Interview with Critics' Circle Award winner Denise Gough

Duncan Macmillan's play People, Places and Things caused a storm when it opened last year at the National's Dorfman Theatre, and thanks to an extremely strong set of reviews and sold out audiences, it announced a transfer to the West End where it opens at the Wyndham's Theatre on 15 March 2016.

Much of the hype came from the central performance of Irish actress Denise Gough in the lead role, delivering what can only be described as a virtuoso performance as 'Emma' who is recovering with addiction.

Gough was recognised with the Critics' Circle Award for Best Actress, following in the footsteps of performers such as Helen McCrory, Lindsay Duncan, Kathleen Turner and Judi Dench. She won the 2012 award for Most Promising Newcomer for her performances in 'Our New Girl' and 'Desire Under the Elms', and has since worked on TV shows such as BBC's 'What Remains' and 'Stella' for Sky 1.

We caught up with her ahead of the Critics' Circle award ceremony to discuss the role, and the importance of gender equality in the arts – a topic for which she is a champion.

DOH: Dom O'Hanlon
DG: Denise Gough

DOH: How has it been having a gap between the two runs? Are you worried you've forgotten it?!

DG: I haven't forgotten it! I won't forget it. She's there inside me, beating to get out...I've been working quite a bit in between keeping me busy, and I'm going to India for a yoga retreat. I need to get fit before starting! I saw Imelda [Staunton] in Gypsy and wanted to talk to her about how she maintained her energy. When I saw the role she was playing it with this constant fiery energy, the same kind I need as my character. I need to know her secret! You don't really have time to lose focus – it's like you're an athlete. Think of Jessica Enis getting ready for a marathon – she wouldn't be pissing about would she?

DOH: Do you feel the pressure to be there every night?

DG: No I don't, because I think I'll work better. At the National the problem of being in rep – you'd get your stamina up and then you'd have a break for two weeks. People said to me beforehand, “Oh, you'll love doing that”, but no I couldn't relax. It's going to be really nice, I'm more used to working like this. It may be crazy but I've done it before, not with something like this but I have done this type of run.

DOH: And you've been very busy with your new campaign...

DG: Yes! I'm so glad you asked me about that. My badge here is for 'Waking the Feminists' which is to do with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. My shirt is to do with a campaign launching at the beginning of next month – '50:50 by 2018' campaign. You see, women make up 50% of the population but less than 1/3 of speaking roles in films are taken by women. It's a joke, it's ridiculous and it needs to change. It's being helped by companies like Headlong committing to it with more female writers, directors and producers. It makes a huge difference. It's not just something that women just don't want – I don't think men want it either! The same way the lack of diversity in acting, it's not just for the black actors, or the mixed race actors – I want it to change for me. I don't want to be in something that's been whitewashed. Equally I don't want to be in a production where it's all of one or all of the other. I want to all play together!

DOH: And what a great role and platform for you to have with People, Places and Things

DG: I'm lucky at the moment to be in such an amazing role where I've got a platform to say this – I'm opposite a man and thinking “I'm not here because of you!” Even in the great roles, the great tragedies – the women are there for the men. I'm trying to be as vocal as I can now because I'm in a position to be! I want to be part of the conversation for future generations – if my niece decided she wanted to become an actress for example. I was at a drama school yesterday and some of the questions from the young women – you wouldn't believe. Not one of the men asked “Is it hard always playing the blonde?”, “Can I get roles with red hair” - those questions! We need a much bigger female presence across the arts.

DOH: Body image also is a very big problem for young actors

DG: Yes, and the men too! I watched an amazing documentary with Reggie Yates – the extremes that young men will go to to change their bodies. It's so scary. All these young actors look at things like 'Game of Thrones' and think they need to be that size to succeed. Social media has made people so worried about what they look like.

DOH: I recently heard Duncan talk about why he wrote such a strong female protagonist and realised, quite shockingly, that it's just so unique.

DG: How lucky are we to have a young male feminist who can write this play? Men are conditioned to have 'that' feeling normal. We need to be more vocal so it's normal to fight this condition. When we talked about this play we said isn't it interesting that the play is getting so much attention. But we wouldn't be having it if it was a male character – it's so important to get that message across. This is a play written for a strong 30 something woman. But it's the same with older women – we as human beings love them. Who doesn't want to see an older woman excel on stage or in film? You can tell I'm very passionate and I now have a position where I'm getting this attention that I can raise these issues that are important.

DOH: Absolutely, and it's very important that you do. Congratulations on your Critics' Circle Award win!

DG: Thank you!

The West End transfer of People, Places and Things is running at the Wyndham's Theatre from 15 March to 4 June 2016.

- Edited by Dom O'Hanlon

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