Normally, dressing rooms offer a surreptitious insight into the personality of their inhabitants. Are they neurotic? Chaotic? Are the shelves cluttered with books and good luck letters, or the rails hung neatly with clothes, their labels tellingly on show? This is not the case with Denise Gough. Breaking during rehearsals for the sell-out revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, she is crammed into an alcove beside the mirror, gesticulating emphatically, surrounded by bare walls. A lone dress is zipped into a bag by the door. She has arranged some incense on the otherwise empty dressing table. Naturally and notoriously outspoken, she exudes a dense, compressed energy. An interview for Gough, it seems, is a challenge: minimal time to achieve maximum impact. She has a knack for taking questions and prising them open, shooting back with a broad arc of an answer, which can skid from art, to abortion, to immigration within a single sentence. “I am sitting in a room. I get paid to do what I love,” she says, firmly. “I couldn’t sleep at night if I wasn’t doing something with that position.
“It’s like an interview: wouldn’t it be pretty fucking boring if you had to come in here and talk to me about what dresses I am wearing or what movie I had to plug…can’t we talk about something more interesting? You want to have a dialogue about what the fuck is going on in the world.”
This is not, in fact, the first time that Gough has used this dressing room, deep in the guts of the National Theatre. Back in 2015, she was given the same one when she played the addict Emma in People, Places and Things. Enthusiastically snorting lines of sugar in her audition, and prowling the stage with a lithe, fragile fleshliness, it was the role that shot her to stardom. Physically, People, Places and Things was rigorous, but it pales when compared to the seven-hour, two-part Angels, in which she plays the mormon Harper, another addict, stuck in a loveless marriage with a husband battling his sexuality. “She is very soulful,” says Gough. “But she is also very sad, so it’s quite hard to play her, but it’s amazing.”
The first time the cast ran the two plays together, it was shattering. “Everybody died of AIDS. It was like, fucking hell, what do you do with that?” Remarkably expressive, Gough’s emotions are close and tangible–both on and off the stage. On the advice of Mark Rylance, who was forced to develop his own nightly ritual while starring in the consuming Jerusalem, Gough ceremonially disentangles herself from Harper each evening. “At the end of the day, at the end of each show, I take it off. I have to close up the chakras that the energy pours out of, otherwise you take it home. And I don’t want to live the life of a sad Mormon.” That’s the incense explained, then.
If rehearsing the play was gruelling, the build-up outside the theatre has been frenzied. Seats disappeared like Glastonbury tickets and, still, hundreds are entering the ballot, desperate to see Gough and her co-stars Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane and Russell Tovey. But the allure of celebrity alone isn’t enough to persuade audiences to sit through seven of hours of theatre, split over two, probably non-consecutive, evenings: that’s also down to the appeal of Angels itself. First performed in 1991, it became an instant, fabled classic, a kaleidoscopic portrait of Reagan-era America, suffering its horrific epidemic of AIDS. After seeing the show, Harold Bloom likened Kushner to Tennessee Williams; the New York Times deemed it “the most thrilling American play in years”.
As is the case with classics, Angels feels persistently relevant. At the heart of the story is the figure of Roy Cohn, Joe McCarthy’s cohort and, also, Donald Trump’s lawyer. For Gough, this is a stark reminder of the cyclical nature of history. “There is a line that Roy Cohn says–and he was Donald Trump’s mentor—he says, ‘I don’t know if it’s true; half the time I make up everything and it turns out to be true.’ It basically encapsulates fake news. They were doing in in the 50s.”
As history rears its head, Gough sees Angels as an important reminder of a past that is often overlooked by a younger generation widely accustomed to social progress. As the Trump administration threatens to regress hard-won rights, the play honours those who fought, and died, for these rights. “Young gay men and women can see whose shoulders they are standing on: it’s really powerful and healing,” she says. “They were ignored by the American government. They were told that it wasn’t happening… Those girls and boys fought. So, if we can educate about what went before us, that will help us.”
The cast of Angels in America
Gough’s recent recognition has been framed in Cinderella-like terms: an out-of-work actress jobbing as a cleaner who was about to give up before she hit the big time. Does she find this narrative reductive? “Look, I get it,” she says. “People, Places and Things was not my first rodeo. Being able to play that part was a result of doing three plays a year for fifteen years.” She is glad, however, that fame came later. “I think it can be dangerous is for people for whom it happens very quickly because there is a laziness. I will never be lazy.”
Born in County Clare, Ireland, Gough moved over to London when she was 16. “All I cared about was ‘OMG, there were clubs’, and I could stay out till nine o’clock in the morning.” The conversation soon turns to her experience growing up as a young girl in rural Ireland, where abortion remains illegal, despite a growing resistance largely spearheaded by the Repeal the 8th movement. “A woman died in Ireland. A Muslim woman—not Catholic—died because they made the choice that the unborn baby’s life was more important than hers. It’s just bizarre to me. And I’ve known about this for years because I knew girls, really young girls who were going to England to get abortions—the shame that carries with it. God! We are a country that is so steeped in Catholicism that the shame thing runs deep. I think it’s got to change. It has to, but I don’t think it will because they’ve got to strangle women–” she fades off.
Time’s nearly up. Gough has to get back to afternoon rehearsals, where she’ll spend the afternoon as a Mormon, ensconced in Kushner’s blistering play. But she’s keen to stretch out the conversation one last time. “I am an immigrant,” she says. “I’m allowed to come here and I wouldn’t be here without the job centre, the NHS, without scholarships. All that stuff was gifted to me and now I pay it back in my taxes. All of this stuff that is happening with Brexit and saying ‘go back to where you came from.’ How come they are not shouting at me, and telling me to go back to where I come from?”—Isobel Thompson
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Credit: Jason Bell