The Women in His Life:Deborah Findlay & Anna Chancellor Create the Muses in "Stanley"

Clearly, it's a matter of interpretation. But in "Stanley," the Royal Shakespeare Company's award-winning play about early 20th-century painter Stanley Spencer, the women are treading thin lines. The production opened Thurs., Feb. 20, at Broadway's Circle In The Square, following a distinguished premiere in London.

Is Stanley's wife, Hilda (Deborah Findlay), a beleaguered, long-suffering martyr--or an almost radical figure engaged in an intense experimental relationship with her complex, anarchistic husband (Antony Sher)? Or is she a little of both?

Is Patricia, Stanley's mistress and then second wife (Anna Chancellor), nothing more than a lesbian bitch-on-wheels hooker whose only interest in Stanley is for the gifts and contacts he can provide? Or is she, too, a more multi-faceted figure: Outrageous, wickedly fun-loving and, indeed, a joyous, albeit pathetic, embodiment of London's post-World War I artistic circles?

In 1997 both females are about as politically incorrect as they can be. Neither exemplifies post-feminist womanhood by any means. Quite the contrary. And the actresses know it, acknowledging that their major acting challenge is in re-shaping these ladies a tad to make them emotionally understandable--palatable--from a late-20th-century perspective.

For example, Deborah Findlay maintains that contrary to what Hilda might project--that victim-wife image--"She has, in fact, colluded in her destiny. Both she and Stanley have very definite ideas about that perfect relationship and union. Both believe they are extensions of each other. In the beginning she allows Stanley to have a relationship with Patricia because she sees he really wants it. And rather than say, "It's either going to be her or me," she tries to embrace that relationship. It's preferable to losing him." Cast in that light, Findlay suggests, Hilda becomes a contemporary woman that she, as an actress, can identify with.

Still, there's a historical/cultural layer that can't be ignored, Findlay continues. The play is set in Bloomsbury's bohemia with its clearly defined values and mores. "Hilda was a painter herself and had ideas about art and religion. And she was a feminist, at least as it was interpreted in her day. If she was a more conventional woman, she would never have been involved in the kind of relationship she had with Stanley! This play raises the questions: How does one live with an artist? What is the nature of genius?"

What's the Draw?

Directed by John Caird, "Stanley" marks Circle In The Square's first play under its new administration headed by Gregory Mosher.

Findlay, an actress known for her versatility, boasts a roster of credits including starring roles in Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Chekhov. Offstage she is affable, outgoing, and humorous. We meet with the dungaree-clad veteran actress in her dressing room a couple of hours before a Saturday matinee. Striking the right note that combines personal psychology and a sense of the 1920s is the central issue for Findlay throughout "Stanley." This is perhaps nowhere more pointed, however, than in resolving the murky question: Why is Hilda drawn to Stanley at all? By contemporary--perhaps any--standards, he is an infantile, womanizing abuser who gussies up his philanderings as an expression of an enlightened philosophy and artistic vitality. Still, he has sexual charm.

"And that sexuality has to be his magnetism for me," says Findlay, running her hand through her short-cropped auburn hair. "He's got an intelligence and an energy that are like a flame to Hilda and others as well. That's important for me, the actress, to hang on to.

"And it's also important to realize that while his attitudes about sexual liberation may seem childish today, they come from an intellectual concept that makes sense if you place him and Hilda historically. As a soldier he personally saw the horrors of World War I and was deeply effected by them. Following the war, he and Hilda, like many artists and intellectuals of the era, wanted to sweep old values away. They were all looking for new ways to live and new kinds of relationships.

"Audiences laugh at his line, 'I want to express my divinity through sex.' Today, it sounds like an excuse for who-knows-what. But in its time it was a palatable argument."

To play Hilda, Findlay had to come to terms with the idea that Hilda is not a victim of the avant-grade, but a proud proponent of it. It's also important for the actress playing this role, she says, to see Stanley as a vulnerable figure despite--perhaps because of--his outrageous behavior. "He talks an awful lot about sex, but the fact is, there is very little sex going on in his life. Patricia cannot or will not have relations with him, and Hilda is rarely home!"

Learning by Doing

Raised in Surrey, England, Findlay majored in English at the University of Leeds with an eye towards a teaching career. Still, it was her academic stint at Leeds that launched her as an actress. "A few students got together and formed a theatre company of which I was a member and it just went from there," she says matter-of-factly. "I realized acting is what I wanted to do and could do best." Findlay is one of the fortunate few who has worked steadily for over 20 years. What's more noteworthy is that she has never studied acting formally. "I think you learn by doing and working with good directors and actors," she observes.

