Theatre Critic and Journalist

Interview: Dame Edna Everage

Interview: Dame Edna Everage

Published in The Guardian, 27.01.2014

“Who knows what it is to be Australian?” Dame Edna Everage is trying to drum up some advice for the 17,900 people newly sworn in as her compatriots as part of the Australia Day celebrations back home. “What it is to be Australian, really,” she says, warming to her theme, “is to be prepared to pay slightly more for everything. Not to mind when it is very warm. To wear beach clothes in the city and flip-flops to work – if you must.”

Just as she seems set to take off on an impromptu flight of patriotic fancy to match her sparkling Commonwealth Star frock and its Sydney Opera House shoulder pads, Dame Edna stops and looks at me earnestly through her diamante-studded spectacles. “I’ve never really thought of myself as Australian. I think of myself as an international gigastar.”

It’s quite true. And she looks, more or less, the same as ever: purple candyfloss bouffant, pitch black beauty spot, lipsticked grimace and horn-rim specs are all present and correct. Dame Edna is now a global treasure. So much so that her farewell tour – well, technically, that of her manager, Barry Humphries – has already been going 18 months, including a stint at the London Palladium and its current round-Britain leg. “It’s a very, very long farewell,” she sighs. “Luckily, I’m extremely fit.”

Today, her one day off, she’s been roped into Australia House in London to unveil a portrait Humphries has painted – because, as she tells the audience, “Sir William Dobell was dead.”

“Remember Barry is an amateur,” Dame Edna warns from the stage. “With a capital A.” The velvet curtain snags as it’s drawn back and reveals a watery portrait of the two of them facing off in profile. Edna’s face drops. There’s no hiding her horror.

“It’s terrible,” she confides later. “He did it from memory, because he and I don’t really communicate. It’s not a very flattering picture of me and I hope to find an opportunity to destroy it.”

She might not find time. Touring means this “natural theatre performer” – and, she’s quick to remind me, “Tony award-winning actress, of course” – is performing seven shows, including two matinees, a week. “I talked to Dame Angela Lansbury today – I told the Queen to do that; luckily she watches Murder, She Wrote – and she’s about to open in Blithe Spirit, a very funny Noël Coward play … I thought if Angela can do it at 88, I can do it at 68.”

There could still be Broadway and America to come. She remains ambitious. “I’m hoping Woody Allen will put me in a movie,” Edna says, leaning in close. “A highly paid one.”

For now, though, nothing quite so glamorous. She’s just back from Newcastle, with Southampton up next. This is Edna’s first UK tour for years and, she says, the country is looking “more rundown than ever”. As for Edna herself, clutching a black coffee after a spritely and evergreen half-hour on stage, she does look tired. Nonetheless, farewell or no farewell, there are no plans to “cheerfully hang up my gladioli” just yet. “For me, retirement and death are synonymous,” she says proudly. “I keep going.”

There are no plans to keep in touch with her manager, either. She and Humphries are currently “estranged” she admits, hovering over the right word. “There are some pending embezzlement charges against him. He’s had his hand in the till for many years.” Legally speaking, she has perhaps told me too much. “Luckily it’s to a newspaper not a lot of people read.”

Photograph: Julian Makey

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