‘An amazing force’: Ralph Fiennes on Barbara Jefford’s power and passion

Barbara Jefford was an amazing force as an actor and left a profound impression on me. We worked together twice: on Six Characters in Search of an Author at the National Theatre in 1987 and on Coriolanus at the Gainsborough Studios in 2000.

Barbara was quite a shy person; she had a quiet presence until she was playing the part. I have a memory of her coming into rehearsals, very self-contained, just reading a newspaper and looking at the crossword. She had a self-effacing presence when she wasn’t needed and was waiting for her moment. Then the director would say, “OK Barbara, we’ll rehearse the scene now.” She’d get up and suddenly display this incredible precision and power and passion – she really shook the air as she spoke. You felt the room change when she was acting. Her vocal technique was almost alarming in its brilliance. Then she’d quietly go back to her newspaper.

Barbara Jefford at Gainsborough Studios, where she starred alongside Fiennes in Coriolanus.
Barbara Jefford at Gainsborough Studios, where she starred alongside Fiennes in Coriolanus. Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian

In Pirandello’s play she was the mother and I was the son – and it was the same for Coriolanus. She was absolutely extraordinary as Volumnia. It was the second time she had played the part, after appearing opposite Charles Dance at the RSC in 1989. Barbara took the role head on: you did not mess with this Volumnia. Barbara, too, commanded huge respect and could be intimidating. She accessed that sort of unnerving power with her minor role as a nun in the film Philomena.

I still remember her entrance towards the end of Coriolanus, when Volumnia comes to plead for Rome, and all the qualities that Barbara carried on to the stage. The way she used language had a muscular definition that I don’t think you see in the younger generation.

On my bookshelf there’s a life of Shakespeare that she dedicated to me. I am just so sad that she has gone.

The Guardian

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