“Acting gives me the same thing I get from drugs and alcohol. Good parts are just harder to come by.”
Having never been to rehab, I cannot speak for the play’s accuracy or sensitivity in dealing with the subject matter of substance addiction. I cannot tell you if it was realistic, nor can I tell you if it was offensive or sympathetic. And yet, somehow, despite the fact that I cannot possibly understand the lives of these characters, cannot begin to fathom what recovery is like, I watched People, Places & Things through eyes glazed with tears and with a lump in my throat, my heart breaking as Emma spoke about theatre with more truth than you will ever hear from any actor.
[Denise Gough (Emma) and Nathaniel Martello-White (Mark) | Photo credit: Johann Persson]
As someone who studies and works in theatre, it was both fascinating and excruciating to watch an addict’s recovery paralleled with her tumultuous acting career. I have often tried to explain to people the inner struggle that accompanies working in theatre. The first time I cried in this performance was during a rare moment of honesty in the first act, in which Emma explains the painful truth of what working in the theatre industry does to people. How the cast and crew of a show become your family, how you get to know one another better than anyone else, how you spend hours upon hours rehearsing to create something really special, and then you are applauded night after night, basking in the glory of this beautiful thing that you have created. You make some of the best friends you have ever made, you connect, the boundaries between your onstage chemistry and your offstage lives blur and maybe you end up shagging your co-star at the afterparty. You celebrate together and then when the show closes, you say goodbye to the directors, the actors, your co-star, the technical team; you say goodbye to the character whose shoes you filled for weeks, and then the family breaks up and you go your separate ways. Theatre is hard, and harsh, and cruel. You work through illness, through breakdowns, through anxiety attacks, through death and depression and you keep going. In pre-production week your stress levels are higher than they’ve ever been been, you’re smoking a pack a day and getting more frustrated with your ‘little family’ than ever. Maybe you’re playing someone like Antigone or Winston Smith, or indeed, Emma in People, Places & Things, and you will endure torture and torment and heartbreak, night after night after night, draining yourself physically and emotionally over and over again. When you’re on stage, if you fuck up, forget a line, of course the audience never notices, but you do, and it’s torture. Maybe it goes right, you’re word perfect and the energy is high and when you bow, you are applauded, hundreds of people on their feet cheering you on. If you’re the director, it’s like watching your child graduate, or walk for the first time. The first time I directed a play, on our closing night the actors performed better than they ever had before. They threw themselves so fully into what they were doing, bringing the story to life in a way I could never have expected from a student production. I was sat in the audience, with the playwright on one side and my sister on the other, and as they bowed, I cried, with the strongest sense of pride, a sense of: Holy shit, I did this.
Hearing Emma put this feeling into words broke my heart. As I head into this industry that will tear me apart time and time again, that will repeatedly tell me I am almost good enough, but someone else was better or prettier or stronger, that will make me fight tooth and nail to make the work I want and be taken seriously for it, I am terrified. I often wonder why the hell we do this to ourselves, why we put ourselves through auditions and proposals and interviews and tech rehearsals just to tread water. Why I chose to switch my university application from psychology to theatre when the former is so much more stable, why I chose to apply to drama school, why the hell I would ever want to do something that hurts so much. It is almost like asking an addict why they keep using, even as it tears their world apart. The answer is, at least for me, because I could never do anything else. I could never live my life sitting in the audience – as Emma puts it “with all the boring bits left in”. Denise Gough is a powerhouse, and I cannot commend her strength enough. To play this role, night after night, to speak such words that apply to her as much as they apply to Emma, to throw every last scrap of energy into this life she inhabits for only two hours at a time, reinforces my belief that actors have the hardest job in the world.
[Set design by Bunny Christie | Photo credit: Johann Persson]
Headlong are wizards of digital headfuckery, the set design a masterful interpretation of the mind of an addict. Two years ago, when I saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in the West End, I did not know the name Bunny Christie. Now, I will never forget it. Her set design for Curious Incident captured the feeling of anxiety and panic with a painful accuracy that could never be articulated verbally. At the end, I turned to my mother and said “What happened to the stage just then – that’s how it feels to have a panic attack.” Every creative involved in People, Places & Things, from the movement director Polly Bennett to the video and projection designer Andrzej Goulding, fit together like jagged and dysfunctional jigsaw pieces to create this dazzlingly bombastic performance, overwhelming the senses and ensnaring the nerves with every burst of sound and light. Every time I see a Headlong show (this being the third), I am stunned by what they are able to achieve.
People, Places & Things is, at its root, a play about coping. Coping with addiction, yes, but also coping with life, coping with our meandering existence and the attempt to make the short amount of time between birth and death as meaningful or interesting as possible. Coping with loss, coping with trauma, coping with changes in circumstance. The coping mechanisms we choose for ourselves. Drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, comedy, sex, god, origami, meditation, yoga. No, the battle between the thrill and ache of working in the theatre industry will never truly be comparable to the trauma an addict goes through and the forces they fight against. That is something that is impossible to understand unless you have been through it yourself. But the way in which this play highlights the parallels between them has helped me to understand the struggle more, in my own way. Finding something, or someone, to cling to, to ground you, something to give you a sense of purpose, and that won’t ultimately destroy you, is the great challenge of life.
[Denise Gough (left), Kevin McMonagle (centre), Nathaniel Martello-White (right) | Photo credit: Johann Persson]
People, Places & Things by Duncan Macmillan
National Theatre and Headlong co-production (West End transfer)
Directed by Jeremy Herrin
Wyndham’s Theatre until 18th June