'I'll probably never be invited to the Olivier Awards again' - Irish star Denise Gough
She's just been bestowed with the highest award in theatre, but actress Denise Gough has more interest winning in equality than accolades. Here, our reporter meets the Co Clare firecracker
Published 08/05/2016 | 02:30
London is calling, or vacuuming crowds onto Charing Cross Road. On a Tuesday night the centre of gravity is Wyndham's Theatre, where people mob around an entrance festooned with five-star banners. The play is People, Places and Things and its subtitle suggests why people might be so keen to get in: an intoxicating new play about surviving in the modern world.
Inside, an actress from Co Clare is putting in the performance of a lifetime. Denise Gough, overnight the brightest star of the West End and winner, last month, of the prestigious Olivier Award for best actress, is spangled with plaudits for her lead role. Ruby Wax, Sophie Dahl, Anna Chancellor Jude Law and Dominic West have all been in.
When I get inside the teeming venue, an older gentleman is negotiating a pair of tickets. Each is priced at €85 - premium €115. The mostly young, mostly well-heeled audience push past the trigger warnings for "flashing lights, flashing imagery, loud music and intense sound effects, scenes of emotional intensity, including alcohol and drug use".
None of which could have prepared them for what they were about to see.
Duncan MacMillan's new play is directed by Jeremy Herrin for the National Theatre, where it first opened last autumn before moving to Wyndham's. Denise plays the caustic and brilliant Emma, an actress addicted to alcohol and drugs.
The curtain rises as Emma is having a meltdown on the stage of a Chekov play, Amy Winehouse in Belgrade style. Through her junked-up arrival in rehab, her withdrawals from benzodiazepines, speed, coke and drink; her desperate escape, and her retreat to the centre with blood-soaked knees, I watch the play with my jaw hanging open.
From the stalls come gasps of shock, howls of laughter and finally, heavy sobs. We exit onto a laneway where a woman beds down in a cardboard box, drinking whiskey from the neck. Homeless men cluster around Leicester Square station, medicating themselves from the cold. Tourists in bar windows shovel supersized plates of Tex-Mex. I fancy a gin and tonic.
The world is a pharmacy, suddenly, and everyone needs their prescription.
The next day I find Denise, 36, perched in front of the mirror in her dressing room. The actress is punching at her phone before her second meeting of the day, with a top director - opportunities which have poured in because of what she calls this "monster of a part". A fresh script awaits on a coffee table.
Sitting with her slim legs twisted into a knot, she tears at a pastry and sips both a coffee and a green juice. She talks with bold, unchecked honesty, her green eyes flashing.
First, telling me she's "really good" at acting. "If a plumber came and fixed your toilet and you said 'great job', and the plumber said 'no, it's really s***, I'm really bad at it', you'd be like, 'Well f****** fix it properly.'
"Somehow, as actors, we're not allowed to take pride in our work without being seen as arrogant. But I worked my ass off on what you watched last night.
"I'm being given this opportunity, and that all comes with a responsibility to be grateful, and to remember that it doesn't happen like that for everybody, and that there are people that it should happen to. So if you're one of the fortunate people for whom it happens, then don't be a d***. Don't do that false modesty thing."
I tell her she didn't appear to be acting the night before. She spoke her lines like a person, without drama. She nods: "When it comes to acting, I've never felt I have to do very much. I think it's about not doing."
"What I am doing," she says, "is I'm telling the truth."
How about her truth; experiences she draws from as Emma? "Well, we've all been pissed, haven't we?"
For her research she spent time in a treatment centre with drugs groups. She continues meeting them, as audiences such as homeless boys from a centre in Shoreditch come to the play. But also, "I draw on the notion of how hard it is sometimes to get out of bed in the morning. We live in a world where the bodies of children are washing up in beaches, that's hard."
War zones, junior doctors striking in England, the British government announcing it can't accept 3,000 child refugees - these things are hard, she says. "If that's what's happening in reality then I really have great compassion for people who don't want to be part of reality.
"Alcohol and drugs, they're the solution for a lot of people, they're not the problem. Reality is too tough, so they want to switch off."
Addiction affects everyone, whether directly or indirectly, she believes. "It is entirely indiscriminate, and it is based on a lack of self-esteem. A lack of self-esteem doesn't care whether you're rich, poor, middle class.
"I know a lot of people from incredibly wealthy, privileged backgrounds who are destroyed by addiction - but it's just dressed differently, because they can go 'on holidays' to get over it. The poor are more visible, because the poor end up on the street."