In the U.K., the intense six-week rehearsal process for Stanley included lots of book research and even a cast trip to Cookham, where the action takes place. The homes where these figures lived are still standing. Experiencing the actual place, Findlay stresses, helped shape that sense of uncanny onstage authenticity.

What's most important to this actress, however, is that "audiences recognize Hilda's strength. I don't want them to think she was a doormat. I want them to feel her love for Stanley. I want them to love her!"

Getting on With It

The tall, patrician Anna Chancellor, who also meets with us in her dressing room, admits that the role of the relentlessly conniving Patricia was almost impossible to tackle, at least initially. "I felt, how could anyone behave like this? Director John Caird said, 'People do. So just get on with it!' "

Stanley's relationship with Patricia is almost the reverse of his behavior with Hilda. Indeed, in this instance, he is the victim.

The turning point for Chancellor--and this happened well into the show's London run--was her realization that "Patricia was truly demented, quite mad, and had tunnel vision. And with that insight I became freer on stage. I was suddenly able to move from emotion to emotion. And she became a lot more fun to play.

"It did take me a while longer, however, to hook into her comic elements and her vulnerability. But her love of things is very vulnerable, very female. And that's when I began to see the comedy, too," she continues.

"There's something very amusing in her total self-involvement, her belief that nobody else exists. And the fact that she's incredibly babyish and naive is also very funny--and fun to play. When Stanley paints her, she honestly does not get what he's trying to do as an artist. She's offended. 'He's drawn me all crooked,' she says. There's also a lot of comedy in her desperate flirtations with Stanley, and they're all the more funny because in the end she won't let him touch her."

Still, there's a dark side to Patricia, her ambivalent sexuality clearly hinting at it. She is, in fact, gay, living openly with female painter Dorothy Hepworth (Selina Cadell) throughout her relationship with Stanley. Chancellor acknowledges that this grey area demanded research and thought on her part.

"I don't believe Patricia would have used a term like bisexual, but that's how she probably saw herself. She wanted to have sex with Stanley, but her body would just not allow it. Despite the flirtations, I suspect she hated men and was terrified of them. As an actress I had to think about what made her the way she is. Perhaps she had a sexually traumatic experience with a man as a youngster."

Indeed, Chancellor suggests, those hostile feelings coupled with Patricia's compulsive need for things and recognition fuel her almost vindicative toyings with Stanley. "In Patricia's day, men were the only way women could get anything or anywhere. Patricia was an artist of sorts and an art-world groupie. So, clearly, impressing Stanley was a thrill. But is that really any different from the thrill a young actress today might feel in meeting Al Pacino or Robert De Niro? Obsession about one's career--whatever that career is--is very contemporary."

Not a Victimizer

A major challenge in playing a thwarted figure like Patricia is in capturing her voice, seeing events from her side, says Chancellor, adding that it was important for her not to see Stanley as her victim. "I have to believe, in her own way, Patricia loves him. There's also evidence to suggest that he loved showering her with gifts and enjoyed being abused by her."

"Stanley" represents Chancellor's first major theatre role. Best known for her performance in the film "Four Weddings and a Funeral," she notes candidly, "I've done a few small TV roles, auditioned for the theatre and rarely got anywhere, and for the most part was not particularly successful. I got this role because playwright Pam Gems asked for me!"

A London native, Chancellor fell in love with acting in the convent school she attended. "We always put on plays and I adored it." Following high school, Chancellor went on to the famed LAMDA and did not adore it at all.

"The teachers had the classic acting school idea that you tear someone down in order to build him up. Only in my case they forgot to build me up. They always accused me of being 'posh.' Yes, I did come from an upper-class background and England is still very class conscious.

"Looking back, I realize how cruel they were, chucking people out like crazy. I wasn't chucked out, but they didn't think I had the makings of an actress either. The teachers would be perplexed to see me now: 'Anna wasn't supposed to succeed.' "

Chancellor admits she was so shattered after LAMDA that she probably would not have pursued an acting career at all, but she had recently given birth. "We needed the money and it was the only thing I had any training in." She cut her professional teeth producing after-school plays for children. "I did it for four years and learned much more about acting technique than I ever did at LAMDA. I also regained my joy in acting."

It is, in fact, that joy that Chancellor hopes defines her interpretation of Patricia. "She has an outrageous sense of freedom and brings a fun element to the stage. I find it interesting that gay men really like Patricia.

"But I would hope all audiences see something of themselves in her, share her emotions, hate her, feel sorry for her, and find her very funny!"