December 4 2014
Star Indira Varma talks to www.asianculturevulture.com about her latest play and gives some sage advice, based on her wide-ranging roles across theatre, film and television…
HOSPITALS are dangerous places – and not just because people can perish inside them.
They’re also seething cauldrons of ambition, envy and shameful politicking.
Peel back the professionalism and dispense with reverence with which we normally hold this noble vocation (of medicine) and see it raw, up close and personal.
Playwright and director Nina Raine invites us to do just that in “Tiger Country” from Monday, December 8, at the Hampstead Theatre with Indira Varma playing one of the lead roles in the return of the theatre’s own 2011 smash.
Fresh from her TV success in “Rome” and the most recent series of “Game of Thrones”, Varma is back on the stage and you get the impression it’s where she loves to be.
Her passion and fondness for the work of the late great Harold Pinter, bear this out (see her answers to five essential acv questions).
In “Tiger Country”, which refers to that unpredictable and dangerous area surgeons go when they operate, Varma plays Vashti, a consultant urologist: smart, beautiful, seemingly tough, but more vulnerable than meets the eye, and very much caught in a man’s world.
“It’s an ensemble piece,” stressed Varma to www.asianculturevulture.com last week: “One of themes of this play is being part of a team and yet nonetheless, there is a hierarchy as there is in a lot of organisations and it is a terrible, difficult balancing act.”
Based on a real life doctor – Jyoti Shah, who works for Burton Hospitals and is a consultant surgeon urologist, Raine and Varma’s portrayal of her is based on a life lived and the dramas and tensions that from time to time befall us all – but become perhaps more heightened and intense in the setting of a busy hospital in the run-up to Christmas.
Both Raine and Varma spent time with Shah in and out of hospital – Varma staying with her and shadowing the doctor as she went about her work.
Varma revealed: “What I really enjoyed observing in that hospital environment was the medical professionals, they have an important job – and for us lay people it’s really difficult (to understand), it’s taken them many years and they’re brilliant (at it) and it can be quite technical – but it’s also about maintaining that personal touch.
“Listening to what this person is burbling on about – which might not actually be relevant but could provide an important clue and it all being up against the clock.”
Vashti is trying to get on, do the right thing and be a friend, colleague and caring professional, but there are often competing and indeed, conflicting pressures as Varma and Raine both intelligently allude.
Race and gender feature but don’t expect a play packed with ‘issues’ or political statements, it appears far too subtle and acutely observed to be anything that is proselytising or table-thumping.
Varma understands that while some 60 per cent of current medical students in the UK are female, only six per cent of them elect to go into surgery. The figures may not be exact she cautioned, but the point is obvious and well made.
“Something is going askew,” posed Varma. “Who’s the one stopping her (Vashti, from achieving what she wants as a surgeon)?”
Varma suggests that Raine is asking us to open the lid, look right inside and think about what we find.
Indeed, it’s not difficult to be drawn into the world Varma describes – Vashti appears complex, compelling, and yes, conflicted.
Her being a woman in a man-dominated field is deftly exposed and so are the tribulations that don’t affect men half as much, or at all really.
“She has a moment,” explained Varma. “And she talks about someone fancying her. But she says we’re not going there – it’s complicated.
“We (Vashti and her prospective amour) didn’t go there and she tells us we didn’t because she didn’t want to be accused of sleeping her way to the job.
“She doesn’t want to be seen playing that game – what happens to you and your personal life and identity?” asked Varma.
If that wasn’t toxic enough, (if you’ll excuse the expression) her ethnicity too isn’t – and can’t be just – glossed over.
“She’s definitely an Asian woman, she’s had to confront certain issues along the way – I don’t want to give too much away.
“There is also a black nurse and another character that was not written as anything specific (ethnically) but there’s a black actor playing him.
“It’s about what does that mean to certain people – what prejudices do people bring and how much of them do we know about.
“You know, you can walk into a room and think, ‘you’re going to hate me because I am brown’, but actually nobody’s thinking twice about it.”
