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Weekend: Olivia Williams on her new play, Tartuffe

OLIVIA WILLIAMS is currently starring as Elmire in the National Theatre’s updated version of Moliere’s 17th-century classic Tartuffe — and says this time around the production is perfect for the #MeToo generation.

The comedy centres on Tartuffe — a sham spiritual guru who is invited into the home of a wealthy businessman, Orgon, to give his family some moral guidance.

‘Tartuffe is an imposter who tries to seduce Elmire, Orgon’s wife, and the updating has many interesting implications for the #MeToo generation about whether a woman does anything to invite someone making sexual advances towards her — and what she’s “allowed” and “not allowed” to do in order to avoid those advances. It’s very relevant…’

Olivia, 50, who has starred in Hollywood films including The Postman, The Sixth Sense and The Ghost Writer, has had first-hand experience of dealing with such situations herself.

‘The casting couch was an absolute cliché,’ she says. ‘I thought, “When is it going to happen?” and it only happened on two occasions, with one person — Harvey Weinstein.’

‘But he wasn’t aggressive and it wasn’t a situation I felt I couldn’t deal with. For whatever reason he didn’t sexually assault me. He went through the usual spiel you read about with all the other cases but it didn’t end in assault. I realise now I had a very lucky escape. And this play raises those questions interestingly….’

Despite its relevant themes, the play remains a period farce. ‘The language is modern but the situations are the same,’ says Olivia. ‘It’s a farce, so there are two people in a room, one wants to have sex with the other and there’s someone hiding in the broom cupboard.’

‘Tuffe act: Olivia is starring in Tartuffe

Writer John Donnelly has relocated the action to a posh house in Highgate and Tartuffe has invented his own spiritual cult. Again, Olivia has experience of dealing with similar people… ‘I do Bikram yoga and Bikram used to come in the studio preaching denial and discipline while wearing a pair of gold lame shorts and eating a burger. He’d say, “I can eat the burger because I live this life of restraint but you can’t.”’

What did Olivia make of the shorts and the burgers? ‘He’s a great teacher. It’s a great system. He’d say “the reason I have the biggest swimming pool in Beverly Hills is that you’re all so f****d up”. I took what I needed. I paid the money, did the class, lost the weight, got the muscles and learned how to meditate, but I hope I didn’t fall under his spell and I kept a sense of humour about things.’

And Olivia, who went on CND marches as a teen, has thoughts about the middle-class moral crisis at the heart of the play. ‘Running through it is talk about rich and poor, and what do you do morally about having everything when others very close to you have nothing and understandably want some of what you’ve got. And how if you’re rich enough the government seems to overlook your sins while the people who are taking money out of our pockets all the time get away with it.

‘Look at austerity — money is being taken away from children in schools and old people in care homes while the people who perpetrated the 2008 financial crash aren’t going without anything. “Austerity is over” is b******s — they took £874 per pupil away from [my] daughter’s school last year. Selling some f*****g fairy cakes isn’t going to sort that one out. There are some serious messages in this farce. What’s so awful about the Brexit thing is that it’s distracted from the other crap that’s going on…’

After Tartuffe the world is Olivia’s oyster as her most recent TV show, Counterpart, isn’t getting another series. So, does she have a dream job in mind? ‘I have learned not to say that because, when I do, something else completely different and unexpected comes along,’ she says.

‘The Postman changed my life,’ adds Olivia, who in the 1990s, decided to give up acting after an unsuccessful audition for a shower gel advert — only to be told she’d landed the Postman job. ‘I would never have said I wanted to be in post-apocalyptic film with Kevin Costner but it was the most fun. And I loved doing Victoria & Abdul. I wouldn’t have said I wanted to do costume drama but that was an amazing piece of work. Now I’m available to move onto pastures new which is very exciting.’

Tartuffe is at the National Theatre until April 30, nationaltheatre.org.uk