Sunday 3 November 2013

Claire Bloom discusses playing Lady Marchmain

Award-winning actress Claire Bloom has played some of history's most famous women, including Katherine of Aragon in Henry VIII, the Tsarina Alexandra in Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna and Queen Mary in The King's Speech, as well as appearing in adaptations of Richard III,  The Brothers Karamazov and acting opposite Charlie Chaplin. In 1981, she won critical acclaim for her fantastic and intelligent performance as Teresa Flyte, the Marchioness of Marchmain (above), in one of the most successful British television dramas - a twelve-part adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel, Brideshead Revisited.
Central to Brideshead's themes are its treatments of both the English aristocracy and the Catholic faith, with Bloom's Lady Marchmain operating as their greatest proponent. Trapped in a failing marriage to her estranged husband, who cavorts in Venice with his mistress while Lady Marchmain divides her time between their London townhouse and palatial seventeenth-century home at Brideshead Castle, the marchioness's devotion to her religion has led to her described as either the heroine or antagonist of the story. For some, Teresa's quiet elegance and charm masks her suffocating control over her children, that pushes at least two of them to the edge of a nervous breakdown. In the novel, she is unfailingly polite and dignified, leading her son Sebastian's unhappiness with her to baffle the novel's narrator, Charles, although he too eventually comes to regard her sumptuous charm with suspicion. In the 2008 movie version of the story, which saw Emma Thompson take up the role (left), Lady Marchmain was cast squarely as the root of all her children's problems, with Lord Marchmain actually referring to her "crucifying" their second son, Sebastian, with her controlling ways.
However, in her autobiography, Claire Bloom defends Lady Marchmain with, I think, a very fair personal take on the character she played.
"I still find it puzzling when I am told I played a manipulative and heartless woman; that is not how I saw her. Lady Marchmain is deeply religious, and her dilemma includes trying to raise a willful brood of children on her own, while instilling them with her rigid observance of the Catholic code. Sebastian is both an alcoholic and a homosexual, and from her point of view, he lives in a state of mortal sin. She has to fight for his soul by any means in her power, with the knowledge that her efforts may lead to his destruction. A born crusader, the Marchioness confronts her difficult choices head on; her rigidity of purpose, which I don't in any way share, is understandable in context. The aspect that rings most true is her sense of being an outsider, a Catholic in Protestant England. Not such a leap from being a Jew in Protestant England as one would imagine."


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