New Internationalist

And Finally… Juliet Stevenson

Issue 449

The award-winning actor tells Libby Powell why she is outraged by the treatment of asylum seekers in Britain, and explains how theatre is a force of tolerance.

Mark Cuthbert/UK Press/Press Association Images
Mark Cuthbert/UK Press/Press Association Images

As the daughter of an army officer, you moved around a lot as a young girl – what was the impact of having such an international childhood?

Of course, all children think their childhood is normal. But with hindsight, it was strange because every two years we moved cultures and climates and geology. School and friendships were constantly cauterized. I felt very rootless, with no sense of permanence. Every home was just a temporary stay.

For a long time as an adult, until I had children, I continued to move around a lot. I had no trouble with moving and I could make a home in a couple of hours: move into a room, unpack my stuff and think: ‘Now, this is absolutely where I live.’ If people ask me now where I’m from I say: ‘I’m a Londoner.’ But it took me a long time to feel that. I think I grew up without any sense that I had an identity that was defined in any way by place.

If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have been?

I think it would be impossible for me to do a job that meant I had to be in the same place every day. I think I would get very restless. I like to think I might have been a writer. But locking myself away for months on end writing is not something I ever would have done. I’m a bit too active and sociable for that. I really would have liked to have been a human rights lawyer. At 18, I don’t think I’d have made that choice. I wouldn’t have even recognized it as a possibility. But now I think that’s what I would like to have been.

Human rights have clearly always been important to you. In particular, you have spoken out about the detention of asylum-seeking families in Britain – why has this issue been so significant for you?

Locking up children brings together a combination of things, each of which in their own right is so outrageous. And it was a concentration of outrage that I felt when I went to Yarlswood Detention Centre and saw refugee children incarcerated.

Locking up children brings together a combination of things, each of which in their own right is so outrageous.

Even children who have committed a crime should not be locked up, and of course these children hadn’t. Yet we had locked them up without education, without fresh air, without space, without dignity, without privacy, without play, and without community.

These are families who come to Britain seeking sanctuary from the most horrific experiences; experiences that are so often born of British interference and imperial legacy. They come here to seek sanctuary and we lock them up and compound their original trauma.

I want this to be a country that I can bear to live in. It’s like being in a relationship with someone: I have got to be able to respect them. If not, I would be out like a shot, and I feel the same way about my country.

Why do you think theatre has always been so important to communities through the ages and across the world?

Storytelling is something that unites all people and all cultures. Great plays will always tell a human story. Theatre is a place where we come to recognize who we are. Why are we interested in the story of a black general in 16th-century Venice in Shakespeare’s Othello? Because what we have in common is so infinitely more than what we don’t.

In the course of our daily lives we experience our profound complexities and contradictions: getting cross, falling in love, not being loved back. But we don’t understand them a lot of the time.

In the theatre, you find characters that have been explored by good writers and actors. You can recognize the complexities and contradictions and see yourself there.

Hopefully, you leave being able to forgive yourself and be more tolerant of others. I do believe that, in this way, theatre is a great force for tolerance and compassion.

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