BWW Interview: Justine Mitchell Talks SHIPWRECK at the Almeida
Already admired in the industry for her impressive range of work, actress Justine Mitchell enjoyed a breakout hit recently with David Eldridge's Beginning, which transferred from the National to the West End.
When did you get the acting bug?
Definitely early on. I can't ever remember not wanting to do it.
I actually wrote a sketch at school, with the help of my father, about Margaret Thatcher and how she couldn't pronounce the name of the Taoiseach at the time, Charles James Haughey - she said it like "hockey". I liked to make people laugh.
Did you see a lot of theatre growing up?
We didn't really go to 'serious' theatre in Dublin, but we went to panto. Also I saw Annie really young, and I was full of raging jealousy that that little girl was up on stage and I wasn't.
I didn't know it a dream career - I just knew I was going to do it. It was that childlike sense of having no frontiers, no barriers, even though my family didn't have any connection to the arts world.
We then moved to Hong Kong when I was 12. I was coming into puberty, so it was shocking to move boroughs, let alone continents! Yes, you're open to new stuff at that age, but you like some things to be pretty set - to have some certainties. So that was a real game-changer.
Did acting help with that transition?
It was an escape, and I loved getting attention for it. I suppose there was an unconscious need for approval and to fit in - plus with a script, you have so much control over your reality. I probably used acting to perform the role I created for myself in life too. Like I was bullied for having an Irish accent, so I became someone with an English accent.
Where did you train?
I studied drama and theatre at Trinity College, Dublin. That was a huge amount of work, in a brilliant way.
Having spent time in different places did probably give me that understanding of different cultures, which was helpful doing work in England as well as Ireland. Plus I've lived in London since 1995.
Congratulations on Beginning, which had such a tremendous response. Did you know that was a special piece going in?
I had no idea how good it was initially - I had that purely narcissistic point of view that it was a gift just having two actors in it!
I remember doing a chemistry read with Sam [Troughton], and it was a bit like the start of the play, being at cross-purposes. Before we started, he said "Oh, mate, it's really funny" and I said "I think it's kind of sad, actually".
Then, in the audition, I thought "Oh god, he's right". And we wound up meeting in the middle! That whole experience was a joy because of the people involved - Sam, Polly [Findlay] and David [Eldridge].
What grabs you about a script when you're offered a part?
I'm totally lucky to have gotten plays like Beginning, because I'm no good at reading scripts! I have all the admiration for those are really good at it, like directors and dramaturgs. I suppose because I'm looking at the micro cog in the wheel, my part - whether that's interesting.
What appealed about Shipwreck?
I do like work which has that mix of tones - funny and sad - and there's loads of both in this. That was instantly narcotic! Anne Washburn, her kind of mythic and really fucking funny dialogue, that makes her the perfect playwright to me. Plus she's visually so imaginative - there's all these hallucinogenic, dreamlike aspects. It's all the stuff theatre's really good at, those liminal spaces.
I saw Anne's Twilight Zone, and I was in her Mr Burns, which was one of the greatest experiences I've ever had - I fed off it. I always fall in love with what I'm doing, but that just ignited me. It was interesting seeing how it divided people, but then by word of mouth, the audience demographic kept changing - it became one of those "You've got to go see this" pieces.
Does Donald Trump make a good Washburn subject?
Of course - Donald Trump is a gift for that, and his White House. What is their relationship with truth and lies, conscious and unconscious, language, poetry and prose? It's very theatrical territory.
Theatre's alluded to Trump a lot, like The Public Theater's Julius Caesar - that's mentioned in Anne's script. But is it hard for theatre to respond rapidly, even immediately, to the current moment? When's too early or too late? These are big questions we tackle in the play.
Tell us a bit about the premise
So it's a group of friends, and they go to stay in this house in upstate New York. It's a pretty progressive, liberal, left of the left viewpoint, in shock in the aftermath of the election, asking what the fuck just happened, what is happening now, what could we have done, what did we do wrong.
They're taking stock, and this house has a significant history too, and...things get Washburnian!
My character Allie is a stand-up comic from the West Coast, but who lives in Hell's Kitchen in New York, and very much from that American improv tradition. I looked at Second City, the Louis CK controversy, Sarah Silverman - how the comedy community is responding to the current moment, and what their responsibility is with Trump and #MeToo.
There are also things going on in Allie's personal life, like failures with recent relationships and trying to start a family. These are Gen Xers, in their forties, a group of friends confronting how they've changed and how that affects their relationships with one another - like economic disparity, or whether they have kids. All those things build into little fissures.
It's that thing where you think you know how the script goes with friends - suddenly they're off-script! You realise you haven't been hanging out with them as much, or they've been nursing some wound. Plus Trump is a very divisive thing to talk about, as is Brexit - especially when we think we're all in tandem.
Lots of people feel helpless or frustrated in the face of Trump, Brexit etc. Did it feel good to have an outlet through this play?
If you talk to my husband, he'll agree I've been borderline obsessed with Trump! I bought the Michael Wolff book, the James Comey, I've been podcasting like mad. My appetite for finding out about this administration is massive, and for Brexit too - I find it endlessly interesting. But am I doing anything about it? That's why marches like the Women's March are so popular.
So yes, addressing it head on does feel like it's something. And theatre is really good at bringing disparate people into a space to listen and engage - you have breath and time. Anne's script is very witty about acknowledging it's a commercial enterprise too; for the interval, it says "Late-stage capitalism - sell things!". But you get people from all areas of life coming, hopefully for a constructive experience.
The Almeida audience probably tends towards one point of view though. Does it feel a bit like...
...preaching to the converted? That's possible. But it really comes down to asking what art is for. Does that mean we just don't try? These are really important conversations, and we're having them through the play itself, which is inspired.
Having Anne in the room is incredible - it's like having access to this huge brain! Rupert [Goold]'s no slouch either, they're both whip-smart, soulful people, and it's a fantastic cast too.
What other projects have you got coming up?
I'm writing too. There's a play I developed with Selina Cadell and a few others at the National Theatre studio that I really want to get off the ground. It's just finding a time and place when we're all available. And a few other projects brewing...
Acting wise, after this I'm back with Polly directing me, in Rutherford and Son at the National. I was a bit worried about being tired after this crazy year, but it's all been so stimulating - especially working with Anne.
Finally, what do you hope audiences take from Shipwreck? Is this an argue-about-in-the-pub-after kind of piece?
There will be pubs! There will be conversations in pubs and bars. Like all good theatre, it worked directly on my brain on one level, and streamed into my heart as well - it's a lovely combination.
It's like with the wonderful Summer and Smoke at the Almeida - I felt connected to the person sitting next to me by that shared experience. This, too, has lots of those huge moments around truth, evil, race, prejudice, goodness, how we're all part of shaping that conversation, right now. And it's insanely funny as well!
Photo credit: Marc Brenner