BWW Interview: Louise Jameson and Thomas Mahy Talk VINCENT RIVER
Actors Louise Jameson and Thomas Mahy are currently starring in Philip Ridley's play Vincent River at Trafalgar Studios. We caught up with them to hear about their characters, reaching deep levels of vulnerability, and why the play has special resonance in post-Brexit London.
How and when did you fall in love with theatre?
Louise: I was four years old. Now I'm 68. I was playing Miss Muffett, rather brilliantly. When the spider came along and frightened me, I screamed and ran off the stage and actually managed to break my curds and whey. I literally stopped the show and had to sweep it all up. But I got this fantastic round of applause; I can remember hearing it from the other side of the door thinking "I might do this all my life".
Thomas: I don't know if I've ever fallen in love with theatre.
Louise: He's not in love with it...
[They both laugh]
Thomas: I don't know, really. I started acting, I suppose, what would be considered quite later on now - I was 18. I'd been kicked out of school, I had nothing to do, I was a nuisance, my parents were fed up with me. The only thing I was really good at was talking nonsense and making people laugh. I thought if I became an actor I could stand up in front of people and have their attention.
That's probably what this is about - really, isn't that dreadful? It was just really standing up and being able to tell stories and have people listen and not tell me off or to sit down and be quiet. It was actually something you could do, you could just tell stories. And people would pay to see you do it. I thought that was amazing.
What do you like most about acting on stage?
Louise: I think the theatre is part brothel, part chapel. It's very sexy and it's also, sometimes, divine. Theatre is a very, very safe place to debate extremely dangerous issues which otherwise would get out of hand. I think it's better than debating, sometimes.
It enables an audience to empathise with something that they might never have encountered. I think Vincent River is certainly a prime example of that, with hate crime on the rise. That's why I love it: it's political, and entertaining, and people can lose themselves, and it would exist if money didn't exist. It's one of those professions that it's been around since time began.
What is Vincent River about?
Louise: The play starts with Anita, my character, inviting her stalker into her flat, a very new flat she's just moved into. That's all the information you're given on the first page. And then, things get volatile and visceral and agonising and funny!
Thomas: We know that Anita's son has died, and very quickly we find out that he's been brutally murdered in a homophobic hate crime - killed by a gang of young men in a disused toilet in a railway station. Ever since that happened, Davey, the character I play who's a young boy of 17, has been stalking her.
He's been standing outside of her house, peering through her window, following her when she goes to the shops, following her back - and then she has enough of all this, moves to Dagenham, and he follows her there. Anita throws the door open, he walks in, and that's how we start. We have no idea what's he been doing, why he's been following her, we just know he might have something to do with her son.
Tell us about your characters.
Louise: Anita's high maintenance. She probably suffers from narcissistic personality disorder. She's East End through and through. Very quick-thinking. And in the deepest grief.
The worst thing in the world has happened to her; I personally can't think of anything worse to happen to me as a mother. So, she's damaged. But she's also feisty and funny on occasion. Great wit. I'm not sure everybody will like her, but I do.
Thomas: I play Davey. He's 17, streetwise. He sort of knows how to look after himself, protect himself - he knows what's coming. He hides and he lies but he also exposes himself carefully to the right people, parts of himself and not wholly. He is very caring, has a lot of feeling. His big thing is that he's full of contradictions.
I think his big problem is that he's so scared to be himself, he's so scared to reveal who he is to one person, wholly and fully, so scared to tell his story, to be who he is...
He cares for people he hates and he hates people he should love. He's a contradiction. He's a young, fiery, unstable, testosterone-fuelled contradiction.
Louise: It's really a testament to Philip Ridley's writing that it's quite hard to encapsulate in one word these very complex, multi-layered characters.
Why do you think it's important to tell this story right now?
Louise: Hate crime has risen dramatically since the Brexit vote. It seems to have given racism and sexism a freer hand than they had before. I know this is a very complicated stream of events leading up to that, but this play addresses the question at its heart.
Thomas: I'd like to echo and agree with what Louise said. When we started rehearsing this play, news came out that the Sultan of Brunei had decreed that homosexuality was to be punished by death. And that's today. Where I come from in Guernsey, it's only in the last five years that same-sex marriage has been legalised. Perhaps if we didn't have access to the internet, we wouldn't know necessarily that the Sultan of Brunei was stoning people to death for being gay.
Or that some countries still don't allow same-sex marriage - no matter how progressive we see them to be. It's still happening. People are still stoning people to death. It's barbaric. People need to know that it's still going on, I guess. Maybe not in Shoreditch right now, but it's definitely going on in Brunei. There are still kids growing up in schools afraid to come out in different parts of this country.
What's the biggest challenge you've encountered with these characters?
Louise: This play only works if you're emotionally naked and so immersed in the character that it's almost like going into some kind of trance while you're doing it. You have to be so exactly in the moment, bouncing off each other, breathing together, really receiving what Tom is saying, letting it land, really responding to it...
It's not like a restoration comedy where you can flick your fan and use a bit of technique and turn and swirl with your beautiful petticoat. I love doing all that stuff, but this one, you just have to jump off the trampoline onto the stage and let it roll in a truthful - with a capital T - way.
If there was one thing you could tell your audiences before they come to see it, what would it be?
Louise: Bring your hankie! Be open, try to be as vulnerable as the actors. It's a brutal subject, but it's written in the most poetic way. It's genius, really.
Thomas: I guess it's switch off your phone. For me, that's it. Come into it, you know what I mean? It's not Netflix. Get your correspondence out of the way, have a wee, and sit down.
What would you like the audience to take from the play?
Thomas: A programme! Five pounds! I'm joking, of course.
Louise: I think, in a way, everyone should leave the theatre slightly altered from the way they came in. If they do, we've done our job properly. That can be from whatever you're doing. I would like them to feel altered, but you'd have to ask them how it's affecting them.
It's such a personal play, I don't think there's a grand sweeping answer for the entire audience to feel the same. I think if you're younger, you'll identify more with Tom, and if you're a mother you'll identify more with me, obviously. So, you'll take different things.
Thomas: It's so difficult because I'm never sure I want an audience to take anything away. I guess I want the piece to ask a question. I think it's dangerous if you go into a piece of theatre saying "I want to change this person's mind on something".
It's a harder thing to do for an actor, or a director, or a production to ask a question to the audience. I think what happens is you learn about a horrific crime, a horrific murder. If you could see this happening, would you stand by?
Photo credit: Scott Rylander