Alluring, exotic and unconventional, Countess Rachel Sangalletti is the ultimate stage enigma in the stage adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel (Chichester Festival Theatre, January 28-February 1).
Is she a murderess, a seducer, a thief, an enchantress or merely a woman intent on survival?
For Call The Midwife star Helen George it’s been important to work it all out in her own mind beforehand, before stepping into her shoes.
“You can’t just play the enigma,” Helen says.
“I think you have got to go into the circumstances of her character and understand her situation, the fact that she has no ownership of anything except through marriage.”
Countess Rachel Sangalletti travels from Florence to the Ashley Estate in Cornwall, home of her recently deceased husband. Her presence in the house arouses dark suspicions and uncontrollable desires, not least in young Philip, cousin and heir to the Ashley home.
“I think to play her you have got to make sense of all her decisions and to join up the dots. People don’t just play evil. They make bad choices. I have really gone back into her past and looked at the fact that she was married before, the fact that she was effectively sold off by her parents for money for the family. You have got to think what that does to her soul.
“And she was cast out by society at the time. If you look at that back story, there is a point where she wants to be loved still. But the whole thing is so brilliantly written. There will come a point where you are thinking ‘No, she is definitely innocent’, and then the next moment you will be thinking ‘Yes, she is definitely guilty!’
“Oddly, the women tend to think she is guilty and the men tend to think she is innocent. The men are more protective towards her, but you can hear the discussions. You can see the reactions. You can sense the changes in the audiences.”
There is a moment where a cup of tea is being passed… Could it be poisoned?
“You can hear people shout out ‘No!’ And I think that is the greatest possible compliment to us that people are that immersed in what is happening. We have had the most incredible response. And what is interesting is that we are getting people of various ages coming along. We have got teenagers coming in and older people. I think people just love a thriller in the theatre.
“We did the show before Christmas. We started off in Bath and then we had some time off over Christmas and now we are back until the beginning of February. It is a challenge going to the different theatres – different places, a different feel, different stages.”
And there will even be some extra rehearsals for Chichester’s extra-different stage.
But for Helen, it’s important to maintain her stage work: “I am very fortunate. We film (Call The Midwife) for six months and then I have six months off.
“I have got quite a rhythm now. It gives me the chance to do other projects, and it is great to have that opportunity.
“I feel it is really good for an actor to come back to the stage. It gives you a different view, especially when you have been playing a long-running character (Call The Midwife’s Trixie Franklin).
“Call The Midwife has been incredible. We were talking about how incredibly good the viewing figures are for the series at the moment. But I think the writing is just so brilliant.
“And people like a warm cosy drama but one that has also got its hard-hitting points. And people seem to enjoy that weepy moment. It is cathartic in some ways and it is also quite reflective of society.
“It is all of those things, and the characters are so well drawn.”
Tickets from the CFT