On an early-December evening in a rehearsal studio on the western edge of Manhattan’s garment district, Eddie Izzard is chatting about audience assumptions – that her solo performance of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations will be a comic take on the classic Victorian coming-of-age tale.
“There’s about four jokes in it,” she says.
Still, even the way Izzard utters that sentence is funny: drily dismissive, with the briefest pause as she calculates the paltry figure. Izzard has, after all, made her name in comedy. And however firmly she might draw a line between Eddie Izzard the stand-up and Eddie Izzard the actor – the British Broadway veteran who was a Tony Award nominee in 2003, for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg – they are of course one and the same, operating in different yet overlapping modes.
I love the fact that I’m playing male characters and female characters in this. And I hope that Dickens might think it was okay
In Great Expectations, which is now playing in Greenwich Village, Izzard pulls moments of levity from the very air. Playing the orphaned Pip, the forsaken Miss Havisham, the alluring Estella, the desperate Magwitch and 15 or so others, she brings her own arch humour to a multiple-character technique that she ascribes not to some drama theorist but to the comedian Richard Pryor, a virtuoso of the crowded solo stage.
When, in rehearsal that evening, Izzard worries aloud about her Pip blocking the audience’s view of Miss Havisham – who at that moment in the scene is quite invisible, as is Estella beside her – it is all about leaving room for the spectators’ imaginations to fill in the blanks.
“This is pure storytelling,” Izzard says. “I’ve always said that drama is like a main meal, and comedy is like a dessert. We love desserts. But the main meal has all different tastes, the savoury and the sweets and everything.”
At 60, she is ready to dig in – and to demonstrate what she’s capable of.
“Drama is something I’ve always wanted to do from the beginning, and just went a long way round to get to it,” says Izzard, who lately has been preparing a one-woman Hamlet with Selina Cadell, who’s also the director of this show. In such multicharacter solo shows, Izzard finds her own gender fluidity helpful.
“I love the fact that I’m playing male characters and female characters in this,” she says. “And I hope that Dickens might think it was okay.”
I thought it was a great honour. I’ve been promoted — promoted to she. That’s how it was. But I didn’t actively have a campaign about it. It just happened
Izzard is fond of noting that the novelist would travel to New York to give public readings. This staging of Great Expectations began with readings, too, as Izzard did what she calls work-in-progress performances, initially in 2019 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The streamlined adaptation is by her older brother, Mark Izzard, though when Eddie suggested the project to him, she meant for them to work on the script together.
“I went back and read the book and got started,” Mark says by phone, all practicality, “and found out later that Eddie was too busy to do anything. So I just pushed on.”
Back in the rehearsal room, Eddie pulls out her phone and scrolls, seeking a photo from the summer of 2020: a time-capsule image of an early pandemic performance. It shows her in a red dress, doing Great Expectations for a socially distanced audience on a wind-whipped rooftop in the south of England, using a hand-held microphone.
“I said, ‘This is exactly how Dickens planned it,’” she deadpans.
THEATRE REHEARSAL ROOMS are workaday spaces, and people tend to dress accordingly. Almost no one looks glamorous, let alone devastatingly so. But that evening in early December, Izzard does, in a tailored black jacket over onyx tights, with a splash of colour in the few fluttery inches of floral-print skirt peeking out beneath the jacket hem. On her feet are a stunning pair of tall, lace-up, high-heeled black boots: a part of her costume that she wants to get used to wearing.
“If you are trans, it’s probably better to be fairly well put together,” she says, and sighs at the difference between taking meticulous care with her appearance and throwing on any old thing, as she says a person can do “if you look devastatingly feminine. Female. I mean, Marilyn Monroe wore a potato sack at one point in a photo shoot.”
Let the record show, though, that Izzard is not just fairly but magnificently tastefully put together. If you’ve seen the 2009 documentary Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story, which includes a short section ridiculing her historical lack of fashion sense when it came to standard-issue guy clothes, you will recognise this as a sartorial leap forward.
A lot of people have been wonderfully accepting, and young people are very open and great. Some people are still transphobic, but I just ignore them
About her pronouns, when I ask, she says: “Prefer she/her, don’t mind he/him, so no one can get it wrong.”
It’s such a breezy, practised statement that I think she’s done until she adds: “And I didn’t change them. The world changed them.”
