Saturday 20 January 2018

The girl from Clare who proved a Runaway Success

Make a note of the name Denise Gough; she is currently the toast of the London theatre scene. She tells our reporter about being one of 11 children in Ennis, leaving home at 15, and not wanting children.

Denise Gough is getting rave reviews for her leading role as Emily in People, Places and Things by Duncan Macmillan at the National Theatre, London.
Denise Gough is getting rave reviews for her leading role as Emily in People, Places and Things by Duncan Macmillan at the National Theatre, London.
Denise Gough starring alongside Barry Ward in the Abbey Theatre production of the Plough and The Stars

Julia Molony

When she was 15 years of age, Denise Gough ran away from her home in Ennis, Clare to London with the idea, ultimately, of becoming an actress.

Now 35, she then spent the first 15 years of her professional life, if not in the wilderness exactly, then certainly in the outer suburbs - some distance, at least from the beam of the bright lights. It's not that she didn't get good roles - there have been many, well-received ones and some impressive notices for her performances. But in between them were plenty of long, desolate periods of no work and no money. And outside London theatre circles, she remained pretty much unknown.

But she works in an industry where with the right role at the right time, all of that can change overnight. And when I meet her in the Covent Garden hotel, she's enjoying having found herself, thanks to a starring role at the British National Theatre, suddenly the darling of the London stage.

"I've always wanted to work at the National," she says, "but I was like, just any part. Just a part." So it was already the ultimate in wish fulfilment when the National came calling some months ago now, and offered her a lead role. But not only that, the play, People, Places and Things, in which Gough plays an addict making her reluctant way towards recovery, has been a sell-out, has garnered rave reviews and turned its lead actress into a bona fide, Sunday-supplement-cover star. "A magnificent Denise Gough" wrote one critic, gives a "staggering, career-defining performance."

She doesn't bother with the typical actorly pose of pretending it's nothing. She is patently, unapologetically thrilled about it all. "Working at the National and building a relationship with the National - I mean, if I do nothing else, I'm good," she says. "I never watched movies as a kid and wanted to be a star ... apart from Dirty Dancing. But I stood on a stage at school in Ennis and I thought this feels absolutely right. So yeah, I've done it. For me, my definition of that awful thing of making it, is happening now."

It's not about what this could mean for her future career, she insists. "I kind of don't care about that stuff any more. Of course it's great. And if it makes it easier then fantastic. But you know I had a year of not working at all before this. You have to learn - I have to learn. I have to be alright without all this stuff ... I watch other people focussing on where they're going over there, and I'm like, but where are you right now this second? And right now this second I'm playing some phenomenal part at the National Theatre."

Denise has the same intensity, the same volatile energy about her in person that is at the heart of her success as a performer. Though it is admittedly somewhat dialled-down today, over tea. She's mouthy and forthright and sharp as a tack - refreshing company in an industry over-run by the PR-groomed and the politic. She swears liberally, and perhaps unusually for an actor, doesn't seem that bothered about being either approved of or liked.

The role that she's currently immersed in is intense and demanding, physically and emotionally, yet she seems invigorated by it, despite being on stage for every minute of the performance. "The other night I was bursting to go to the toilet halfway through the first act," she says, "and I thought, 'Sh*t. Can't do anything about it. So the whole of the last four scenes are like, done with a bit of (she makes a pained face) 'oh my God'."

It's clear straight away she's not one to play the self-effacing, modest actress. For one thing, she claims that while good reviews are great, she quite enjoys the bad ones too.

"I had one that was so bad it was brilliant, she says, quoting off the line that she's committed to memory: "'Denise Gough gives the most irritating, look-at-me-I'm-not-listening performance I've ever seen on a West End stage.' ... I thought, well at least he wrote it well. I thought it was really, really funny."

She swears she's not sensitive to criticism at all, in fact. Though it has to be said, her work has mostly been favourably received, it's not the critics that keep her up at night. "Being out of money. Not being able to pay my rent. That sort of stuff. Real stuff makes me anxious. You spend your whole life wanting to be an actor, then you get to be an actor and what, you're supposed to what, be anxious about it for the rest of your life? What's the point in that?"

Before People, Places and Things she'd had a long period of "resting" working odd-jobs and babysitting for her sisters' kids. She even considered jacking it all in. But she bats away robustly the suggestion that landing a big new role might have made her feel under any pressure to prove herself. "I don't ever feel pressure," she says flatly. "I don't ever. I mean, I put pressure on myself only that I believe I tell the truth in what I do, and I knew (in People, Places and Things) I was telling the truth. I'm old enough and I've been around enough to know that I don't get jobs unless they think I can do it. What's the point of putting pressure on myself? I want to enjoy my work. I don't do it to have some sort of fu*king existential crisis about it. It's not going to last very long so you might as well enjoy it when you do it. I think a lot of actors love the (she puts on a luvvie voice) drama! The, 'Oh my God. What if I fu*k it up?' I never do any of that. I don't find it difficult. The business of being in rehearsals, unless you are working with complete a*sholes, I don't find that hard. I find the other stuff hard. I find being out of work hard. I find the business of how we are allowed to be rejected as women in our industry, I find that unacceptable, but I have to accept it because I'm in the business. But the actual work stuff? No. I find that easy."