Denise Gough, it doesn't take long to see, is going to be powerful. Even if we never hear her name again, her powers - chief among them her fearlessness - will have seeped into others and given life to their potential. Forget that she is ethereal and beautiful - she is dynamite in disguise.
The little Victorian dressing room could fool you: a powder-scented boudoir where greeting cards, make-up pots, quotes for the day and owl pictures create the feeling of cocooned celebrity. You almost expect to see tiny cherubs blowing trumpets around her.
An aromatherapy candle sends up wisps of smoke, and soft instrumental music plays. Next to the bunch of pink tulips, a board is tacked with pictures of smiling nieces and nephews - "my greatest inspiration." Next to that, the 'Ennis Parish Newsletter' with prayers, which her father gave her.
She was born in Wexford and moved to Ennis, Co Clare, when she was four. Number seven of six sisters and five brothers, she was the "attention seeker".
At 10 she trained to be an opera singer, giving it up after four years. "I hated how perfect it had to be. Oh I f****** hated it. Have you ever listened to Camille O'Sullivan? So, she's the ultimate for me. She coughs if she needs to, she sniffs, she cries."
Denise did her Junior Cert - "failed most of it" - and at 15, in a story which has elements of Edna O'Brien and of Maureen O'Hara, she packed her bags and took the ferry to London with a boyfriend.
"I just didn't want what my parents were offering," she says. Running away from home was "horrendous" for her parents, for her and for everyone. "A lot of girls are dead that do that."
In London she "pissed about working in pubs" until she was 18, when she did a foundation course in drama, disliking that too. But she couldn't suppress her interest in a craft which had thrilled her on the stage of Annie in primary school, playing Miss Hannigan.
She started an acting class in an old nightclub in Camberwell, where the teacher urged her to audition for drama school. She got a full scholarship to the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts.
What follows makes it all the more alarming that before People, Places and Things, this seasoned performer found herself out of work for a year.
For 10 years she did three plays a year, gracing the Royal Court, Lyric Hammersmith and Bush theatres. At 24 she was understudying Holly Hunter and playing her love rival in Marina Carr's By the Bog of Cats. At 30 she was up close and personal with Sinead Cusack in Conor McPherson's The Birds at the Gate in Dublin. Soon after that she played the pride of Sean O'Casey, Nora Clitheroe, in The Plough and the Stars on the Abbey stage.
You know, she says, after those Irish plays, "I thought I would work more in Ireland. But there was never any real interest."
At 32 she won 'Most Promising Newcomer' at the Critic's Circle. This, it transpires, was more of an insult to her achievements than a tribute. "I wasn't a f****** newcomer. I had 12 years of serious stagecraft behind me."
Acting, Denise had begun to realise, meant a lot of "waiting to be picked".
Furthermore: "You're spoken to in a pretty horrific way, as a woman. About your looks, about your size, about your age, about if you have children, about your colour."
She recalls one rejection, when the casting director passed on the message that Denise "did the most intelligent audition but the other women in the show are not very beautiful so they need someone really conventionally beautiful.
"I thought, wow, they've just insulted every woman in that show, me, and the woman who got the part. Because she was chosen not for her intelligence but for her looks."
She clung to acting because it had "saved" her as a "wayward teenager", and because of her love for an audience. "Once I'm on a stage in front of an audience, nobody can get in the way."
It was two years ago that she found herself out of work for that year. "I was going into auditions desperate for jobs that I didn't want, because I was desperate to pay my rent."
She paid her rent with radio work, served orange squash at a kids' play group, and hit a low point when her mother, over for a visit, urged her to apply for a cleaning job.
"I was in a really bad way, I was so shocked at how I had put so many years in, and I thought, 'surely at some point that gets a bit easier'. You prove that you're a grafter. Surely hard work pays off. In that year I thought, maybe it doesn't. Maybe you have to be really well-connected and really wealthy.
"So I spoke to my mum one morning, and I was really upset, and she said to me, 'Niesey why don't you get a job as a cleaner? You're a really good cleaner.' And I said, 'I don't think I can hear that right now.' And then she left. And I thought, 'why don't I get a job as a cleaner? I love cleaning'."
She applied for a job cleaning people's houses, and she didn't get it.
"But the very action of doing that really helped me," she continues. She had decided her self-esteem would no longer be "tied-up" in her job, and she would not let acting define her.
She asked herself, "Why do I think I'm any better than somebody who cleans?"
She got the part that ricocheted her to the Oliviers when she asked her agent to ask the National Theatre whether she had "a bad reputation" with them.
After 15 years of acting she had never done a play with London's cherished home for actors, and she wondered if it was something personal. She was told it wasn't, and given the script of People, Places and Things and an audition.