Too often the world of our TV and drama is monochrome white – and it’s good to see a play that looks and feels like the reality we live and breathe, especially in and around London.
Varma delved deeper and further into more fundamental questions which the play throws up.
“What has she done to herself (to get on), what’s brought her to that place, what she’s trying to achieve, what does she think she should be achieving?
“Should she be behaving like a man to get on in a man’s world, she asks – ‘Should I be more English – what happens to my identity when I am trying to make it’ – you’ve got to fight like a man in there – because it’s very competitive. ‘I can’t walk around in pretty shoes, can I’?”
There is also the immense stress and the bump and grind of daily life – and they can rub together quite innocuously.
“How does that surgeon or whoever carry that level of responsibility and I am sure it veers from: ‘I can do anything’ to ‘I can’t cope with this’. I think that’s fascinating.”
And later Varma added: “It’s all in a day’s work, it’s routine for them, they are in surgery doing operations on a daily basis. It’s like ‘here we go, here’s another one’, so they therefore have an opportunity to chat… ‘what were you up to last night?’
She actually befriended Raine when she appeared in “Celebration” in 2000 at The Almeida, with Pinter directing and Raine watching on as an aspiring writer-director.
“I’ve been following her career and doing readings ever since,” Varma said of the connection with Raine. “She’s an amazing writer and this is my first time working with her as a director and she’s pretty darn good at that too.”
There’s little question that Varma is one of our leading and most versatile lights – next year she will feature at the National Theatre alongside Ralph Fiennes in George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman”.
It will be her third time at the National and comes off the back of a previous stage appearance in Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” at the Globe on the SouthBank in the summer – as well as those big HBO television roles and an ABC 2010 series, “Human Target“.
There was also a spot in the first series of BBC’s “Luther” as Idris Elba’s rather tormented on screen wife, Zoe. She also features in Ridley Scott’s shortly forthcoming Biblical epic, “Exodus”.
Despite this huge variety, many outside the world of theatre, television and film, still connect her with her very first film, “Kama Sutra” by Mira Nair in 1997.
Controversially, it was banned in India and there was quite a brouhaha about its contents – though by western standards it wasn’t all that daring or provocative.
Varma looked back on it as a learning experience and one she has no regrets about when asked the question.
“I did when I was young,” she confessed. “But actually, no – I learnt loads, I learnt a hell of a lot. I worked with a hot director of photography (award-winning Declan Quinn, a frequent Nair collaborator) and that was the real deal. It was a massive thing to play a leading role straight out of drama school.”
Indeed, she was one of the few non-white faces (perhaps the only) at RADA and the portents seemed uncertain.
“I had a couple of teachers who said, ‘change your name’ and others who said don’t – both sets were white.
“Part of me thought I don’t understand – I am who I am. This is my identity and quite honestly before leaving drama school, I didn’t even think of myself as an ‘Asian’.
“I thought of me as me with an Asian/Indian father and a Swiss mother. The Swiss bit always gets forgotten, because it’s not overtly obvious,” said Varma, who has a young, school-age daughter and whose partner is actor Colin Tierney.
It’s clear she takes great pride in her mixed heritage. Her facility in French is one aspect of that – she learnt the language from her mother and regrets her late father not speaking to her in Hindi.
Growing up in the West Country, and neither of her parents – both artist/illustrators – speaking English as their first language, drew them and her to mime theatre and first sparked her own interest in the medium.
But there was still some slight dissonance when she did go off to drama school.
“I think my Dad was a little shocked – they thought I should do something where I could afford to pay the bills because it wasn’t straightforward for them.”
But look how well it’s turned out, Varma seemed to suggest, when you follow your heart and your passions.
Main picture: Alastair Mackenzie, Luke Thompson, Ruth Everett, Nick Hendrix and Indira Varma and portrait also by Shaun Webb
Top inset portrait by Wolf Marloh
*’Tiger Country‘ by Nina Raine from December 8-January 17, at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage,
London, NW3 3EU From £15-£32 Box Office: 020 7722 9301
For ticket information: http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2014/tiger-country/