Stars turn out for Twelfth Night

Norfolk-based actress Liza Goddard takes part in a star-studded version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at Houghton Hall this month Sarah Hardy catches up with her, while Stephen Fry offers his thoughts, as well.

It's a date that's been in many people's diaries for several months. The glorious Houghton Hall in north Norfolk is the setting for a celebrity version of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, that bittersweet comedy of mistaken identity and much more.

The play is being performed in the open air, with the splendid Palladian house as the setting, and the cast includes household names such as Stephen Fry, Matthew Kelly, Mel Smith and Harriet Walter.

It is being staged by Peter Wilson, the artistic director of Norwich's Theatre Royal, and aims to raise an incredible £100,000 in just four nights - all for the theatre's refurbishment appeal.

Liza Goddard, who lives near Fakenham with her film producer husband David Cobham, explains that she was more than keen to take part. “Well, what an opportunity - it's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get this cast at this location - you can't really beat it.”

Liza, one of the country's best-known actresses since her appearances in TV hits such as the Brothers and Bergerac, plays the sea captain and explains: “It's just a fun role, there are not too many lines to learn, but I was so keen to be a part of it that I called Peter and said that I would do anything! I don't mind playing a man, I've just finished playing a chap in a new Ayckbourn play, If I were You, so I'm used to it!”

All the cast are giving their time for free as the proceeds are going to the theatre's £10m appeal. At present around £1.4m still needs to be found. The money will go towards improving facilities such as increasing legroom in the auditorium and doubling the number of loos available.

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“I'll be working with some old friends, like Matthew Kelly and Des Barrit, and hopefully making some new ones, too. We should all have a marvellous time. Helen Atkinson Wood (who appeared as Mrs Miggins in Blackadder the Third) is staying with me and I guess Stephen will be putting people up, too. It'll be like a little holiday for most!”

Rehearsals start in London today, with Liza saying: “Most of us know the play well and have already appeared in it but we do have to have learnt our lines. We rehearse in London and then have a couple of days next week to rehearse at Houghton before we open on the Wednesday. It's certainly a very tight schedule.”

After the show, Liza plans a holiday in Ireland, flying from Norwich to Dublin and then heading out to Connemara in the west of the country. And she's planning to move to be slightly nearer Norwich and her daughter, Sophie.

“So, yes, busy as always. And then I start to rehearse She Stoops to Conquer which starts out at the Birmingham Rep in the autumn. It might come to Norwich, I'm not sure yet.”

And Liza, who must surely be one of our busiest actresses, is appearing in panto in Guildford as a veggie, organic fairy in what sounds like a fun version of Jack and the Beanstalk this Christmas. She has also just filmed a television pilot for a new comedy show that she couldn't say too much about.

But back to Houghton. “I'd just say to people to come and enjoy it all if they can, it's really is the chance of a lifetime.”

t Stephen Fry, who plays Malvolio, says: “I have to confess that Malvolio is a part I've always wanted to play and it's also a part people tell me I should play - which makes me a little nervous.

“Is there something Malvolio-ish about me? Am I 'sick with self-love?' I hope not. I certainly feel that Malvolio is more sinned against than sinning. Everyone has a feeling heart, even pompous, ambitious butlers. But I think that Shakespeare knew the wind was blowing against the party animals, the maypole and the 'cakes and ale'.. that characters like Malvolio were becoming more common in the world, so he took especial delight in humiliating him.

“I have lived in Norfolk all my life, off and on. Norwich was the nearest Big Place, a 12-mile bicycle ride away and the Theatre Royal introduced me to theatre and everything I love about it. I saw my first Shakespeare there. I saw my first opera there. I also saw Morecambe and Wise, Spike Milligan and much else besides. I owe it a great deal.

“When the idea of doing Twelfth Night was first suggested, I was nervous naturally as I knew that I would be shooting a second series of Kingdom at the same time and I wouldn't want to be under-rehearsed or unsure of my lines. But I'm very pleased and excited at the same time. A single week's rehearsal is a little intimidating but that's probably as much as Shakespeare's actors had, so it's not without precedent.

“I used to do a lot of outdoor Shakespeare at Cambridge and I liked it very much. I love theatre. I just don't like having to do it eight times a week for six months. The prospect of a single run of four nights is appealing.”

Twelfth Night opens at Houghton Hall on Wednesday, July 25 and runs until July 28. A few seats remain. Tickets are £65. Call 01603 630000 for details.

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