Jennie Stoller obituary

Actor with a remarkable stage presence admired for leading roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court

Jennie Stoller, who has died of cancer aged 72, was an outstanding actor who had a striking stage presence, a unique quality of strength and stillness, and a deep mezzo voice of velvety richness. She was Helena in the 1972 world tour of Peter Brook’s celebrated “white box” production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company, played the title role of Eleanor Marx in a 1977 television series and the accommodating and sympathetic performer Mrs Kendal in the first production of Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man (also 1977).

She also appeared in the television sci-fi fantasy series Sapphire and Steel as Annabelle Harborough in Assignment Five: Doctor McDee Must Die (1981).

After the RSC world tour she was a founder member of the Royal Court off-shoot company, Joint Stock, and appeared in Heathcote Williams’s The Speakers, a blistering promenade production about the Hyde Park soap-box orators, directed by William Gaskill and Max Stafford-Clark.

She was ideal casting for Brecht’s impassioned maternal heroine Grusha in a 1974 revival of The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Birmingham Rep, directed by Howard Davies. And in Newcastle, she gave a nerve-shattering performance as an isolated survivor of a volcanic explosion, Child Manatond, in David Rudkin’s Sons of Light (1976), directed by Keith Hack.

As Eleanor Marx, she aged convincingly from 17 to 43 years. Because of her voice and concentration, she could easily span several decades. One of her finest performances came in Caryl Churchill’s rural dream play Fen (1983) at the Almeida theatre and at the Public in New York, where she won substantial plaudits for playing a woman torn between her daughters and the man, a potato picker, for whom she abandoned them.

Stoller was equally good in Terry Johnson’s strange Cries from the Mammal House (1984), opposite Roger Rees, playing a psychotherapist married to a depressed vet.

She appeared in Pirandello’s unfinished fantastical epic The Mountain Giants, directed by Gaskill, at the National Theatre in 1993 and again with the NT in The Oedipus Plays (1996), translated by Ranjit Bolt, directed by Peter Hall, with music by Judith Weir, unforgettably performed at Epidaurus (Alan Howard was Oedipus) before returning to the South Bank. And she was directed by the playwright Sarah Kane in Buchner’s Woyzeck at the Gate, Notting Hill, in 1997.

A member of the BBC radio drama company, she also made many television appearances and a few films: Mike Newell’s The Good Father (1985), starring Anthony Hopkins, written by Christopher Hampton; King Ralph (1991), with Peter O’Toole, John Goodman and John Hurt; and a fascinating “historic” episode of the TV medical soap Casualty using Edwardian memoirs and archives.

Jennie was a person of deeply held personal and political convictions that coloured her work completely. Born in Finchley, north London, she was the youngest of three children of Jewish parents, Sam Stoller, a fishmonger, of Russian and Lithuanian extraction, and Ada (nee Pottersman), whose family were from Łódź, Poland. She was educated at a Catholic convent school, La Sagesse, in Golders Green, was a teenage pacifist (she infuriated her parents by going on the Aldermaston marches), a supporter of the Palestinian Freedom theatre and a Buddhist.

After school, Jennie enrolled at the radical new Drama Centre in London but was asked to leave in 1966 on the grounds that she was not thought to be a “group” person; ironically, her theatre career was almost exclusively in groups and ensembles.

For a few years, she worked in rep, in Coventry (where she appeared in Jane Eyre directed by Bill Bryden) and Barrow-in-Furness, and in theatre-in-education groups in Sheffield and Leicester, making a West End debut in 1970 in a small role in Ronald Millar’s Abelard and Héloise starring Diana Rigg and Keith Michell. She found her feet in 1971 when she joined Nancy Meckler’s Freehold company, which had evolved out of Jim Haynes’s Arts Lab in Covent Garden.

Meckler, an American, embodied the new theatre ethos and physicality of Ellen Stewart’s La Mama and Joe Chaikin’s Open Theatre in New York, and Stoller appeared for her in exciting new work by British writers, and by Sam Shepard, who had arrived in London at the same time on a three-year stay; Shepard wrote one of his most compelling and mysterious pieces, Action (1974), for Meckler and the actors Stoller, Stephen Rea, Jill Richards and Stephen Moore.

In the last 20 years she did more teaching and directing around London drama schools, her last significant stage work coming in a Liverpudlian update of Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Liverpool Everyman, and Hampstead theatre, in 2008 and, in 2009, a 10-minute Churchill play, Seven Jewish Children, performed impromptu at the Royal Court after an Israeli military attack on Gaza.

Stoller lived for most of her life in a flat overlooking the ponds on the lower side of Hampstead Heath, sharing her home with cats and a succession of close friends – the actors Philip Sayer, Hilton McRae and John Woodvine. Earlier this year, she married her partner, the screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, who survives her, as do her elder sister, the producer Jacky Stoller, and her niece, Louise. An elder brother, Derek, predeceased her.

• Jennie (Jennifer) Stoller, born 26 April 1946; died 18 November 2018

Contributor

Michael Coveney

The GuardianTramp

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