More than easy, in fact. She'd go so far, indeed to say that it's a "fu*king spiritual experience for me, on stage ... I sound like a lunatic but I don't care anymore. I can be exhausted, feeling nothing about the character. And then I get on stage and she whips through my body and spits me out at the end and she walks off going, 'there we go, everyone had to listen to me.' So the less I get in the way of things, the better it will be."

The play has been praised as a fascinating and savagely authentic portrayal of addiction. And Denise's character, Emma, is initially unrepentant. "I get it. I completely get it," she says of the desire to respond to modern life with oblivion.

"I get why you'd want to switch off. But I think that there's switching off and there's addiction. And if you are an addict and you are switching off a lot, it's going to get you. It just is. It will take absolutely everything. I've witnessed it." She knows, she says, plenty of addicts herself, and did exhaustive research for the role. "It will ruin your life and all the relationships that you have. And what I loved about this play is that when you see it, it doesn't romanticise it. An addict doesn't get clean and then everyone goes, 'oh that's amazing. An addict gets clean and then has to face up to the fu*king carnage."

Just before press night, some of the people Denise had met in the course of her research, who are attending a treatment centre in Catford, came in to see the show. "And at one point my character makes a really full-on decision toward the end of the play, and one of those people shouted from the audience 'good girl!'. And I thought, 'there isn't a review in the world that is going to match that. Because those are the tribe that I'm trying to represent.'"

Born in Clare, Gough was number seven in a family of 11 children. Growing up in a family that size, was, she says, both heaven and hell. But "now it's amazing because we're all adults and we all like each other and we like hanging out with each other.

"And that's my parents. They did that. We're all very different but they raised human beings that want to hang out with each other. I know families that have two and they don't want to see each other."

They were, she says, "working class" though eventually "moved up the ladder a bit because of what my parents achieved." During her early life, her father worked as an electrician, "until he was 44 or 45 when he went back to college in the evenings, and got a degree in business." He eventually became the Head of Fisheries, so "he kind of really got bumped up."

Her own path has long been a source of worry for her parents, but she hopes that she is now into a new phase. "My mum came to see the show the other night and we went for something to eat beforehand, and she said: 'I don't think we need to worry about you now anymore.'"

The worry started when she left home aged 15 with an older boyfriend and moved to London. Why did she do it? "No idea," she says. "I started getting into trouble - like stupid things. And then the opportunity came up with a boyfriend to go away. I kind of lived in a movie version of my life, I wasn't making decisions based on the long-term consequences or how it would hurt anybody. Now I think, 'God, the fact that I even thought that I was in love at 15? What are you talking about? You're a child, but you believe it, don't you? And then I got here and I thought, oh Jesus."

The boyfriend didn't last, but her decision to be in London did. "The relationship was over within about two months. I lived with my brother for a few months but that didn't work. I couldn't really live with a family member because, you know, the reins were off. Sixteen and in London. It was heaven. I come from a small town in Ireland."

But she admits "it was awful" for her family. "I mean awful. There's no way of dressing that up. But we've come through it because we're a pretty solid family. And especially now because, I guess, somehow I had to get here.

"I felt really quite safe to be honest. I felt like people looked out for me. And also I was mad as a hatter, so I think people kind of stayed away from me as well - mad Irish girl." Mad in what way? "Oh, just you know fearless. Totally and utterly fearless. And kind of chaotic."

I reckon that she's probably held on to more than a kernel of that fearless, chaotic streak. For one thing, she's the only actor I've ever spoken too who actually loves it when things go wrong during a performance. "You have to be fearless on stage," she says with a shrug. "I tried to be the other way, I tried to be a worrier as an actor, and it just wasn't fun. It's a difficult enough career to do without making it really fu*king dramatic. And expecting everyone around you as well to indulge it."

She loves the frisson of excitement in live performance, the feeling that it could all fall apart. "The other day a sound cue went wrong," she says, "and I was just on the stage in total silence with seven other women. And because the sound cue went wrong, they were freaking out, I could feel it, they were going 'what the fu*k are we going to do?' And I thought (she makes a bold, thrilled face) 'I'll cry. And let's just see what happens'." And it was beautiful. And you think, those moments don't happen if you don't let the mistakes happen." So what did she do? "I just burst into tears," she says. "Burst into tears and looked at each of them and felt so grateful that they were so present and alive. And I just ad libbed something and then sat down and went into the next scene."

This unfettered spontaneity, she says, is fed by her relationships with the many children she is close to - most especially her own nephews and niece. "My biggest most important inspiration is children before they become self-conscious," she says.

"They're not interested in impressing you, or covering things if things go wrong. It all just happens to them. So that's what I try to do on stage".

She raves about the smaller members of her family, but says she's no desire for kids herself. "I love them, but I'm one of 11. And I have nine nephews and one niece ... I love them so much, but it's a lot of work. And it's just not a desire I've ever had ... I would love to want to have children. I'm nearly 36, so that question comes up, especially with other women of my own age. I have friends who really want kids but I just don't relate to that feeling." She's aware too, of the struggles women who want children face in her business.

"I had an actress friend of mine who had a baby which was the most amazing thing that had happened in her life, and then she was told, but don't talk about it in auditions. It's not the same for men. It's not the same." For Denise, it's a relief that her energies are all focussed in one place, the controlled chaos that happens on stage.

People, Places and Things runs at the National Theatre until November 4.

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