Life & Culture

Me and You: ‘I wrote this part for Maureen; decades later she’s playing it’

Maureen Lipman and American playwright Martin Sherman on how the acclaimed actress came to play Rose


Acclaimed British actress Maureen Lipman, 76, and American playwright Martin Sherman, 84, have been friends since she starred in the original cast of his hit Messiah at Hampstead Theatre in 1982.

Several years later, he wrote his play Rose with her in mind, but she turned him down. She didn’t take the role it until 2020 when she was asked to do a recording of the play, about a Jewish refugee, as a fundraiser for Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre to help it get through the pandemic.

It was an immediate hit and led to Maureen doing the play live at the Hope Mill and Park Theatres when live performances opened up last year. It will now be playing at the Ambassadors theatre next month.

Maureen on Martin:
I feel like Martin and I have probably been together in previous lives. I see him as like a brother or a cousin I’ll be with for ever in heaven.

We both have the same kind of feeling of not being quite pretty enough for the careers we’ve chosen. We are both big fans of irony and as characters are a mixture of introvert and garrulous. We’ve been friends for more than 40 years — we will always be friends.

When we first met, Martin seemed like an exotic flower because there was a lot of magic about Messiah. I was playing a very plain girl who had been caught in the pogroms — I had these huge false front teeth and a face full of spots. I looked like a bugger and I realised that this play was about Martin and his family and how he felt about it all.

We stayed friends but when he first asked me to play Rose, I didn’t want to do it. He saw it as a natural extension of the work we’d done on Messiah but I was right in the maelstrom of the BT Beattie thing and was in a bit of shock. In those days actors didn’t do commercials because it was regarded as rather common but it was a quick source of income. And then for some reason those adverts struck a chord.

In many ways it was all quite horrifying because, all of a sudden, I wasn’t me; I was Beattie and I was going into people’s homes every second minute. It is strange when you do something in your career which is meant to be quite small but turns out to be the thing that will go on your gravestone.

I always long to play different parts and wasn’t ready to play another Jewish grandmother. I got a bit Meghan Markle about it; I felt that nobody understood me because — actually — I was a proper actress! So, Olympia Dukakis got the role, did it brilliantly and went to Broadway with it. And that could have been me.

I am much more suitable for the role now. Because I know Martin so well, I hear his voice in my head — his language is poetic, like TS Eliot without the antisemitism — and so I don’t even really have to act. I just have to sit on the bench and try and remember it all.

Rose is a story of the Jews in the 20th century but it is also Martin’s story — his parents were immigrants and all children of survivors have a hard time. It is as wry as a salt beef sandwich. It is passionate, silly and you will laugh and you will cry. The language is so perfect I don’t have to change a single syllable.

Over the years Martin and I have become good friends. We live near each other in Battersea and during lockdown would go for walks. Like most writers he’s shy, reserved and guarded but he is also just a lovely person to have at your dinner table and I am so pleased we are working together again; the play fell out of the sky for me.

There was a plan for it to be filmed and someone else was doing it — when that fell through, they thought of me, not knowing my history with the play or with Martin. It is something special to be doing this with Martin after all these years because it’s the role of a lifetime.

Martin on Maureen:
Before I met Maureen, I had to practise how to say her name. A friend warned me that it isn’t as we say it in America — like marine — and he said: “You can’t go into rehearsals calling her ‘Marine’.” For about two weeks before rehearsal I practised every day and I’ve said her name correctly ever since.

The first play we worked on wasn’t an easy one for her — her character goes through a gamut of emotions and the rehearsal period wasn’t easy either. But Maureen negotiated it all perfectly.

So when I started writing Rose it struck me this would be a very good role for her to play and she entered my subconscious as I was writing; the only problem was she didn’t want to do it.

I think I probably was a bit sad about that but she was right — she was too young too. Now is the perfect time for her to be doing it, as she brings with her a wealth of lived life.

I wrote the play because the millennium was coming up and I wanted to look at what Jewish history had looked like during the last century. The things in it — antisemitism and refugees — are probably more pertinent now than when I wrote it. We live in a world filled with refugees.

We have a very strong friendship and that is partly because Maureen has an enormous gift for friendship — to be in someone’s life quietly. She’s very witty and very funny but can equally be very serious. She has been a positive constant in my life for the last 40 years. Simply: I love her.

There have been tough times for both of us. Maureen lost her husband Jack and her partner Guido but she has this life force that keeps her going. This might sound crazy but she knows how to grieve.

She doesn’t sit on it or hold it back. She’s open about her emotions.

And so, when she has a loss, she feels it and she recognises it and is therefore able to, in a sense, deal with it. There are some people who suppress their feelings and can then never come to grips with them.

It is funny how we’ve come full circle with this play — it actually had nothing to do with me as originally I wasn’t involved in the streaming of it.

The moment I saw her first performance I was blown away. It was one of the finest performances I have ever seen and I am not surprised that it’s taken off. What she did was too good to simply sit there and not go any further. I am beyond thrilled that we are enjoying this adventure together.

‘Rose’ opens on May 23 at the Ambassadors Theatre

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