LOOKING across these same elegant tables, golden pillars in the shape of female figures and opposing mirrors of the Café Royal, with plumes of cigar smoke and sophisticated conversation drifting towards graciously painted ceilings. Sir Max Beerbohm, brilliant caricaturist, a writer of the 1890’s, commented: “This, indeed, is life.”
Luxurious living, certainly. And quite the most appropriate venue to lunch Barbara Jefford. O.B.E., the widely acclaimed actress who plays Mrs. Erlynne in the lavish Playhouse production on Monday of Lady Windermere’s Fan, by Oscar Wilde.
For this is where Wilde held court; here the literary and artistic intelligentsia of the time paid service to his table… George Bernard Shaw, Aubrey Beardsley, Frank Harris, Max Beerbohm. Here the wit, and the wine, flowed.
So where better to meet the lady who is to play one of Wilde’s best-known characters?
“Of course,” muses Barbara, a keen student of Wilde and his work, “this probably isn’t his table. But it is near the door; it is the sort of place where he would have liked to sit. With his vanity, he would have liked everyone to observe him, as they passed to and fro.” Barbara dovetails perfectly into this still-rarefied, refined atmosphere. Tall, strikingly handsome, with marine-green eyes and raven hair, she is the daughter of a Somerset bank manager and never saw a play performed professionally until she was 16.
Now, 20 years later, she is one of Britain’s leading Shakespearian actresses. But, in manner, not in the least stuffy or theatrical. Not a trace of a bluestocking, although one critic described her as “a jewel of loftiness and dignity.”
While on her honeymoon (she is married to actor John Turner) she skipped away to read Browning’s poetry to a student gathering. And, when she played in Shaw’s “St. Joan” she was hailed as “the sexiest Joan of Arc ever to put on armour.”
Yet she is warm, friendly, easy to converse with. Dreamily she contemplates: “There was such an elegance about Edwardian days. It must have been super being ‘the Grand Actress of The Day.’ All furs, jewellery and crinoline, sweeping into places like this, with a wake of anxious footmen and waiters. This is why I love playing Wilde. It has a grandeur. Flair.”
How does life for the modem working actress about-town compare with the old Edwardian image?
“Our life is far more frantic Dashing about to rehearsals… having to find our own taxis. I can just imagine a lady like Mrs. Erlynne having to summon her own hansom! And we have to look after a home and a husband without a servant. Today we’re rather frenzied creatures. Wilde would have been horrified with us.”
Barbara has a large flat in London and a cottage (without a telephone) in Oxfordshire. She appears at the National Theatre; this morning she has been hard at Shakespeare, for a radio programme. Recently, she has been the centre of controversy — and acclaim — for her film portrayal of Molly Bloom in “Ulysses.” And this week: Lady Windermere’s Fan. A busy, yet versatile actress.
“But overall, I’m glad I’m living when I am,” she admits, nibbling scampi. “Those Edwardian clothes were splendid, but terribly restricting. Hot, too. It’s so much better these days to swing around in a skirt and sweater. And an actress today is at least permitted a mind of her own. Views on things. The dashing Madams of the Nineties were simply fanciful figures, something additional to decorate the scene!
“No, it is preferable to act Edwardians, rather than to have been one.”
Are Wilde’s characters easier to play than more contemporary parts?
“Yes, I think they are. These immortal words seem to flow. They are certainly easier to remember. They have a rhythm.” Does this apply to Shakespeare? (I retain memories of many a tortured schoolboy hour which almost put me off The Bard for life!)
Barbara has played most of Shakespeare’s leading female parts. Doesn’t she have trouble remembering those lines? Or occasionally get Ophelia jumbled up, with, say, Rosalind? “No, never. Shakespeare’s are the easiest lines for me to remember. They really do flow, there’s no other word to describe it.”
And how does she react to all her publicity? The “sexiest St. Joan” angle? And what about the unexpected — and, I think, inaccurate — critic who accused her of “striding about like a man”?
“Oh, that, ’she says, derisively “That’s just publicity. Writers have got to say something about me; so they compete to say something different or original, just like Wilde and his companions here in the Café Royal. I mean, stride about like a man. Me? You had no difficulty keeping up with me, did you? Neither did the head waiter who showed us to the table. The writer of that line must have been a woman!”
Somewhere, somehow, I fancy the ghost of Oscar Wilde is looking down and smiling on the table at the Café Royal, his beloved haunt, of the Naughty Nineties…