I spoke on the phone to Gemma Whelan, pictured above, who performs Philip Ridley’s volcanic Dark Vanilla Jungle at The Brewery Theatre this month. Listening back to it I think I was a bit excited to start with but I calmed down towards the end. I was on loudspeaker.
TOM HELLO GEMMA?!
GEMMA Hello this is Gemma.
TOM HELLO, GEMMA, YES, er… I’M TOM.
GEMMA Hey, Tom, how you doing I’ve been expecting you.
TOM OH OH FANTASTIC YES, I’m – HOW YOU DOING?
TOM HOW YOU DOING?
GEMMA Yeah, very well thank you, we’re just in the space going through a few bits of text and getting ready for tonight.
TOM WELL THANKYOU, THANKYOU SO MUCH…FOR SPEAKING TO ME, AS OPPOSED TO “GETTING IN THE ZONE” OR WHATEVER IT IS.
GEMMA Hahaha Well there’s a good five hours yet…
TOM “THERE’S A GOOD FIVE HOURS YET” – HA! YOU DON’T NEED TO SPEND FIVE HOURS DOING THAT – FAIR SHOUT! [Mumble mumble] WELL, YOU’VE DONE IT! [As in the show]YOU’VE DONE IT A FAIR BIT ALREADY THOUGH, YES?
GEMMA Yeah, yeah I have – I start getting ready around six, so…yeah but I have done it about thirty times but I’ve still got to…build up to it…
TOM SOUND, YEAH, ABSOLUTELY, SO I SAW THE SHOW IN EDINBURGH AND I WAS BLOWN AWAY…
GEMMA Oh! Thankyou!
TOM …BOTH BY IT AND BY, BY YOU- BY EVERYTHING TO DO WITH IT, IT WAS…IT WAS COMPLETELY RELENTLESS…
GEMMA Yeah, that’s the word people use for it.
TOM YEAH, SURE, SURE! I WONDER YOU’RE PROBABLY BETTER PLACED THAN I AM WHEN IT COMES TO WRITING THIS CHAT UP TO um TO DESCRIBE WHAT THE SHOW IS – I WONDERED IF YOU COULD JUST SAY, YOU KNOW…WHAT IT IS? WHAT THE SHOW IS – WHAT IS IT?
GEMMA Well, it’s like you said it’s a relentless one woman monologue about a girl who is misled and let down by social circumstances and ends up in situations that expose her to gang culture and she’s taken advantage of because she’s vulnerable and… it’s just the horrible consequence of such a thing that unfortunately does go on which makes it all the more harrowing I suppose.
[I started to calm down a bit here]
TOM Yes, it’s like a show that takes you to the edge of despair and then you realise that’s just the beginning, it’s this sort of wonderful exercise in horror, but also incredibly uplifting, perversely.
GEMMA Oh – that’s cool!
TOM I mean, it’s so intense, so remarkable, how, how have you arrived at where you are now?
GEMMA Well…the director [David Mercatali] and I worked very well together, I suppose, and he is hugely responsible for my…bravery with it he made me feel very safe and I trusted him and so we were able to really push ourselves to what we – to what he – his vision was and I let myself be guided by him very openly. I trusted him, and he me, and I think that was pivotal in us getting to where we are now because it’s such an extraordinary thing to have to rehearse. We went page by page, one day at a time, maybe half a page some days, maybe just one paragraph…
GEMMA …because it’s so difficult considering there’s no props, it’s just me…having to paint those pictures and how we got there…it was quite an intense process with its fair amount of tears and breakdowns.
TOM OH EXCELLENT! [Relapse] YOU HAD TEARS AND BREAKDOWNS THAT’S FANTASTIC! What was it – I mean you don’t have to relive that episode but what is it – do you think that brought you to the…to the edge of madness-
GEMMA Well at one stage we thought can we actually do this? Is this possible? It’s true! Will, the producer is here who’s laughing at me – but it’s true, both David and I – we’d just done a run through that was quite disastrous really on many levels, it just wasn’t ready and we had a preview in two or three days and it was very frightening that I didn’t seem to be in shape for it but it turned out to be one of the most important days of rehearsal and we pulled it off.
TOM In what way were you not ready and…and…?
GEMMA Lines! There’s 26 pages of relentless… and also the lick…you can’t be off…you have to be so confident of the words whilst painting the pictures and adding some colour and dynamics and I just wasn’t…not all those things aligned at once. [Laughs]
TOM Oooh that’s a nice feeling two days before you open…
GEMMA It was terrifying! But I think most actors will tell you that you need to have that day of despair where you do cry and you say, I don’t think I can do this. It’s awful and dramatic but we seem to thrive off that and the next day I came in and I did it word perfect.
TOM Absolutely and I suppose anybody outside of this world would say “what you making such a fuss about it’s only a play” but I suppose once you’re in these experiences it’s a completely different kettle of fish and absurd as it sounds it’s not really “just a play” by the time you’ve committed as much of yourself to something.
