At the start of Duncan Macmillan’s “People, Places & Things,” which concludes its triumphant run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn on Sunday, Emma, an actress with a serious substance abuse problem, is flailing about in Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” She’s practically teetering as she delivers Nina’s famous speech, “I’m a seagull. No, that’s not right. I’m an actress.”
As portrayed by Denise Gough, the Irish-born, London-based powerhouse who won an Olivier Award for her performance, Emma might be more truthfully wondering whether she’s an actress or an addict. At the moment, the high she’s getting from pills and booze seems to have overtaken the intoxication of performing onstage.
No performance this year has affected me as viscerally. If I were to pick a runner-up, it might be Gough’s anguished portrayal of Harper in the National Theatre production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” which I saw in the summer and am eager to see again once it opens on Broadway in March.
Wanting to meet the woman capable of this brilliant double act, I arranged to have coffee with Gough in Brooklyn Heights on Thanksgiving morning. Sneaking in some errands beforehand, I felt self-conscious, in an Emma-like way, about carrying shopping bags that contained a giant pumpkin pie and several bottles of red wine, which I did my best not to rattle as I greeted this stunningly attractive actress whose vegan diet and strict self-care regimen have preserved the radiance her character trashed long ago.
The stars have aligned for Gough, and she’s not at all superstitious about acknowledging her moment. She’s grateful success has come to her when it did, in her mid-30s, and not sooner.
“It was tough for a long time,” she admitted. “When I was out of work, I’d look up Julianne Moore and Frances McDormand, actresses whose big, juicy stuff came later, and think maybe I’ll be like them. Having this big break happen when it did is glorious because you know what life is about. I don’t know that I could have handled it at 23. At least now I can have a sense of humor about it.”
Two things became supremely evident during my conversation with Gough: She has a good deal in common with the assertively intelligent, fiercely independent and casually profane Emma — and she’s a good deal saner. As playful as she is candidly introspective, she’s still somewhat agog that acting heroes like John Lithgow are saying hello after the show, “Angels in America” costar Nathan Lane is inviting her to lunch in Tribeca and that she’s getting to shoot a movie back in England (“The Kid Who Would Be King”) in the interval between her first two New York gigs. (A prestige showcase film, about the French writer Colette starring Keira Knightley, is also in the works.)
From a large Irish family in Ennis, County Clare, Gough learned to fend for herself early on. A self-described wild child, she was living with a boyfriend in London at 16 and had to improvise her survival. (“I kept shaving my head, so I didn’t look like a victim so much as a little mad person.”) She found mentors at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts, where she won a scholarship, but she also confronted detractors. One faculty member said she’d never have a stage career with her voice, but that only spurred her to develop it into a majestic instrument.
She attributes a good portion of her success to sheer stubbornness. Yet it was only a few years ago that she was contemplating giving up the profession.
“I hadn’t worked for 13 months,” Gough recalled. “I was living on 30 pounds a week. I was working with kids, meditating all the time, going to yoga. I finally said, ‘If I have to give up, I’ve done good. I’ve worked with some brilliant people. Maybe that was my time.’ It was a very painful process to surrender, but surrender is everything. And then this play came along.”
Ferocious might be too tame a description for a character who, unable to deal with the survivor guilt she feels over her brother’s death, weaponizes her cleverness. When Emma is told in rehab that the first step is acknowledging a higher power, she lets her doctor have it: “You want me to conceptualize a universe in which I am the sole agent of my destiny and at the same time acknowledge my absolute powerlessness. It’s a fatal contradiction and I won’t start building foundations on a flawed premise.”
Gough, though more self-aware, is just as forcefully articulate when speaking her mind. She’s especially outspoken on issues of diversity and gender equality. As an actress — and don’t call her an actor unless you plan to pay her equally and give her the same opportunities as men — she expects to be involved in the process and doesn’t appreciate being treated like a chess piece.
“I had my agent ring up the National because it had been a while since I had an audition there and I wondered if some prolific director said I’m a nightmare,” she said. “Because I have heard someone say, ‘She’s worth it but she’s extreme.’ That’s not the kind of thing you hear about a man.”
She puts her unflinching intensity to full use in “People, Places & Things,” which began at the National Theatre (in co-production with Headlong) in 2015 before moving to the West End the following year. The play doesn’t follow the dramatic arc of conventional rehab stories. Macmillan, who co-wrote the ingenious “Every Brilliant Thing” (presented at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica earlier this year), has written a drama that is as much about being a performer as it is about being an addict. But even more it’s about being a vulnerable human being, conscious of an emptiness than can never be completely filled.
