Dame Penelope Keith returns to Chichester Festival Theatre

Penelope
Penelope

Most of Penelope Keith’s great Chichester Festival Theatre moments have been in the main house (Entertaining Angels, The Way of The World etc).

“But Mrs Pat absolutely has to be in the Minerva,” Penelope – now Dame Penelope – says. “It is just Mrs Pat, really just talking to everybody in the audience.”

The Mrs Pat in question in Anton Burge’s play is the 19th-century actress Mrs Patrick Campbell, a woman who has seen it, and been it, all.

From her ground-breaking Hedda Gabler on the London stage, to leads on Broadway and heroines in Hollywood, Mrs Pat has travelled the globe playing the most passionate and rebellious roles.

And it was not just on the stage she was witty, wilful and wild. Her off-stage life was equally dramatic. As flame, muse and equal to George Bernard Shaw, she inspired, and played, the very first Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion.

Financial hardship, artistic rejection, romantic loss and the agonising trials of aging all confronted her but failed to defeat her. But the play now finds her in Europe’s darkest hours. With the Nazi party closing in on Paris, Mrs Pat and her beloved dog Moonbeam stand before the unknown as they try to escape to rural France.

The piece focuses on a key moment: “She is in a state of travel.

“I was so keen we should do this in a small space,” Penelope says. “It is very intimate. Mrs Pat is musing, she is telling people… She was a legend in her time. Her great success was The Second Mrs Tanqueray which she created. She was younger than Ellen Terry, but was around at the same time. It was an amazing era, and when her star waned, she went off to America.”

She had a temperament to match: “She was trouble! Not only did she think she was right, she knew she was right.

“She was certainly one of the most amazing actors of her day… when she wanted to be. I think the problem was she got bored rather easily! But it was Mrs Pat who made Ibsen’s name in this country. She played Hedda and Mrs Alving and lots of Ibsen.

“It was the great era of the actor-manager, and whatever the actor-manager said, went. And that made things difficult for her. But one should not forget that Shaw fell deeply in love with her and wrote plays for her. She was extraordinary. She was very witty. Gielgud adored her. They did Ghosts together. Richardson said when he saw her, she was the best actress he had ever seen… but she admits there were times she couldn’t be bothered.”

The play was sent to Penelope: “I thought ‘Yes, she is very interesting’, but since then (director) Alan (Strachan) and the author worked on it, and then asked if I would do it. I said ‘Yes, if I can do it in a small way!’

Penelope has done her Elizabeth I Regina Monologues, but this is her first one-woman play.

Just how big a challenge will it be in terms of stamina?

“Ask me in a few weeks’ time!”

As for Penelope’s ambitions for the play: “I would just like to have three really nice weeks in Chichester and then get home to enjoy Christmas.”

Mrs Pat is in the Minerva Theatre from October 15 to November 7.

Tickets available on www.cft.org.uk.

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