“I was on a programme. They said, ‘Do you want she/her or he/him?’ I went, ‘Ahh, oh, she.’ I’d been thinking of changing them. And then the programme went out, and the whole world changed them. Two days.” She makes a sound effect like a series of detonations.
“All news outlets, particularly in America and Britain, where I’m known probably the strongest” – another sound effect, this one a whoosh – “and Australia and Canada and New Zealand, where I’m also known” – a sound effect like a rapid whirr – “‘She/her now.’ And I went, ‘Oh, okay.’”
It wasn’t that she merely went along with it, but she was surprised at the sweeping abruptness with which her pronouns were adopted.
“I thought it was a great honour,” she says. “I’ve been promoted – promoted to she. That’s how it was. But I didn’t actively have a campaign about it. It just happened. You know, I came out 37 years ago. Some people grumble. I say, well, how much notice do you need? Thirty-eight years? Thirty-nine years?”
Coming out is an inherently political act, and Izzard is a political creature. At home she is a long-time member of the British Labour Party and this autumn had hoped to become its candidate for an open seat in parliament. That bid failed this month, though not before drawing what the Guardian newspaper called “a barrage of abuse”, with both Conservative and Labour politicians publicly making transphobic remarks.
But Izzard says that increased mainstream awareness of transgender people and transgender issues has made life easier since she came out, in 1985, when she described herself as transvestite – language that, she notes, has since evolved.
“We were considered nonpeople, or toxic people,” she says. “And I realised that my job is to try and knit being trans into society. We had a hard time just trying to exist.”
She goes on: “A lot of people have been wonderfully accepting, and young people are very open and great. Some people are still transphobic, but” – she takes a deep breath, then finishes the sentence more quietly – “I just ignore them.”
IZZARD WAS ONLY SIX when her mother died, in 1968. After that her widowed father sent her and her brother to boarding school. In Believe, the documentary, there is a sweet moment when a former headmaster recalls a teddy-bear show that young Eddie put on at the foot of her bed, using a bathrobe as the stage curtain.
A couple of years later, when the school did a production of Oliver!, the Oliver Twist musical that Izzard remembers as her first Dickens, she begged to be cast but was assigned to play the clarinet in the orchestra. (Recalling this, she bursts into snatches of songs she’d yearned to sing: “Oliver! Oliver!” and “Got to pick a pocket or two, boys, you’ve got to pick a pocket or two.”)
The same thing happened with The Pirates of Penzance, for which she would have been happy to play either a pirate or a girl. She was 17 when she got her first dramatic role – as Ernst Ludwig, the Nazi, in Cabaret – and dyed her hair jet black to play it.
I was standing next to Stanley Tucci and Philip Seymour Hoffman. I thought, I’m in this group? This is the group that didn’t get the Tony? This is a good group to be in
So acting, in her growing-up years, was mostly just dreamed of, and a passion for Dickens didn’t take root in a child who was dyslexic and not a big reader, but also enthralled with astronauts and all things 20th-century American.
Great Expectations came into Izzard’s life when she asked her agents to find someone to hire her to make an audiobook of a Dickens novel – because she had noticed that audiobooks were taking off, she wanted to read a great work of literature, and she and Dickens share a birthday, 150 years apart.
Izzard’s audiobook of Great Expectations, which is more than 20 hours long, was released in 2018. In Izzard’s mind there was always going to be a stage version as a companion piece – though she had envisioned the audiobook as the primary element. She says it didn’t occur to her initially that once she got the live performance down, it could remain permanently in her repertoire. Its running time, rather more accessible than the book’s: about two hours, intermission included.
LISTEN CLOSELY to people’s memories, and sometimes you hear their ambitions underneath. Here is Izzard remembering the night she lost the Tony to Brian Dennehy, and found herself in the company of some other acting nominees.
“I was standing next to Stanley Tucci and Philip Seymour Hoffman,” she says. “I thought, I’m in this group? This is the group that didn’t get the Tony?” She whispers the next bit, savouringly: “This is a good group to be in.”
Nearly 20 years later, she knows that some people continue to write her off as solely a comedian, not also an actor. She knows that acting gets a different kind of respect from comedy.
“I think my dramatic work now has got really to an interesting place, a place where I don’t quite know where it’s going to go.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times
Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is at Greenwich House Theater, in New York, until February 11th, 2023