Closeup/Theatre

The Divine Miss N.

If you don’t know who Kate Nelligan is, you should

Robert Miller November 28 1977
Closeup/Theatre

The Divine Miss N.

If you don’t know who Kate Nelligan is, you should

Robert Miller November 28 1977

The Divine Miss N.

Closeup/Theatre

If you don’t know who Kate Nelligan is, you should

Robert Miller

In the recent and much praised CBC teledrama Bethune, the Canadian surgeon who found himself in China is described as being revered abroad “yet virtually unknown in his own country until recently... an enigma.” The line is perfect for Norman Bethune and just about right for Kate Nelligan, the young Canadian actress who returned briefly from England to play the good doctor’s wife opposite Hollywood veteran Donald Sutherland. Nelligan was superb as Frances Bethune. In most of the scenes they shared, she completely dominated Sutherland, who is no slouch as an actor himself. Many people in Canada (including not a few critics) were surprised by the grace and power of Nelligan’s performance, but she is a seasoned professional with surpassing talent.

As Bethune producer Robert Sherrin puts it:

“She is coming up very, very fast.”

Eight years ago, Kate Nelligan swapped Ontario’s London for the real one across the Atlantic. Now, at 27, she is, if not revered in England, at least adored by that country’s often-waspish, always-demanding theatre critics. The Times of London, for example, says bluntly: “Kate Nelligan is the leading actress of her generation.”

The Daily Telegraph calls her “heavenly.” Leading British playwrights are working furiously to create custom-made starring vehicles for her. Even Hollywood, taking note of her movie appearances with Glenda Jackson and Michael Caine in The Romantic Englishwoman and in The Count Of Monte Cristo, is intrigued, if not yet excited.

But Nelligan, a slender brunette with wide hazel eyes, a devastating smile and an appropriately patrician nose (she was christened Patricia Colleen, grew up as Trish and changed her name to Kate one day while riding on the London Underground), is virtually unknown in her own country, despite Canada’s traditional fas-

cination with those sons and daughters who have achieved celebrity abroad. Bethune, which was made a year ago, remains her only major Canadian assignment.

From time to time, she complains about the indifference of the Canadian public and^worse, Canadian producers—and

therein lies the enigma. The way she has developed her career, and she has made a brilliant job of it, suggests she couldn’t care less about either the Canadian public or Canadian producers. For one thing, she has worked determinedly to stamp out all traces of her southern Ontario background, particularly her accent. “She’s very much the English young lady,” says Eric Till, who directed her in Bethune and who was awed by her talent and her professionalism. Once, as a teen-ager filling out

an application for the CBC’S drama department, she listed “British, Bronx, Yiddish etc.” as dialects in which she was proficient. She has certainly banished her Canadian twang. “I worked hard on losing that accent,” she once told an interviewer. “I absolutely cut myself off from my background.”

Indeed she has. Nelligan managed to spend 28 days in Toronto last year without getting in touch with anyone from the dramatic arts program at York University’s Glendon College, where she got her real start as an actress. Says assistant dean Charles Northcote, a trifle sadly: “We all keep tabs on her career... but when Trish was in Toronto doing Bethune she made no effort to contact any of her friends here. I can’t quite understand it.” Northcote, played Rosencrantz in a college production of Hamlet in which Nelligan played Gertrude. “The only thing that kept my father awake,” Northcote recalls with a chuckle, “was the way Trish bulged out of the top of her dress. She had an enormous bosom for a 17-year-old. In fact, you could say she was chubby.” No more. Today Nelligan carries only 106 pounds on a five-foot-six frame.

In fairness to Nelligan, as far as ignoring old friendships is concerned, she is a star now, is usually busy, and has long since outgrown college theatre groups. Besides, it cuts both ways. Says Leonard McHardy, now the coowner of a Toronto bookstore specializing in theatrical publications and a long-ago beau of Nelligan’s: “I saw her in London, in the National Theatre’s production of Tales From The Vienna Woods, and I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t bring myself to speak to her.”

Nelligan’s complaints about Canadian producers (“They don’t know I exist,” she said recently. “They should start reading their international newspapers”) generate consternation in the relatively small Cana-

dian showbiz set. Says Toronto film maker Bill Marshall: “That’s nonsense! No one can get her.” Adds the CBC’S Sherrin: “I’d love to do something else with Kate. She’s absolutely marvelous. But the trouble is she ties herself up for such long periods.” Yes. For the rest of this year she’s at Stratford on Avon with the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing a lavishly praised Rosalind in As You Like It. From there, she moves directly back to the National Theatre in London where, until September, she’ll do three plays—As You Like It, Othello and Plenty, which has been written expressly for her by David Hare, author of Knuckle, the play in which Nelligan first took London’s West End by storm (she was voted most promising newcomer by the critics in 1974). After that, perhaps, a Hollywood movie. Her father, Patrick, who works for the London, Ont., recreation department and who is thrilled by his daughter’s success, says: “I really hope she can get a big movie under her belt and make some money. She’s working awfully hard for not very much pay.”

