In the dream I was walking through the streets of a strange city, in a foreign country I did not recognise. I was weary, and my feet were sore because I was wearing shoes that were too small for me. Then, as is the way in dreams, I was all at once in a shoe shop and my grandmother was there. She did not speak, neither in greeting nor to explain what she was doing there, but handed me a pair of shoes made of brown leather. I put them on and they fitted perfectly.
Never in my whole life had I had such soft and comfortable shoes. ‘How much do they cost, Granny?’ I asked. She told me the price in a currency I had never heard of before, but of which I somehow knew the value: I knew that the price she named was derisory, that the shoes were in essence a gift. And then she gave me a thick green woollen blanket and I wrapped myself in it, and it was only now, when I was warm that I realised how cold I had been, and it was only now that I remembered that my grandmother was dead, had been dead for over twenty years. Far from being afraid I was overjoyed to see her again. ‘Oh Granny,’ I said, ‘I thought we had lost you forever.’ She smiled and shook her head. ‘Here I am.’
I awoke and I couldn’t remember the dream. I only knew that I had been dreaming and that it had left me full of joy. Then immediately I was disconcerted by not recognizing the room in which I had awoken. Whose lamp was this, with its parchment shade? Whose low bed, whose saffron-coloured quilt? The high windows were hung with muslin curtains, the room was flooded with morning light and all at once it came to me: I was in Molly Fox’s house.
Molly Fox is an actor, and is generally regarded as one of the finest of her generation. (She insists upon ‘actor’: If I wrote poems would you call me a poetess?) One of the finest but not, perhaps, one of the best known. She has done a certain amount of television work over the years and has made a number of films, a significant number given how much she dislikes that particular medium and that the camera, she says, does not love her. Certainly she does not have on screen that beauty and magnetism that marks out a true film star and she hates, she has told me, the whole process of making a film. The tedium of hanging around waiting to act bores her, and the fact that you can repeat a scene time and time again until you get it right seems to her like cheating. She likes the fear, the danger even, of the stage, and it is for the theatre that she has done her best work. Although she often appears in contemporary drama her main interest is in the classical repertoire, and her greatest love is Shakespeare.
People seldom recognise her in the street. She is a woman of average height, ‘quite nondescript’ she herself claims, although I believe this fails to do her justice. Fineboned with brown eyes and dark brown hair, she has an olive complexion; she tans easily in the summer. She often wears black. Neutral tones suit her – oatmeal, stone – and natural materials, she wears a lot of linen and knitted cotton.
On the dressing table of the room in which I was sleeping was a marquetry box full of silver and turquoise jewellery, silver and amber, together with glass beads and wooden bracelets. For special occasions she wears silks and velvets in deep, rich colours, purple or burgundy, which I think suit her even better than more subtle tones, but which she thinks too showy for everyday wear. She dislikes the colour green and will have nothing to do with it, for like many theatre people, Molly is extremely superstitious, and if she speaks of ‘the Scottish Play’ it is not only out of respect for the feelings of others.
When the public fails to recognise her in her daily life it is not just because they see her face only infrequently on the cinema or television screen. It is because she has a knack of not allowing herself to be recognised when she doesn’t want to be. I have no idea how she does this, I find it difficult even to describe. It is a kind of geisha containment, a shutteredness, a withdrawal and negation. It is as if she is capable of sensing when people are on the point of knowing who she is and she sends them a subliminal denial. I know what you’re thinking but you’re wrong. It isn’t me. I’m somebody else. Don’t even bother to ask. And they almost never do. What gives her away every time is her voice. So often have I seen her most banal utterances, requests for drinks or directions, have a remarkable effect on people. ‘A woman with such a voice is born perhaps once in a hundred years,’ one critic remarked. ‘If heaven really exists,’ wrote another ‘as a place of sublime perfection, then surely everyone in it speaks like Molly Fox.’
Her voice is clear and sweet. At times it is infused with a slight ache, a breaking quality that makes it uniquely beautiful. It is capable of power and depth, it has a timbre that can express grief or desire like no other voice I have ever heard. It has, moreover, what I can only describe as both a visual and a sensuous quality, an ability to summon up the image of the thing that the word stands for. When Molly says snow you feel a soft cold, you can see it freshly fallen over woods and fields, you can see the winter light. When she says ice you feel a different kind of cold, biting and sharp, and what you see is glassy, opaque. No other actor with whom I have ever worked has such a remarkable understanding of language.
