A Tale of Three Sisters

October 2000

Samantha Bond is perhaps best known for her rôle as Miss Moneypenny alongside a gadget-obsessed James Bond, but, as she tells Kate Griffin, there's nothing tricksy about her directorial debut.

You might expect an actress who's been in The Bill, Poirot and Inspector Morse, as well as several Bond films, to choose something crime-related for her first stab at directing, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Memory of Water, opening in Cardiff this week, is a stage play whose primary themes are the relationships between three sisters as they come together on the eve of their mother's funeral. However, there's no shortage of skeletons in cupboards, and it's the emergence of these which prompts the sisters to take new directions in their lives.

Bond's own change of direction, from highly successful stage and screen actress to first-time director, seems enough to make anybody nervous, but she is familiar with The Memory of Water, having played Mary, the youngest sister, in the West End production, and this seems to have lent her confidence in her ability to tackle it as a director. She describes it as "having done a whole lot of background work without having to really try". However, nothing prepared her for the experience of directing, which she says is "not remotely like... being an actress yourself" but nevertheless "awesome". It was also helpful to have three very experienced actresses in the main roles; Paula Wilcox, Patricia Kerrigan and Beatie Edney can count The Lovers, Man About the House and Brookside among their TV credits.

Bond's approach to The Memory of Water is resolutely ungimmicky, relying on the strength of the dialogue and interest in the characters to carry her production rather than employing visual tricks or fancy special effects. The car chases of classic James Bond films are replaced by an emotional journey with just as many surprising twists and turns. Samantha Bond has high praise for the author, Shelagh Stephenson, for her "unexpected way of turning a sentence". The dialogue is "fast, funny, not short on emotions and not short on shock tactics". Bond is keen to emphasise the unexotic nature of the play's subject matter, drawing attention to the way nobody escapes having to deal with their family. Anybody who's ever bickered with a brother or sister, or muttered, "It's so UNFAIR!" in the manner of Kevin the Teenager, will know exactly what she's talking about.

However, the play is as unstraightforward as anything dealing with relationships should be. The audience will cringe in recognition at the way siblings and children, however grown up, invariably return to childhood patterns when members of the family are re-united. Bond is very aware of the way we remain influenced by our position in the family throughout life, laughing when I mention "middle-child complexes" and jokingly instructing me to tell all middle children reading the article that she understands what it's like. The play's realistic observation of family behaviour is perhaps what makes it both comic and tragic; it is a death which precipitates the play's action, yet the humour in The Memory of Water was enough to win it this year's Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. The way Bond sees it is that the tragic situation heightens the comic elements within it. The grief and strain of the situation break down emotional barriers for the three women, giving them a new way of seeing and dealing with each other. However, this same breaking down of inhibitions allows us to see them as they are without social mores in place, to very comic effect.

The occasional sheer rudeness of the sisters to each other is partly the result of this removal of the necessity to be polite and partly the mental return to childhood which Bond has said occurs when siblings meet. The invisible patterns of our behaviour are what give The Memory of Water its title; a doctor in the play describes the way a homeopathic solution can be diluted until none of the chemical originally is left, and yet the water will behave as if it "remembers" the chemical. This reflects the relationship between the sisters and their dead mother - her absence doesn't close off the need to talk to her and about her. Bond has chosen to use the West End set for her production, which centres the action in the mother's bedroom. The audience can see for themselves how much of her is still in the room despite the fact that the women there are struggling to come to terms with her death.

Bond is no stranger to tackling themes this serious as an actress. She has appeared in Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale as a character who has to cope with the loss of two children as well as false accusations of infidelity from her husband. Her next TV feature as an actress is about a retired IRA bomber. But this is the least of her acting experience. However, despite her illustrious career in that field, she doesn't want to play it safe and leave The Memory of Water as her only directorial outing. "Now that I've done it once, I'd quite like to do it again," she tells me. The importance of developing and moving forward is a significant theme in The Memory of Water, and it seems that its director has already successfully achieved this.