICTURE: MANUEL HARLAN

IF THERE’S one word that Juliet Stevenson loathes more than any other, it’s ‘luvvie’ — the derogatory term often directed at her and other affluent actors who like to get involved in political activism. Not that Juliet, who has spoken out on issues from climate change to Europe’s refugee crisis, will ever be cowed by such insults. ‘I don’t think there’s any time for people to have opinions and not act on them,’ she says. ‘Don’t talk about trying to make the world a better place, do something.’

On stage, Juliet’s latest character may not be called ‘luvvie’, but she similarly comes under fire for who she is, rather than what she does. In The Doctor, a reimagining of a 1912 play by Austrian Arthur Schnitzler, she plays Dr Ruth Wolff, a medic who refuses to let a Catholic priest into a dying girl’s room to administer the last rites. The fallout is huge and coloured by her status as a white, middle-class Jewish woman.

Intellectually and emotionally scintillating, the play is, among other things, a study of society’s current obsession with what has become known as ‘identity politics’ — whereby we pigeonhole ourselves and each other according to class, gender, race and sexuality. Juliet believes it does have some validity but also that, ‘We have more in common than that which divides us. Let’s not lose sight of that.’

She took on the role because of the chance to reunite with wunderkind director Robert Icke, with whom she worked on his visionary productions of Mary Stuart and Hamlet. He’s now leaving the Almeida after six successful years as its associate director to work in Europe — and The Doctor is his farewell show. Juliet is sad that a dazzling talent like his has been ‘driven abroad’.

‘Rob has a dream of having an ensemble company where he’s making five pieces of work a year with the same group of people, she explains. ‘Unfortunately, in this country there is just so little money for the arts. If only somebody out there thought, “This is a really important theatre-maker, let’s give him the money to make this kind of theatre that really speaks to the time we’re living in.”’

Juliet has gravitated towards challenging fare since the moment which she credits as inspiring her to act when, aged nine, she picked out a WH Auden poem for her school speech day. ‘It was a very difficult poem. But the feeling I had was that I wanted to be a kind of conduit — the vessel through whom this writing passes out to a bunch of people. And that, as actors, is really what we are.’

After starting her career at the RSC, she came to big-screen fame alongside her RSC peer Alan Rickman in 1991 film Truly, Madly, Deeply. The film is a romantic classic, and she, in part, credits its power to her real-life, platonic chemistry with her late, much-missed co-star. ‘Alan and I had known each other for ages, so there was lots of familiarity, some irritation, some love — lots of love — that all was bedded into the film.’

Its success led to Hollywood interest, but the LA life didn’t suit Juliet. ‘I felt very uncomfortable there. I thought, “What am I doing wandering about people’s studios and swimming pools?”’

Since then, she has fought ‘never to be put into a box or a category’.

Aged 62, she is now at ease with herself. ‘My fifties were a complete revelation. Because finally I found myself confident enough to think, “I don’t care if people don’t like what I say or do. That’s fair. But I’m going to say or do it anyway.”’

In light of the turbulence of the world at the moment, she’s hungry for more stimulating roles. ‘When times are bad, theatre starts to know what it’s for. There’s so much to be explored or talked about.’

The Doctor, Almeida Theatre, until Sep 28. It is sold out but every Tuesday at 1pm some tickets are released for the following week, almeida.co.uk