The production, directed by Jeremy Herrin with a kaleidoscopic fluidity that makes the performers the true special effects, focuses from start to finish on Gough’s Emma, whose feral dynamism is unflagging. How does Gough maintain the emotional and physical stamina of a role that requires her to hit bottom with raccoon eyes and a wrecked voice before crawling back to life scared, sober and perennially in danger of relapse?
“When I think back, I played Emma for 18 weeks straight, eight shows a week, and it was full on because my life was exploding at the same time,” she said. “When you’ve identified as being a struggling actress and then you suddenly get everything you want, that’s a head [trip]. It took me a while to step into my power. But now I’m in a completely different position, and I’m so grateful because all I have to do is the play. I have this company that sends me food. I sleep a lot, so I’m giving Emma the body and strength she needs to do New York.”
Gough, who trained as a soprano singer, said she has freed herself from the perfectionism that used to eat her up when she would miss a note. “I like imperfection onstage,” she said. “When people worry about things going wrong, I say you have to let things go wrong because that’s life, which is irresistible to watch.”
She has found other models for herself, such as the Irish singer Camille O’Sullivan, whose raspy delivery of songs by Nick Cave, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits is about her own distinctive sound. When Gough saw her in concert, she was amazed by the way O’Sullivan was able to incorporate a cough into the wonder of her singing.
Gough recently took inspiration from McDormand, who after seeing “People, Places & Things” was met by an admirer telling her he was such a big fan. McDormand told him, to Gough’s delight, “Don’t want fans, just peers,” and slapped him really hard on the back.
I like imperfection onstage. When people worry about things going wrong, I say you have to let things go wrong because that’s life, which is irresistible.
Gough has grown philosophical about the roles that have come her way. She wanted to play Nora in “A Doll’s House,” Stella in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Ophelia in “Hamlet,” but these parts went to other actresses. Later, when she steeled herself to see these high-profile London productions, she said she understood why she wasn’t cast. A faint Irish Catholic fatalism can be detected in her attitude. But her impulse is to avoid what she calls “scarcity thinking.” Gough would rather celebrate other women than be in competition with them.
Gough heaped praise on Jessica Brown Findlay, who, she said, turned Ophelia in Robert Icke’s recent production with Andrew Scott into a “traumatized, angry, grief-stricken, rageful woman.” That’s not a bad description of Gough’s Harper, who retains her ethereal qualities but is more savagely aggrieved than usual.
“Harper speaks a lot of poetry but she’s also a woman whose husband is having sex with a man who has to close his eyes when he has sex with her,” Gough said. “She is oppressed by religion and has reasons to be angry. She is a deeply political part of the play.”
This Brooklyn production of “People, Places & Things” has already informed her understanding of Harper, who in one scene stands on the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights and, staring at the Manhattan skyline, madly quips, “Want to buy an island? It’s going out of business.”
“I didn’t know what Brooklyn Heights was,” said Gough, who had never been to New York before this trip. “I had nothing to picture until, on my first day here, someone from the theater walked me around the corner and I saw the view. Harper is going to be much more rooted than she was in London by my having brought Emma here.”
Gough hopes that Emma will return to New York after “Angels,” though my wish is that “People, Places & Things” will come to Los Angeles before venturing to Broadway. The play, while starkly unsentimental about the reality of addiction, tells a story that is so much larger than the recovery of one woman learning to coexist with her shame.
“The lack of humanity right now in society and in our politics is very troubling, and we don’t know what to do about it,” Gough said. “This play is about addiction as a symptom of a deeper problem.”
In London, Gough received letters from people in recovery. In New York, the letters have been mainly from grieving parents. The night I attended her performance you could feel the emotion overwhelming the audience. The ending, when Emma leaves rehab to make amends with her mother and father, doesn’t go according to plan — and is all the more affecting for its honest depiction of redemptive struggle.
“People are crying out for this,” she said. “Not everyone wants to see ‘SpongeBob SquarePants,’ no offense to those who do. I think we’ve had enough of the flashing lights telling us not to think about anything. A play like this makes people sit in a room and empathize. It’s a dangerous thing for people to start caring about each other.”
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