Interview Kate Burton and you won't lack for copy. Asked one question, the bubbly, intelligent red-headed actress is likely to answer four others. But then, Burton has a lot to theatre to talk about. Not only is she the daughter of one of the century's most acclaimed actors, Richard Burton, she is married to Michael Richie, the producer of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where she often works. Also, Burton may be working on the stage more often, and in more high profiles productions, than at any other time in her career. Her current string of roles began when she took over the title role in Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane on Broadway. She then acted in John Guare's Lake Hollywood, a premiere at the Signature Theatre Company, and finished off 1999 by collecting rosy reviews in the American premiere of Brian Friel's Give Me Your Answer, Do!. Much of the last six months have been taken up by her starring turn in the Nicholas Martin production of Hedda Gabler, which went from the Bay Street Theatre, in Sag Harbor, Long Island, to Williamstown, to its present run at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company. A batch of good reviews from the Boston papers, as well as a Jan. 23 rave from the New York Times, have turned the producers' plan to bring the drama to Broadway this spring or fall from a distinct possibility to a near inevitability. Burton talked to Playbill On-Line from her Huntington dressing room.
Playbill On-Line: Was Hedda Gabler one of the roles you always wanted to play?
Kate Burton: Never! [Laughs] Not for one second did I want to play this part, which is probably why I'm having such a great time. I had studied it in Yale Drama School. We looked at Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov; I always chose Chekhov. I thought—these Scandinavians, I can't deal with them! But as I've gotten older, I find Hedda Gabler endlessly fascinating, a towering character. Now that I know such much more, as I'm so much older, I realized what an extraordinary creation she was at the time.
PBOL: The role used to be done a lot more often that it is now.
KB: Yes, but strangely enough, recently there have been a group of productions. First there was Annette Bening, who did this translation out in L.A., and then Martha Plimpton did it at The Long Wharf, and will do it at Steppenwolf in the spring. She's terrific, a good friend of mine. We'd meet each other in New York, calling each other Hedda in the subway. And Laila Robins did it up at the Guthrie. It's wonderful that we're all getting a chance to take a whack at her.
PBOL: Do you think the character still has something to say?
KB: I think that she is truly a product of her time. One of the things that becomes more and more apparent to me as I work on her is the kind of cage she creates for herself, which is she wants to live this life of passion and courage and intensity, but in fact she will not go outside a strict set of mores. She created a completely unbendable set of rules for herself, yet she tried to bend them and realizes she can't and that does her in. She has more life in her than ten people and that's what makes her so compelling to work on. I've made a very specific decision playing her, in that I think she is pregnant. There are so many references to it in the play. And certainly there are people who would wish to not play her pregnant. I just feel she is, and I feel so much of her behavior is that of a pregnant woman of about four months. All those reference to "Oh, she filled out during her trip," mentioned about three or four times in the first half hour of the play. And, quite frankly, it's a more interested way to play it.
PBOL: Has Jon Robin Baitz changed anything in his translation since you first did it at Bay Street?
KB: No, we actually asked him to restore a few things. They cut it up a lot in L.A. It's funny, someone just asked me if it's an adaptation, as opposed to a translation. I would say it's somewhere in the middle. It's not really an adaptation, because it's still all there. There some nice and very useful cutting. But the thing that is so exciting about it is it is so easy to play. It's like breathing for me. PBOL: You've done Ibsen before this?
KB: I've done Peer Gynt. Can you believe it?
PBOL: Very different Ibsen.
KB: Well, exactly! Where I was very lucky is I have done all of Chekhov and sometimes many times over and I actually think that is about the best preparation you can have to doing Ibsen. Because there are so many echoes of Masha in Three Sisters and Yelena in Uncle Vanya in Hedda Gabler. Another great preparation for me was doing The Beauty Queen of Leenane, because there is a lot of imagery that's very similar, a lot of themes that are very similar. I've been very fortunate in the theatre in the last two years almost by mistake. I usually don't do that much. But every play was a play I just had to do. Also, I think the exciting thing about Janet McTeer coming over her from England to do A Doll's House—she's an interesting choice. I, too, am a kind of interesting choice for this part. You wouldn't normally cast me. I usually play the nice girl. Although, having said that, I wasn't terribly nice in Beauty Queen, and then I had a huge alcohol problem in Give Me Your Answer, Do!! [Laughs] I've had the most interesting roles in my 40s!
PBOL: Both you and your husband are immersed in the theatre. Are there ever times when you just get sick of it, when you'd rather talk about anything else?
KB: So sick of it! If you came to our home, you would not see one theatrical thing. The only theatrical posters we have up—we both worked at Lincoln Center quite a bit and we have three huge Lincoln Center posters up. But in the back hallway. And then there are some costume renderings in my office and that's it. We're just not those theatre types. We like to do theatre and we like to leave it at the theatre. It's good to have your head clear and not be consumed by the work or you can't have a fresh approach.
—By Robert Simonson