Interview: Actress Kate Fleetwood Talks UGLY LIES THE BONE

By: Feb. 22, 2017
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Kate Fleetwood in rehearsal

Kate Fleetwood's varied career encompasses everything from musicals London Road and High Society to Macbeth and Medea. She's currently starring in American writer Lindsey Ferrentino's play about a soldier who returns home to Florida after suffering a life-changing injury in Afghanistan. The production begins previews tonight.

What attracted you to the play?

I've done quite a lot of new work and American stuff, like Bug, over the past few years - that's been really enjoyable. I read it for my audition, and the first thing you've got to know about this play is it's really funny. It has that very dark but dry American sense of humour, sort of Judd Apatow-like, very droll and downbeat - I'm finding it hard not to laugh a lot in rehearsal. So despite the serious nature of the piece, I think the audience will laugh a lot. It's got some great gallows humour and a lot of character-driven humour.

Also I'd never worked with Indhu [Rubasingham] before, I'd never worked in the Lyttelton, or with Es Devlin, and Lindsey's writing is brilliant - that was a big draw. One of things that attracts me to a role is if the door I have to walk through is really clear and well-marked with lots of big arrows shouting "This is a different person to you - walk through this door and transform yourself".

And there's a lot to dig into with this piece

There are so many aspects to the play - that's the clever thing about the writing. Each layer is so vivid and full of possibility. It's only a five-hander, but it's an incredibly epic piece. There's the trauma of my character, Jess, returning home from war and not connecting with her environment, with people, with her memories, and that being very difficult and disturbing.

There's the post-traumatic stress disorder from her experiences, the injuries she's suffered, the change in her face and her physical self, and the effect of that on her mentally and on those around her. She's learning how to move again, how to accept who she is after a change like that.

Then the town she returns to is Titusville - it's in Florida's 'Space Coast', and the play's set at the end of the space programme, so a town that was built on this dream of reaching out into the universe is now adrift. It was this extreme place to live, with all these rockets being launched within your landscape - a tiny suburban town, but with a vast macrocosmic sense of the world. They built malls to accommodate all the tourists, one of the high schools became Astronaut High, there's a Shuttle Street, so to take away its very reason for being - what's it left with?

So the town becomes a metaphor for Jess's loss, and she's a metaphor for the town - there's a symbiosis there. It's a ghost town that doesn't know itself, and it's shifting and changing in its skin, and she has to do the same.

Kate Fleetwood and Buffy Davis
in rehearsal

Did you research the injuries she suffers?

I read about what happens when you suffer third-degree burns: it burns down so deeply into your muscle that you lose feeling, so you're numb. But when they graft the skin back on, the nerve endings start to react and live again - that's when you feel the most terrible agony. They scrub the skin so it doesn't heal too well, otherwise you get hard keloid scarring, so they're literally scrubbing scars, which is just unbearable pain. You're dealing with psychological trauma, plus your skin is on fire.

Then during physio, when they put a skin graft on, they have to stretch it so it starts to have muscle memory. It's the thing you least want to do, to push your body to a limit of pain that feels impossible. Patients dread it.

My character suffered a blast and was taken from the main hospital camp in Kandahar straight back to America, then spends 14 months in hospital. She's covered in compression bandages, so the full face mask, her neck, her arms - you look almost like a crash test dummy, fully cloaked in bandages. Your digits have been obliterated, because you naturally raise your arms to protect yourself. Slowly she gets well enough to return home. She can drive and she can move around with a walker, but it's very tough.

The virtual reality therapy she undergoes is really fascinating

It's based on a real therapy they use with this VR game called SnowWorld. You put on the goggles and the brain receptor gets distracted - it's likened to, but isn't the same as, telling your child to look over there when you rip the plaster off. The study results are extraordinary. When patients are watching the virtual world - and for burns patients it's an Arctic snowy world, as that has a cooling effect - their pain goes from about a nine on a scale of 0-11 to a four or five.

Kris Marshall and Kate Fleetwood
in rehearsal

Do you start to build up an immunity using the VR?

No, it only lasts as long as the session. That's the conflict my character has - she wants it to work all the time, in the real world too. But she has to learn that her new zero in terms of pain will never be the same as someone else's zero. For all of us who've experienced change or pain, you to have to accept a new zero. That's a hard path to find yourself on - you resist it and get angry and irritated. I'm not a solider, but I understand what it's like to try to escape pain. Muscles can regenerate, her skin is living and breathing again, but the mind is a whole different story.

How does her family respond?

It's difficult for them to readjust too - everyone is dealing with how to make things normal again. They want to help, but they often fail. Her boyfriend has moved on. When someone leaves, you can't stop your life from happening. So there's a new zero in their relationship too. Her mother's in a care home suffering dementia, so her sister - brilliantly played by Olivia Darnley - shows what it's like to be a carer. You're always trying your hardest, but never quite getting it right.

