There's something undeniably thrilling about watching a star-making performance as it happens.
Denise Gough was on the brink of quitting acting when she landed Duncan Macmillan's People, Places & Things at the National Theatre in 2015. Suddenly, this Irish-born actor became the talk of the town, taking home an Olivier Award for her turn in the role of Emma and leading the drama to a West End transfer. The play is now running at St. Ann's Warehouse, and audiences who've heard the transatlantic gossip about Gough's searing work will finally be able to decide for themselves whether it lives up to the hype.
(Yes, it does. She's incredible.)
Directed by Jeremy Herrin, the play and its staging do too. Macmillan has crafted a superbly astute theater piece that tackles addiction and recovery from a number of different perspectives, and Herrin's invigorating production is unlike anything we've ever seen in terms of sheer creativity.
We first meet Emma in the midst of an actor's nightmare. Three sheets to the wind, Emma is playing Nina in The Seagull and can't remember her lines — or even where she is. Next thing you know, she's snorting one last white line off the reception desk at a rehab center because no one is willing to hire her unless she can get clean. Blithely going through the rigmarole of detox, group therapy, and role-playing, Emma refuses to take any of it seriously until she finally hits rock bottom.
People, Places & Things takes its title from a rewrite of Step One of the 12-Step Program: "Powerless over alcohol" becomes "powerless over nouns." The most stirring aspect of the story is the fact that Macmillan isn't just writing about powerlessness, though. The play, and Emma, are a lot more intricate than that.
Macmillan portrays the dangers of substance abuse alongside the vivid highs. He's looking at what creates an addict, why people self-medicate, what degree of desperation it takes to get clean, and how hard it is to stay sober in a judgmental world. When it seems like he's about to take a dramatically easy route, he doesn't hesitate to throw an 11th-hour wrench into the works to keep things from becoming unrealistically tidy. This play is written with a complex understanding of real life.
Herrin's kaleidoscopic production places us directly inside the fragmented mind of an addict on the brink of oblivion. At Emma's highest, Herrin stages a rave, complete with flashing lights (by James Farncombe) and loud vibrating noises (by Tom Gibbons). At her lowest, the antiseptic walls of Bunny Christie's set seems to melt right in front of us (with the help of Andrzej Goulding's ultra-convincing projections). In the most thrilling scenes, Herrin and movement choreographer Polly Bennett create a physical portrait of the detox process, complete with an ensemble of actors all costumed (by Christina Cunningham) to look exactly like Emma herself.
Gough gives a fearless portrayal of Emma, a beautiful yet tragic contradiction of a person who would much rather live in her self-created universe than face up to her demons. Gough's full-on performance is almost hard to watch at times because of this starkly authentic physical and emotional nakedness. Along with her sensational turn, Nathaniel Martello-White, Barbara Marten, and Kevin McMonagle (all original cast members) are superb in less showy roles.
After People, Places & Things closes, Gough's next project will be another New York transfer in which she plays a complex woman with issues of substance abuse: Harper Pitt in Tony Kushner's Angels in America. Seeing her take on these two plays back-to-back will no doubt create a stimulating conversation — and it will be a treat of the highest caliber as well.
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