By then they had met a lot of actresses and she was low on the list. "I was third tier." She read the script and instantly understood the struggle, wit and intelligence of the play's heroine. She decided that if she didn't get the part, she would "bow out". This would be her last audition.
And now look.
After opening night, there seemed to be a competition for the best review of Denise Gough. Emma was "superlatively played" (The Guardian). "The performance is one of such power, intensity and verve" (The Telegraph) "Denise Gough's electrifying portrayal will, if there is an atom of justice in this world, make her a star" (Financial Times).
On this occasion, the critics were right.
Last month, Denise beat Nicole Kidman and other giants to 'Best Actress' in winning the highest honour in theatre. However, that Olivier statuette is not to be seen in her dressing room. And where is that Critics' Circle plaque?
"For me, it was quite a white honour," she says.
She gave the statuette to her little nephew to take to school for show and tell. On the night of the awards, she forgot it in the pub.
Meanwhile, her brother had stolen an eight-foot foam Olivier from the foyer and got caught - "You know what we're like, the Irish." This was all before she left her own party, "starving", and "inhaled a chicken burger".
Sitting with her boyfriend (an actor, whose name she chooses not to share) at the burger joint in her red carpet gown was "the best bit. Because by that point I had the award, everyone was happy. I didn't have to worry about anything."
There had been matters to worry about surrounding that "white honour".
In January, when she went to collect her Critics' Circle award for 'Best Actress', Denise wore a T-shirt with '50:50 by 2018' on it, in solidarity with a movement for gender equality. Pinned to that was her #WakingtheFeminists badge - for "the women in Ireland who have been so brave, so f****** brave!"
Then, as the curveball winner at the Oliviers, she did things differently to how the mandarins of the ceremony might have expected.
With the 40 seconds she had to accept her trophy, she told the world she was "just a bit sad" at the lack of racial diversity at the awards. (All the actresses in the category for best actress, and best supporting actress, were white.)
Some might have called this biting the hand that feeds her. Most would call it bravery. "I'll probably never be invited to the Oliviers again," she says. "And I don't care. Because now I've got one!"
She believes public figures don't like to raise political issues, at the Oscars or the Oliviers, because "everybody wants to be part of the gang. But the more we do it, the less afraid you have to be. Actually the most powerful thing you have as an artist is to be fearless.
"In the same way we need men to talk about feminism, we need white people to talk about the lack of diversity."
Actors, holding onto tenuous success, are often afraid to "rock the boat. But we need to be rocking all the f****** boats."
Denise's wears and curses don't have a particular target, they are sprinkled everywhere like hundreds and thousands on an ice-cream cone.
Two months into the second run of the show, she is "knackered". She finds it difficult to sleep. She is too "frazzled" to get on a train after a performance. To unwind, she watches "s*** TV" - The Real Housewives of New York and EastEnders.
But how mightily that graft has paid off. For next year, the National has cast her in Angels in America, a play about the 1980s AIDs epidemic.
She laughs at the notion of going off to Hollywood. "So often success happens and then people go and make s*** movies. I don't want to play someone's girlfriend."
You have to share her delight when she celebrates the fact that she will never have to work with one director she "hated" again. "He was so undermining of my work, because I wouldn't be 'sexy'. He was a misogynist - you can print all of this because he's a d*** - and now I'm really happy that I'm successful, because I never have to let him kiss me on the cheek again. Ugh!"
This is a parable of how telling the truth, when you really believe in it, sets you free. Her honesty garnered her respect, and now she calls the shots.
"If you're part of the establishment, I guess you can do loads of plays with loads of white people and maybe one black person for the rest of your life. I have no interest in that."
She has no desire to live in Ireland again. "London is home. Because this is where I grew up. I became a woman in London."
You don't hear any trace of Co Clare in an accent which is almost plummy. But, I ask her, why is it that Emma's accent becomes so Irish towards the middle of the play?
It was originally going to be an English accent, she tells me, but she felt she could be more "truthful" with an Irish accent.
"The more comfortable I am, the more truthful I'm being, the more Irish I am.
"And also, swearing with an Irish accent is way better." She swears a lot more than is on the script, she explains. "Especially when I'm tired. When I'm tired there's nothing like shouting 'F***!' to get yourself a bit awake. And that's what I do on stage. I love it!"
Denise slips on a lustrous fawn coat to go out to another fabulous audition. That night, she tells me with contained glee, she's getting a "free meal" in The Ivy and a "free hotel" in the West End. Freedom hard won, and well spent.
'People, Places and Things' is at Wyndham's Theatre in London until June 18, wyndhamstheatre.co.uk