Unsurprisingly, she is much in demand for this gift alone, for voice-overs, radio work and audio-books. Although constantly solicited for it, she always refuses to do advertising. People who have never entered a theatre in their lives recognise her distinctive speech from historical or wildlife documentaries on television or from the tapes of classic children’s literature they play to their sons and daughters in the car.
Now she was in New York and from there she would go to London to make a recording of Adam Bede. I thought of her sitting alone in the studio with her headphones and a glass of water, the hair-trigger needles of the instruments making shivering arcs, as if they too thrilled to the sound of her voice. I thought of the bewitching way she would call up a whole imagined world so that the
sound engineers behind the glass wall and anyone who would ever hear her recording would see Hetty in the creamery as though they were there with her. They might almost smell the cream and touch the earthenware, the wooden vessels, as though Molly were not an actor but a medium who could summon up not those who were dead, but those who had never been anything but imagined.
She lives in Dublin, in a redbrick Victorian house, the middle house in a terrace. The front path that leads from the heavy iron gate to the blue-painted front door is made of black and red tiles, and is original to the house, as are many other details inside. There is a pretty, if rather small, garden at the front that Molly keeps in a pleasing tangle of bright flowers all summer, like a cottage garden. She grows sprawling pink roses, and lupins; there are nasturtiums, loud in orange and red, there are spiky yellow dahlias and a honeysuckle trained up a trellis beside the
front window. Bees bumble and drone, reeling from one blossom to another like small fat drunks. Inside, the house is surprisingly bright and airy. There is a fanlight above the front door, which is echoed in the semicircular top of the window, high above the return, which brightens the stairwell. On the ceiling in the hall there is a plasterwork frieze of acanthus leaves, and a central rose from
which hangs an elegant glass lamp. Although it has immense charm it is a small house, more modest than people might expect given Molly’s considerable success. She bought it at the start of her career and has remained there ever since, for the sake of the garden, she says, although I suspect that Fergus is the real reason why she has never left Dublin. She also has a tiny apartment in London where she is obliged to spend much of her time for professional reasons. She likes the city; its vast anonymity suits her temperament. My home is also there, and I am always pleased when she says she is going to work in London, because it means I will have her company for a few months. She is without doubt my closest woman friend. This particular visit, to make the Eliot recording, coincided with her getting some urgent work done on her London flat and I was interested in spending a little time in Dublin, so I suggested that we simply borrow each other’s homes, an idea that delighted her, for it solved her problem at a stroke.
I heard the clock in the hall strike the hour and counted the beats. Six o’clock: still far too early to get up. I lay in Molly’s wide soft bed knowing that in less than a week she would be lying in mine, and I wondered what it was to be Molly Fox. Slippery questions such as this greatly preoccupy both of us, given that I write plays and she acts in them, and over the years we have often talked to each other about how one creates or becomes a character quite unlike oneself.
In spite of my own passion for the theatre, unlike many other dramatists there is nothing in me of the actor, nothing at all. When I was young I did appear in a couple of minor roles in student productions, which served their purpose in that I believe they taught me something of stagecraft that I would never have known otherwise. But I have never felt less at ease than standing sweating night after night under a bank of hot lights, wearing a dusty dress made from an old curtain, pretending to be Second Gentlewoman and trying not to sneeze. ‘You must stop immediately,’ one of my friends said to me. ‘I know you want to write plays but if you keep on with the acting, you’ll lose whatever understanding you have for the theatre. As an actor, the whole thing becomes false to you. I know you believe the theatre has to be a complete engagement with reality or it’s nothing. If you guard that understanding and bring it to bear on your writing, you’ll be a terrific playwright, but if you keep on trying to act, you’ll undermine your whole belief in the theatre. And as well as that,’ he added, with more truth than tact, ‘you’re easily the worst actor who ever stepped on a stage.’
I have considerable experience of working with actors over the years and yet their work remains a mystery to me. I believe that I still don’t know how they do it. Molly will have none of this, says I have an innate understanding of what they do and that it’s just that I don’t know how to explain it. She says this isn’t a problem, that most actors can’t put in into words either, and that many who do speak confidently about it aren’t to be trusted. She also says that there are as many ways to be an actor as there are actors. Once I said to her that I thought what she did was psychologically dangerous. I sometimes think she is more in danger of losing touch with herself than I am, that something in her art forces her to go deeper into herself than my art requires of me and that the danger is that she might lose her way, lose her self. ‘But it isn’t me!’ she exclaimed. That contradicted something she had said to me once before – that if she, Molly Fox, wasn’t deeply in the performance then it would be a failure.
