BWW Interview: Clare Perkins Talks SWEAT at Gielgud Theatre
Sweat, by Lynn Nottage, has transferred to the West End's Gielgud Theatre, after its sold-out and critically acclaimed run at Donmar Warehouse. Based on interviews with residents of a small town in Pennsylvania, the play looks at the everyday lives of an ensemble of steelworkers amongst a much larger narrative on industrial decline in America.
BroadwayWorld speaks to Clare Perkins, who plays Cynthia, about why Sweat is capturing audiences. Perkins returns to the part straight after appearing as one of three actors playing the title role in Emilia, so we couldn't resist asking her about that, too!
Could you tell us a bit about Sweat?
It's set in Reading, Pennsylvania. When Lynn Nottage wrote it [starting in 2011], it was the poorest town of its size in the USA, which is what drew her to it. The play is set in a bar, and is about a group of steelworkers who work in the same factory.
Why do you think it's got a West End extension?
Since characters are being pitted against each other because of their politics, it's a timely piece. Also, every now and then, you work in a company where it's just sublime - when things form together in a beautiful way. I think it's been an alchemy of Lynn Nottage's amazing writing, Lynette [Linton]'s super direction, and actors who are unafraid to take risks and throw themselves into it wholeheartedly. I think we came up with a gem.
There's a real tension between the characters throughout the play, which really helps communicate its comment on social division.
Yes - these characters are taken care of for most of their lives: they have jobs, and benefits, and if the job goes...then their whole life goes. If everybody loses their jobs then the whole town is affected and left to fend for itself. There aren't any safeguards.
It's like in England, when the miners' strike happened. Only part of that was about not being able to mine fossil fuels anymore. The rest was about money. A whole town would depend on the collieries. It seemed like nobody cared about what happened once they had closed down. It's a human tragedy.
Your character Cynthia is often stuck between the higher powers and the steelworkers.
Cynthia has aspirations. She has a certain amount of job satisfaction, and when a higher position opens up, it takes her a lot to decide to go for it. But it's a poisoned chalice. I don't want to give too much away!
She travels the furthest, in a way, out of all of the characters. But, in the end, it's those in power who decide who they give other little bits of power to... sometimes what looks like power isn't power. It's just a bigger paycheque.
Does it feel a particularly relevant time to stage this play?
Yes, but I would have thought you could put this play on at any time and the political questions it raises would still speak to people. Now, it speaks to people probably because of Brexit, and capitalism, which may not care about the 'small' people. They speak to us as mothers and sons, for example. As families. There's so much about these characters which is universal.
You definitely think about the characters and about what decisions you might have made in the turbulent times they're in. I read a quote the other day about how we go to the theatre to exercise our empathetic muscles. I do think, in that way, it is a great play. It's like you're seeing reality.
You've been involved with another play that addresses the power imbalance, with Emilia. What was that experience like?
At the Globe last year, it was a new play, and everyone working on it really liked it, but we weren't prepared for the response it got. We wondered if it would just happen on the first night, and then every single night we got full house standing ovations. It's really rare. The feeling that came from the audience was amazing.
I'm getting to the speech from the end of the play again, for a live recording of The Guilty Feminist podcast on 7 July at the Albert Hall.
How was the mother and baby performance of Emilia?
It was great. It was... a lot of noise! And you could see that the audience holding babies were totally focused on the performance. I will never forget looking up at the end and seeing all up the aisle, across the back, and all down the other side, women all holding their babies the same way. A column of women focused on the play, rocking their babies.
Do you think performing the two plays so close together has informed how you would approach roles in the future?
I'm attracted to the new, the untried, the untested. To new ways of doing things and pushing boundaries in theatre. There are so-called 'arguments' and barriers that some people put in the way about whether having a bunch of women on stage will make money. That's ludicrous.
What is Art? Art holds a mirror up to life. It is a reflection of life. It is life translated into a form and given back to us as entertainment. If we stepped out of our front door and everyone was a man... it would be weird! If we got on the bus and 98% of the people were male, it would be weird. But this has been shown to us as being normal, in terms of entertainment.
This is changing and it is exciting. But a lot of women are thinking "It's about bloody time!". It's good that we're seeing female Hamlets and Lears, but let's write our own parts, too.
Male playwrights can write good female parts, but let's redress the balance. Let's have the best actor for the best job. We're 51% of the world's population, so we should have 51% of the population of the stage.
To finish on Sweat, what is it you think it is about the play that will keep the audience thinking about it once they've left the theatre?
It's a linear play that goes through two time periods and that helps you to emotionally invest in the plot. Within the writing, you know that something has happened, but you're also invested in the characters and their everyday stories. It's the power of the storytelling. Once you're engaged, you're in it, and you have an opinion.
It will stay with you. It will resonate. For young people who might not know about the history of the unions and how hard working-class people fought to have them, the next time they hear about a train strike, or factory strike, they might think about the people in the factory in Sweat. They might think about 'walking the line', or depending on a union for a bag of groceries. It's like an education. Sweat is about the real world.
Photo credit: Johan Persson, Helen Murray