Interview: Samantha Spiro

Samantha Spiro used to steer clear of Jewish roles. Thanks to Mike Leigh, that’s all changed.


By John Nathan, December 4, 2008
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Samantha Spiro believes Jews  working in the British theatre feel “English first, and the Jewish thing comes down the line”

Samantha Spiro believes Jews working in the British theatre feel “English first, and the Jewish thing comes down the line”

There is something about Samantha Spiro‘s laugh that reminds you of Barbara Windsor. It is not just that Spiro played Windsor 10 years ago at the National Theatre in Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick. It is that Windsor’s infectious machine-gun cackle comes naturally to the 40-year-old, award-winning actress.

Spiro is laughing at the cruel trick she will soon be playing on Derek Jacobi’s Malvolio in the Donmar West End’s production of Twelfth Night. As Maria, Spiro will make Jacobi’s punctilious steward wear yellow stockings and make an unforgivable pass at his employer, the Lady Olivia. How could she be so cruel?

“It’s funny, because that was sort of the first question I asked [the director] Michael Grandage when he offered me the job. What is her motivation for doing this? He said: ‘I think it’s for fun, isn’t it’”?

It was under the direction of Grandage, one of Britain’s finest theatre directors, that Spiro scooped the 2000 Olivier Award for best actress in a musical with her performance in Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. Since then her career has taken unexpected and increasingly Jewish turns.

“I think I was strangely outed when I was offered the Mike Leigh job,” says Spiro, turning her mind to Rachel, the hysterical long lost aunt in Two Thousand Years, Leigh’s Jewish National Theatre play.

“I had been offered a couple of Jewish roles before then, but they weren’t the right kind of job. I think it had become quite a big thing for me, not playing a Jewish part. But the opportunity of going through some sort of journey with Mike, and with Jewish actors, appealed enormously.

“Working with him was a brilliant experience, and discovering and rediscovering what I felt about my Jewishness. It was a very interesting process for all of us — not knowing what the play was going to be about, but just exploring Jewishness.”

More Jewish roles followed. Or as Spiro puts it, “the Jewish floodgates opened”, which is a bit of an exaggeration, but understandable as there are not many roles more Jewish than that of Fanny Brice, who Spiro played in the Chichester revival of Funny Girl earlier this year.

It is a part whose Jewishness is conspicuous not just because of the character, a Broadway star, but because of the actress who famously played Fanny in the movie version, Barbra Streisand. Yet the critics said that Spiro made the role her own.

“I think that working with Mike Leigh freed me up,” she says. Up until then, English and Jewish were separate identities for her. Mixing the two on the stage was an uncomfortable notion.

“For English/Jewish artists in this business, we’re English first and the Jewish thing comes down the line. Whereas in the United States, Jewishness is a much celebrated thing. Jewishness is a part of their very being.

“Here, I think, we repress it and, far from celebrating it, almost shy away from it. After Two Thousand Years, I suddenly felt that there is a place for people like me. Until that point I hadn’t had a career playing Jewish people. I had got that stuff out of the way by the time I came to play Fanny Brice who is very much a Jewish character.”

Although Fanny Brice was a role for which Spiro could release her hitherto suppressed Jewishness, she still had to suppress memories of Streisand’s performance.

“When you play a part that has been done over the years, you have to clear your mind of it. I became obsessive about not hearing Barbra Streisand’s voice, I wanted to get it out of my head entirely. Which is very difficult when you’re singing People or Don’t Rain on My Parade.”

It is a performance Spiro would love to reprise in the West End, but a transfer looks doubtful. So thoughts turn back to Maria and a planned revival of Arnold Wesker’s Chicken Soup with Barley at the Royal Court in 2010.

If it goes ahead, it will be Spiro’s second Wesker play. In her first, she played non-Jewish Beattie in Wesker’s Roots, over 10 years ago. Now the mother of two daughters, Spiro is ready to play a Jewish matriarch. “Roots was a lovely production and I remember thinking: ‘When I’m much older, when I’m really, really old, I wouldn’t mind playing Sarah in Chicken Soup With Barley,’” she says. “I can’t believe how quickly it’s come.”

Twelfth Night is at the Donmar West End, London WC2 until March 7 2009. Details at www.donmarwestend.com

Last updated: 2:59pm, August 28 2014