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Ham&High Podcast: Juliet Stevenson on life in lockdown and the government’s ‘lack of compassion’ for refugees

PUBLISHED: 16:16 08 November 2020 | UPDATED: 15:28 04 December 2020

Juliet Stevenson after addressing a rally in Parliament Square in 2016. Picture: Yui Mok/PA

Juliet Stevenson after addressing a rally in Parliament Square in 2016. Picture: Yui Mok/PA

PA Archive/PA Images

“How many people have to die? How many children have to drown in the Channel before somebody does something?”

Highgate’s Juliet Stevenson has long been a campaigner for refugee rights and spoke to the Ham&High Podcast just days after the latest tragedy in the English Channel.

Our interview was also a day before a second national lockdown was announced, and the actor spoke openly about how difficult she has found living under Covid restrictions. With her husband, the anthropologist Hugh Brody, she has spent the duration of the coronavirus crisis at their property in the Suffolk countryside.

Until March, the year had looked to be an exciting one, with The Doctor - an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi by Robert Icke - due to transfer to the West End and New York after a successful run at the Almeida Theatre, in Islington.

“So it was going to be a fantastic year, work wise, and it was a play that I was very proud of - and I think a really important play. I’m very, very sad and very frustrated not to be able to work,” she said.

Ham&High PodcastHam&High Podcast

“I’m very worried about my community - not just actors but writers, stage managers, wardrobe workers, stage door crew - there are so many people who work inside a theatre, all of whom are out of a job, with no foreseeable certainty that they will get back in theatres any time soon.”

One production which did find a window to go ahead was an adaptation of José Saramago’s novel Blindness as a sound installation, directed by Walter Meierjohann. It was written as a one-woman show, with a pre-recorded performance by Juliet creating an immersive narrative about a viral blindness - remarkably apt for these times.

“But it’s extraordinarily hopeful in a way,” said Juliet. “Life as they and we understand it completely breaks down but at the end of the book... they find their way.”

It managed to fit in a run at the Donmar Warehouse in August and, lockdown allowing, there are plans for tours of the UK and overseas.

Ria Zmitowicz and Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor. Picture: Manuel Harlan.Ria Zmitowicz and Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor. Picture: Manuel Harlan.

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Other work has included recording audio books - Pride and Prejudice is in the can, along with Doctor Zhivago, the Call the Midwife novels and many others - and Juliet can currently be seen on the BBC in Sara Pascoe’s comedy Out of My Mind. But she says without the theatre community around her, and without being able to see her family in person, she has found it difficult.

Staff from Greens of Highgate and Alexandra Wylie Tower Foundation volunteers with Juliet Stevenson to support a local food bank. Picture: Ruth Corney / Alexandra Wylie Tower FoundationStaff from Greens of Highgate and Alexandra Wylie Tower Foundation volunteers with Juliet Stevenson to support a local food bank. Picture: Ruth Corney / Alexandra Wylie Tower Foundation

“I have been quite low recently, to be honest,” she said. “My husband is very Covid vulnerable because he has underlying health conditions that make it very dangerous for him to catch it so we had to leave London. His doctor said ‘you’d better get out’ so we haven’t been able to see our four kids, hardly at all - our little grandchild, who’s two and we’ve barely been able to see, certainly not sitting on our knee or reading books with him or playing with him.”

The importance to Juliet of her family no doubt informs her campaigning on refugee rights. In the week we spoke, a Kurdish-Iranian family lost their lives when a boat they were crossing the Channel in sank.

“It’s absolutely devastating, and that family was so desperate to get out of Calais because of the conditions,” she said. “They’re living in mud, freezing cold, we’ve had so much rain recently. Can you imagine - a family trying to keep three children healthy when they’re living outdoors in mud and cold and wet?

“Apparently the mother didn’t think they would manage to get through this winter living in those conditions in Calais. So they were desperate to get to the UK.

Juliet Stevenson arriving at The EE British Academy Film Awards 2014. Picture: Ian West/PAJuliet Stevenson arriving at The EE British Academy Film Awards 2014. Picture: Ian West/PA

“We have to create safe, legal routes. We have to remember that to seek asylum is an internationally legal thing to do. It is a right.

“They were Iranian Kurds. They were fleeing from persecution. It’s written into international law. We have a home secretary who appears to have no understanding of these things. The lack of compassion is incomprehensible, and I think and hope that many of your listeners will identify with this.

“How long have we been talking about this? How many people have to die? How many children have to drown in the channel before somebody does something.”

For the full interview, including a discussion about the relevance of Shakespeare and Beckett to what we are experiencing today, find the Ham&High Podcast in your regular podcast app, or go to https://podfollow.com/hamhigh/.


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