Dottie in 'Jumpers' is one of the great female leads. Diana Rigg played her 31 years ago; now, as the play reopens in the West End, it's the turn of Essie Davis. Both actresses talk to Jasper Rees
On January 25, 1972, a new play by Tom Stoppard opened at the Old Vic. If it could be said to be "about" something, Jumpers was about a professor of moral philosophy preparing a lecture on the existence of God while his wife, a former star of musical comedies, languishes in the bedroom, the victim of a nervous breakdown that terminated her stage career.
George, the bumbling professor, gave the late Michael Hordern one of his greatest roles. Dotty, who, according to stage directions, is "10 to 15 years younger and very beautiful indeed", is probably the best female role in all of Stoppard, and perhaps one of the best in contemporary theatre. She was played by the 33-year-old Diana Rigg.
Thirty-one years on, the National Theatre revived Jumpers, and David Leveaux's production is now transferring to the Piccadilly Theatre. Dame Diana, as she has been since 1994, went back to the Lyttelton last month to see the play. Afterwards she dined with Hordern's most recent successor and her own.
George is now played by Simon Russell Beale. Dotty is played by a less familiar figure: Essie Davis is Australian and, while she has a big role in the forthcoming film Girl with the Pearl Earring, her one previous British stage role was Stella in Trevor Nunn's National production of A Streetcar Named Desire, for which she won an Olivier.
I join the two Dotties at their second meeting. They are in the room where the Queen has her interval drink when she visits the National. Rigg, quaffing champagne and smoking with abandon, is every inch theatrical royalty. Davis, though nursing a sore throat and sipping hot lemon and honey, has the mien of an heir apparent.
The two actresses had contrasting first responses to the play's fizzing jumble of ideas, and Dotty's place within them. Rigg "absolutely adored the part and kind of knew the sort of woman she was and sort of knew I could do it".
"I didn't," says Davis. "I found it almost impenetrable and incredibly dated. But, re-reading it with more open eyes, I could see why I would want to go and see it. David Leveaux said he thought Dotty was Tom's only female hero . . ."
Davis's confusion is understandable. We first see Dotty at an election party celebrating the victory of the Radical Liberals, at which she is possibly responsible for the fatal shooting of Professor McFee, a logician and member of the philosophy faculty's gymnastic display team. For much of the play his body hangs undetected in her wardrobe.
For Davis early rehearsals were not dissimilar to Dotty's memories of attending George's lectures as a student: "I thought I'll sit quiet," says Dotty, "and they won't find out I'm stupid." Except that Davis didn't sit quiet. "I really did feel like the dumb blonde sitting at the table, because nearly everybody had been to Cambridge except me. I was stopping every five lines and saying, 'What does this mean?' Tom was very open about his answers and also about his lack of answers. There were times where I said, 'Why have you written this line?' And he said, 'Maybe it's padding.' "
Several months on, Davis knows the intoxicating Dotty inside out, while Rigg, fresh from seeing the play, has a strong recollection of her. "I'd forgotten how much I remembered," she says, in a suitably Stoppardian paradox.
Among the questions an actress has to ask herself are: Why did this star of the musical stage marry her philosophy tutor? Why has she had a breakdown? Is she now having an affair with Archie, the university's vice-chancellor, who makes suspicious lunchtime visits to her bedroom, claiming to be her doctor? (Davis: "I remain adamant that she is not." Rigg: "I'm with you. Dotty's much more subtle than that.")
An actress needs good cheekbones to play Dotty, but how good a voice? "I always thought she wasn't all that good," says Rigg. "That could be my justification for not being able to sing very well."
Leveaux didn't ask Davis, who had never sung on stage in an extensive theatre career in Australia, whether she even could. "It was the first read-through when I sang that they all went, 'Oh, that's a nice bonus.' I said, 'Well, what were you going to do if I couldn't sing?' "
Dotty's crack-up is partly triggered by the moon landings of 1972; Rigg visibly slumps when Davis says it all happened before she was born. One minute Dottie is crooning cheesy love songs about the shining orb in the night sky, the next man is walking on it, and all over her fragile romantic illusions.
Though The Real Thing, first performed in 1982, is often said to be the first play Stoppard wrote from the heart as well as the head, this production of Jumpers brings out the play's unexpectedly strong emotional core. In 2003 Dotty is a more damaged woman, and George more desperate at her withdrawal of physical affection.
Davis says that the director David Levaux''s first words when she met him were, "This is about having a very vulnerable and fragile and open heart."
"The reaching towards each other of George and Dotty, the just missing, was much less examined," says Rigg. "Their tragedy is much more patent in this production."
There are other revealing aspects. At one point Dotty has to hide McFee's body slumped in a chair by lowering and spreading her robe across him, which involves her baring herself to George and the audience.
"I showed me bum," says Rigg to Davis, "but you showed much more." "How did you show your bum?" wonders Davis.
"I had a feather boa collar, and you just shove that under the bum. The audience loved it. I loved it! For years afterwards I met grown men who'd say, 'I've seen your bottom.' "
The climate of the times finds Davis undressing more but men leering less. "The ones who talk to me about it have said flattering things. But I found it absolutely terrifying. I never wanted to take my clothes off on stage, but I certainly feel much more confident in my body now."
"Oh so you should!" says Rigg. "I have to say you look beautiful. When you take your clothes off, you go into a semi-foetal position, and that's perfect for her. And you don't see very much. It has the right effect and it's not prurient."
"Prurient?" says Davis.
"Yuh, people sort of peeking. You know that feeling where you're being watched? I had to lie naked on the bed before I gathered my dressing-gown around me. One night I just looked up to the gantry and there were about 16 men up there and one member of the cast. And I never ever taxed him about that. I think he knew I saw him."
The actor playing McFee has a much closer look than anyone else. I ask if Stoppard told the new Dotty anything about the original Dotty's performance. "Am I allowed to tell this?" asks Davis. "The only thing he told us about Diana was that she used to write messages on her body for the actor playing her dead McFee."
"It was games time," says Rigg. "But I can't remember what I wrote." They're the only lines she's remembered to forget.