There's also the strangeness of returning from war and feeling that what you've been fighting for isn't making a difference back home. Everyone's still having barbecues and talking about nothing, so it's hard to reconcile that with the fact your buddies have died out there. Modern warfare means it's miles away from home, it's not always in the news, so people forget about it - it has that numbing effect.

Have you spoken to serving soldiers?

No, but I've been talking to this incredible man, John Partridge, who's the chief executive of an organisation called Changing Faces. He's been extraordinarily helpful and candid about his experiences.

Kate Fleetwood and Olivia Darnley
in rehearsal

The element of women in combat is interesting too

It's maybe not talked about that much, but from around 2008 US special forces started training up lots of women, because they're fighting wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where intelligence is so important, but male soldiers can't speak to female civilians. So if you have women in special forces, then when they take off their helmets and this hair comes out, the civilian women they're speaking to feel more at ease.

Is your character in intelligence?

She's a gunner, down on the ground. I read a book called Ashley's War about these women in special ops, and it's amazing to see their toughness. It also explained how you come back not just helpless physically, but with no one around who can connect with your experiences. There's a nihilism about PTSD - what was the point? That disconnect makes you feel incredibly lonely.

What's it like playing a character with those physical challenges?

In a way it's like playing any another character who's different to me - Julie in London Road was also an act of stepping into a different skin. Each time you find the weight of their gait, what makes them relax, what makes them alert. I wanted to find who she was as a person first and then understand the physical restrictions. What's happened will have a different effect on her than it would on someone else.

But it is a big thing to do. What's striking about it is the stillness - when you've been burned that much, you have to be incredibly still, because the risk of pain is always there. Expressing yourself physically will cost a lot, so you have to be very economic in your movement.

But then you start to build tension and that's a bum steer, so you have to hold yourself in a particular way without tensing up. Also the adrenaline of performing can make you overcompensate, so I have to just totally relax. It's a good exercise! You can't be distracting, otherwise it becomes "Kate Fleetwood's done an amazing performance of someone in pain", rather than a person in the story we're telling.

Ralf Little and Kate Fleetwood
in rehearsal

How are you doing with the Floridian accent? You've done a few Americans recently

She's definitely less patrician than Tracy Lord! Tracy was in the Hamptons, near the sea, so you wait for the water to go out [upward inflection]...and then wait for it come back [downward inflection]. Whereas Bug was Oklahoma, down in the Panhandle, so your mouth is shut because you don't wanna get no dust in here.

But it's interesting, the American class system is so different to ours - we tend to calibrate our position by our voices, our accents. But in the States, "I may be a crack addict from the Panhandle but I'm still gonna tell you what I think" - wherever you're from, you assume that right to speak.

The Florida accent is more front of the mouth, and there's not a lot of energy because it's hot. Your environment really affects who you are and how you speak. I love doing accents.

The setting and the idea of the American small town in decline has acquired a different resonance recently

We talked about that a lot in rehearsal - it will just feel different watching it in the current climate. This is the first American play in this building since the election and we'll just have to let it vibrate the way it's going to vibrate; we can't comment on it. It was the same with Brexit: in the first days and weeks after the result, everything you saw was coloured by it.

That's what theatre's really great at - whatever's happening now will always have an effect. For anyone who asks why these plays are worth doing again, that's why.

Kate Fleetwood and Indhu
Rubasingham in rehearsal

How do you choose work?

I'm still really grateful when I get an audition! I just want to be challenged, and this play is a massive, massive challenge. That to me is the best way of choosing work - where's the point of friction, where's the difficulty? Then the process of it is really rewarding.

I'm lucky that I wasn't very successful when I was younger - if your career is based on a particular success early on, there's a good chance you'll be pigeon-holed. Then as you mature as an artist, you'll feel straitjacketed by that. If you're not given the opportunity to step out of yourself, it's really hard to grow.

I've managed to do a lot of different genres and different mediums in my career, and because I'm not hugely well-known, I can knock on someone's door and say "Can I have a go?", and they won't say "But you don't do that!" And if your body of work has a big range, they might listen to your ideas more, as you've picked up lots of different ways of doing things.

So you approach something like High Society differently to someone who's just done that type of musical theatre?

Yes, you come in with another perspective, and that's what makes for a great rehearsal room - you always want to work with different types of artists on different types of work. So when people say "What do you want to do next?", I've honestly no idea. It's the thrill of being an actor.

I've recently done a TV series called Harlots, and my character on that is really exciting and interesting - they've let me be really inventive. The great thing is building up to being able to have a dialogue with whoever you're working with - that's the most rewarding part.

Ugly Lies the Bone at the National Theatre until 6 June. Book tickets here

Photo credit: Mark Douet