Eventually we decided, after much discussion, that our different approaches to character could be seen as a continuum. For me, as a playwright, the creation of a character is like listening to something faint and distant. It’s like trying to remember someone one knew slightly, in passing, a very long time ago, but to remember them so that one knows them better than one knows oneself. It’s like trying to know a family member who died before one was born, from looking at photographs and objects belonging to them; also from hearing the things, often contradictory, that people say about them, the anecdotes told. From this, you try to work out how they might speak and how they might react to any given circumstance, how they would interact with other characters whom one has come to know by the same slow and delicate process. And out of all this comes a play, where, as in life, people don’t always say what they mean or mean what they say, where they act against their own best interests and sometimes fail to understand those around them. In this way, a line of dialogue should carry an immense resonance, conveying far more than just meaning.
For me, the play is the final destination. For Molly, it is the point of departure. She takes the text, mine or anyone’s, and works backwards to discover from what her character says who this person is, so that she can become them. Some of the questions she asks herself –
What does this person think of first thing in the morning? What is her greatest fear? – are the kind of questions that I too ask in the course of writing, as a kind of litmus test to see if I know the character as well as I think I do. She begins from the general and moves to the particular. How does such a person walk, speak, hold a wine glass? What sort of clothes does she wear, what kind of home does she live in? I understand all of this and still the art of acting remains a mystery to me. I still don’t know how on earth Molly does what she does and I could never do it myself.
What kind of woman has a saffron quilt on her bed? Wears an olive-green linen dressing gown? Keeps beside her bed a stack of gardening books? Stores all her clothes in a shabby antique wardrobe, with a mirror built into its door? Who is she when she is in this room, alone and unobserved, and in what way does that differ from the person she is when she is in a restaurant with friends or in rehearsal or engaging with members of the public? Who, in short, is Molly Fox?
I was reluctant to pursue this line of thought because I suddenly realised that, lying in my bed in London next week, she might do exactly the same thing to me. Given her particular gift she would be able to reconstruct me, to know me much better than I might wish myself to be known, especially by such a close friend. But no such reservation had touched Molly when she was showing me around her house a few days earlier to settle me in. ‘Make yourself completely at home. Take whatever you want or need and use it. If there’s something you can’t find, look for it.’ She hauled open a drawer and stirred up its contents to show just how free I should make with her things. ‘This is good, wear this,’ and she took the linen dressing gown from its hook behind the door, tossed it on the bed. When I protested mildly against this unlimited generosity, she replied in a voice not her own, ‘Oh come now, my dear, don’t be so middle class,’ a voice itself so larded with pretension that I could only laugh. What she offered me was far more than I wanted or needed. I thanked her for her kindness and told her to treat my own place in exactly the same way, even while I silently hoped that she wouldn’t. And yes, I did feel guilty because it was a mean-spirited thought.
I knew how fond she was of her home and everything in it, something that was difficult to square with her attitude of non-attachment. Take our mutual friend Andrew, for example. I’m even closer to him than to Molly, and I’ve known him for longer too, but he would never give me the free run of his home, of that I’m certain. Not that I would need it anyway, for he also lives in London, and I wouldn’t want it because of the responsibility. While Molly’s house is full of stylish bric-a-brac, unusual but inexpensive things that she has picked up on her travels, pretty well everything Andrew owns – vases, rugs, furniture – is immensely valuable. Worrying that I might spill a glass of red wine over some rare carpet or mark an antique table with a cup of coffee would take any pleasure out of staying there. Given how clumsy I am it’s always a relief, even when visiting him, to leave without having broken or damaged anything.
Andrew. He had been much on my mind of late. I had hoped to see him before I left London. I had called and left a message on his answering machine, asking him to ring, but he hadn’t got back to me. No doubt this was a particularly busy time for him. His new series had started on television the previous week; the second part would be shown tonight. I had wanted to wish him the best for it.
Yawning, I stretched out and switched on a small radio on the bedside table. The music that came from it was hesitant and haunting, a piano played with a kind of rising courage, the notes sparse and scattered with a yearning quality that somehow seemed to match the mood of the morning: it was, at least, what I needed to hear. What would I do today? I would spend the morning working in the spare bedroom that I had set up as an office for the time that I would be here. Because it was Saturday I would give myself the afternoon off and go into town. I knew that I had had a pleasant dream just before I awoke but I couldn’t remember what it had been about. I looked again at my watch and decided it was still too early to get up even though the room was flooded with light. It was the twenty-first of June, the longest day of the year. It was Molly Fox’s birthday.