At home with the Gorbachevs, while the world changes

Married for 40 years, Isla Blair and Julian Glover are a perfect choice to play the Russian couple who were intellectual equals and soul mates, writes Bridget Galton IN AUGUST 1991, Raisa and Mikhail Gorbachev s Crimean holiday home was besieged by heavi

Married for 40 years, Isla Blair and Julian Glover are a perfect choice to play the Russian couple who were intellectual equals and soul mates, writes Bridget Galton

IN AUGUST 1991, Raisa and Mikhail Gorbachev's Crimean holiday home was besieged by heavily armed secret police for three days while a Politburo delegation tried to force him to resign.

As the outside world was fed false news reports of the Soviet President's brain haemorrhage, there was a real possibility the Gorbachevs would become the victims of a bloody political coup.

Based on Raisa's diaries, playwright Penny Gold has spun a tense political thriller from the three-day stand-off that ended with the Gorbachevs' return to Moscow - but the collapse of the USSR.

Husband and wife Isla Blair and Julian Glover, whose own 40-year marriage is almost as long-lived as the Gorbachevs', portray the Russian couple in The President's Holiday at Hampstead Theatre.

Blair, who says she doesn't work with her husband very often "because people would get bored of it", adds: "On something like this, it can be an advantage being husband and wife".

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"After 40 years of marriage, there are things you don't have to say to each other. You can pick up each other's sign language and know what the other is thinking - just like these characters."

Blair has tried to get a feel for the Gorbachevs' close marriage but says there is remarkably little footage of the former Soviet first lady, who died from leukaemia in 1999.

"Raisa was a strong, clever woman. She and Mikhail were intellectual equals, soul mates. I don't think he ever got over her death.

"She was a fantastically supportive wife. What he needed, she would supply. He would talk most things over with her but she also knew when to keep quiet.

"She was a positive, optimistic person with great belief in her husband and what he was trying to do - to allow more devolved power to the satellite states and personal freedom for Russians while not breaking up the USSR."

But Blair is wary of doing too much research on her subject.

"You can't do an impression of her - I don't look like her anyway - so you have to try to give an impression of her qualities.

"Julian doesn't look anything like Gorbachev either. But there is a quality to him that is similarly childlike and trusting.

"He is a tremendously passionate person who really cares about things.

"There's a sort of innocence that always believes the best of people and can't believe people would do the dirty on him.

"Gorbachev had that too. He trusted people too much. When Raisa asks should he trust Yeltsin. He says 'yes'. He was completely shocked when he turned out to be wrong."

Gold makes the most of the tension inside the Dacha as the idealistic Gorbachev bravely resists negotiating with the Moscow delegation until telephone lines are restored and a helicopter ordered to return him to the Soviet capital.

She includes echoes of Tsar Nicholas and his family, who were famously massacred by Bolsheviks while under house arrest in rural Yekaterinburg.

"It must have been terrifying being cut off from the outside world in the middle of nowhere with their daughter and grandchildren and the very strong possibility they would all die," says Blair.

"They wouldn't eat anything brought into the house from the Moscow delegation in case it was poisoned and what saved them emotionally was discovering an old radio under the bed that they tuned into the World Service.

"The delegation wanted him to sign a paper withdrawing the treaty granting Soviet states some independence while remaining in the federation.

"But the Gorbachevs would never have compromised their beliefs."

"The play is a piece of history and also a thriller. Within the month, Boris Yeltsin had managed to break up the whole of the Soviet Union."

The daughter of a tea planter, Blair was born in India and recalls being transfixed by a production of Kiss Me Kate at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane at a tender age. "I am going to do that," she told her parents.

She attended RADA at the age of 16 and, by 18, found herself starring in her West End debut after the leading lady in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum fell out with the director.

She met Glover, whose films include Indian Jones And The Last Crusade, The Empire Strikes Back and For Your Eyes Only, while appearing in a play about Johnson, Boswell and Fanny Burney. The couple have an actor/director son Jamie Glover.

"There is real mutual support between the three of us for each other's talent and we are basically there to support each other," Blair adds.

"Julian is better known than me. But we both play leading parts and are hard-working jobbing actors."

Although she has appeared in many screen roles, it is the theatre that is her first love. Her recent work includes The History Boys and David Hare's Iraq War verbatim play Stuff Happens at the National Theatre.

"The risk of working on a new play is that you don't know the bits which work and you can get nervous about whether it will come off.

"With Stuff Happens, when I saw the 22 chairs in the rehearsal room and started working through it, I thought: 'This is going to be boring as anything.' But it was a sell-out and a fascinating play."

The President's Holiday runs at Hampstead Theatre until February 16.