GEMMA Yeah…yeah some people have – a few people have compared it to performance art if you look at a twenty minute section of it in the deepest despair it’s almost performance art. It’s deeply harrowing and you can’t do it any other way than to completely go there.
TOM It’s interesting you say that about performance art – obviously there is a level of artifice in terms of you are an actor…there is a script – I mean the thing that really chimes with me about that is that when I saw the show in Edinburgh and you came out at the end as we have to do as I suppose we should do, to take a bow you, you looked…haunted yourself, as the actor playing the part. I don’t know if I’m overegging the pudding…
GEMMA No, no, it does affect me quite deeply often I will have a little cry once I’ve left the stage. It really does – it’s very affecting, I‘ve never been able to not get affected/be affected by it. It’s strangely cathartic in a way, you know? I am deeply disturbed by it but not in a kind of “I take it off the stage and I’m broken for the evening” type way but those last two pages are desperately difficult to do and I am spent…but it’s utterly rewarding…
TOM Is it a performance you “love” doing – is that the right way to describe it?
GEMMA Yeah, oddly it is. I get very very trepidatious and nervous and worried about whether it will all come out because once I start speaking that’s it for an hour and a…it’s like I almost look forward to the [spoiler alert] so I can stop talking.
TOM But why do you love doing this thing that is a totally harrowing experience to perform? What is it that appeals about this particular piece of work?
GEMMA I suppose it’s the opportunity to…I don’t know…go to such edges, I suppose, as a performer…it’s rare to be encouraged to push yourself that far. It’s just very rewarding – I love telling the story and I think it’s so beautifully written…
TOM Well nah, well yeah, well this the-
GEMMA …and I just love performing it…
TOM …of course…
GEMMA …and it’s difficult to say why …
TOM …of course – yeah…
GEMMA …you know…
TOM …yeah, it’s probably a daft question…
GEMMA …what an opportunity for a solo performer to explore the farthest reaches of what you might be able to achieve onstage in terms of just one person, no set, and what pictures you can paint – it’s such a curious challenge.
TOM …and of course the person we haven’t spoken about is of course [the writer] Philip Ridley – I am a MASSIVE fan. I mean, he’s genuinely unique. Is he as terrifying in the flesh as I imagine him to be…
GEMMA No I think he’s probably the opposite of that-
TOM Really? He can’t be a cuddly, avuncular figure, surely…?
GEMMA He can be – he can be-
TOM He can be?
GEMMA Oh absolutely, he’s very very sweet and kind and gentle…the antithesis to what I think you might mean…
TOM Well, I suppose that would make sense…that someone capable of writing at this level of intensity, I suppose maybe it’s a cathartic process for him where he can just be a nice laid back guy.
GEMMA I was certainly…he was totally different from what I thought he’d look like/what he might be like, but I suppose it doesn’t always follow that people who write very dark things are always very dark people…
[I then actually asked Gemma how she learned “all those lines.” Really. As it turns out she downloaded an app which reads pdfs and listened to that as she swam in the swimming pool as understandably looking at 26 pages of a Philip Ridley playtext would have been “overwhelming” as she put it. I was on the verge of asking how they “got it all together in that amount of time” when Gemma mentioned the speed at which the text is delivered and we were more or less back on track]
TOM You mentioned the speed…I mean for anyone who hasn’t seen this show, it’s really quite difficult to comprehend the pace at which it goes. Pace in itself isn’t interesting, I suppose, anyone can say something quickly with enough practice, but there’s this relentless force behind it and I wondered what it was you and David did to find whatever it is that forces this text out at such a staggering rate.
GEMMA I think we decided at some stage, almost a third of the way in, everything has to stop being contemplative, nothing can be contemplative, nothing can be given a thought or a back up or anything it’s just falling out of her; she’s gone, she’s going…mad you know, there’s the nervous ticking…and I think I’ve beheld my fair share of people who are so terribly nervous and full of ticks and anxiety and so we just built… built like that really. David kept saying to me “front foot, front foot, drive it forward.”
TOM HAHA! Well it’s very front foot…it’s an incredibly unactorly performance. There’s nothing mannered about it whatsoever – I love that expression, it’s “falling out of her.” It’s like her head opens up and her entire consciousness comes out… is there a question there, or is it just me saying I really like it? Yeah, I think it’s just that.
GEMMA I think that’s a fair way to put it, she’s trying to tell her side of the story but she’s so traumatised by it that she can’t…and then has repainted things so she can make some sense in her head and you know…can’t quite comprehend it or deal with it – is just…slowly going mad [starts laughing] it’s horrible but perversely rather wonderful to perform.
And that, I thought, was a good place to end it. Gemma Whelan’s ace.
Dark Vanilla Jungle is on at The Brewery Theatre, 8.15pm until 22nd March.