At this point, I may as well declare myself. 1 am miffed at Kate Nelligan, and disappointed. Miffed because she quite unreasonably refused to be interviewed in

England by Maclean's. Disappointed because she is astonishingly talented and the talented are always worth meeting. I'm sure I would have liked her. Certainly I was enchanted by her Rosalind (the night I was in the house she deserved and received a standing ovation) and I was smitten by her stage smile. Of course, everyone has the right not to meet the press, even if few in the publicity conscious entertainment world seem to exercise it.

All of this raises two questions: 1 ) Is Kate Nelligan putting us on about her wish to be better known in Canada, and 2) Should we care if she is? The answers are 1) seemingly and 2) definitely. We should care because, as her first drama coach. Michael Gregory of York University, says: “She is one of the most talented people ever to come out of Canada ... I could tell from the very beginning, when she came to Glendon, that acting was a life option for her.” He says he understands the lure of England for an actress of Nelligan’s ambition and ability. “There’s so much theatre in Britain, and you have demanding directors, demanding audiences.” As for her working in Canada, Gregory says: “She’ll come back when she’s good and ready. She’s not going to come back just because somebody plays O Canada . . . Still, it would be nice if she played at our Stratford.”

Ironically, while Nelligan was getting set to play Rosalind at England’s Stratford. English superstar Maggie Smith had the

role in Canada. Even more ironically, the part of Orlando, Rosalind’s lover, was played at Stratford, Ont., by Jack Wetherall. a contemporary of Nelligan’s at Glendon and the second most distinguished performer to come out of that school’s relatively tiny (40 students this year) dramatic arts program. Says Wetherall. who won a Guthrie Award this year for his work at the Stratford Festival: “Trish has reached the point where she can more or less play the roles she wants. That’s tremendous for any actor.”

How did Kate Nelligan get from Ontario’s London where, as a girl she was a demon tennis player (she lost in the Canadian junior finals and quit the game because the competition was too fierce), to the other one where, as she once put it, drama students “would slit their grandmother’s throat for a part?” The answer would appear to be the fact that, as almost everyone who has ever known her agrees, Kate Nelligan is a young woman of extraordinary tough-mindedness. Again and again, people say of her: “She’s a very determined lady.” Says her father: “Am I surprised by her success? Well, yes and no. Even as a child she was very determined to succeed at whatever she tried. Someone gave her a tennis racquet and the next thing you know she was practising eight hours a day.”

Nelligan left Glendon after two years without taking her degree (a decision that upset her family) and flew off to England at 18 after auditioning for and winning a place in London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, one of Britain’s three premier acting academies. She progressed rapidly, earning her fellow students’ nomination as the most talented of her class at the Centra! School, taking the traditional young graduate’s route to prominence by going into repertory in the provinces (two years with the Bristol Old Vic), going into television on her agent’s advice to make her name and face nationally known (she played an English beauty in the hit series The Onedin Line), then, finally, to the West End in David Hare’s play Knuckle. In Knuckle she played a nightclub hostess named Jenny, which she once described to the London Observer as “the best part ever written for a young woman in a modern play.” Nelligan is extremely close to Hare and his wife, and Hare is described by director Eric Till as having the potential to become “one of Britain’s greatest playwrights.” Knuckle was really the big break for Nelligan, but, typically, she had prepared herself perfectly to take advantage of it. During her two years in Bristol, for example, she was in no less than 25 different productions. By mid-1974, there was no stopping her: the National Theatre (Heartbreak House, Tales From The Vienna Woods), the Royal Shakespeare Company, a BBC production of The Lady Of The Camelias (rave reviews, despite her concern that “I thought there was no point, after Garbo”), a couple of movies and, of course, Bethune.

During her stay in Stratford on Avon, Nelligan has learned to drive a car and has lived in a small country cottage in a hamlet called Weston-Sub-Edge. Her parents report that she has no steady boyfriend at the moment and seems happy enough. “She’s just put in an offer on a house in London’,’ says her father. She has clearly enjoyed playing Rosalind, her first try at big-league Shakespeare. Critics have compared her Rosalind favorably with Vanessa Redgrave’s which, in 1961, was hailed as perhaps the greatest of the century. Heady stuff, for an actress who feared as a teenager that she was doomed to play “bitches, wenches and whores.” Indeed, she used to talk about printing up cards advertising such parts as her specialty and, in that long-ago job application she submitted to the CBC , she wrote “Bitches, Wenches and Whores Inc.” under type of parts played. Not now. Kate Nelligan’s Frances Campbell Bethune was an elegant and sensitive portrait of a lady in love with a saintly crackpot; her Rosalind a fresh and bubbly portrayal of a young girl in love with the boy-next-castle. Bitches, wenches and whores rarely fall in love, rarely attract it. But Nelligan will, and eventually the Canadian public will adore her just as the British critics do now.O