An Interview with Kelly Gough

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Blanche DuBois is one of the most famous female characters in theatre history. A southern belle whose world is changing before her very eyes, Blanche has been played by the greats, from Rachel Weisz to Gillian Anderson, and now Kelly Gough. We chatted to Kelly about the play and how this new production from director Chelsea Walker re-examines the heart of Tennessee Williams.

We interview Kelly Gough.

Culture Calling: Blanche is a seminal theatre role for actors - is that something that you’re aware of when going into a process?

Kelly Gough: If I’m honest not massively. Simply because before I did the show I hadn’t seen the film, I hadn’t read the play, I’d never seen any version of it - which I recognise is quite unusual. With parts like this I try not to look at them too much, in case I wind up playing them, which has actually worked in our favour in this particular production because Chelsea wanted to do something quite different. I’m glad that I didn’t look at it too closely because I’m 31 and Blanche is typically played a lot older and there are a whole host of traps I could have fallen into had I been obsessively watching it or connected to it beforehand. This cold reading of the text was really helpful; my Blanche is a 31-year-old Blanche who was born in 1987. It’s funny, I’ve been acting for ten years and every job, regardless of the size of it, you show up, you do the work - and that’s my job.

Image Credit: The Other Richard

CC: You mentioned that director Chelsea Walker is doing something a little bit different with this production?

The best way of describing it is that Chelsea has very much done away with the idea of Blanche as a ‘mad woman’ and what we’ve really looked at is the truth within the text. Stella is written as 23 and Blanche is written as at least five years older than her, so she’s played a lot closer to what Williams originally imagined Blanche being. She was a young woman of 17 and her young husband killed himself and she blames herself and has this thing that she’s never dealt with or discussed. Then life gets in the way and she’s trying to keep a house running and people please and do all of the ‘right’ things. In many ways Blanche does what society expects of her and I think her coming unglued is actually having to deal with this thing that has happened that’s never been dealt with. It’s a much more grounded approach to the play than anything I’ve seen before. It speaks a lot more about grief and mental health and not speaking up. We’re also very clear in what happens at the end, we’ve made a very clear choice with it. I know when I read the play I thought ‘oh god’ whereas for a lot of people there’s an ambiguity with what happens with Stanley at the end. For me reading it there was no ambiguity, or for Chelsea, a woman of 29, reading it there was no ambiguity. So it’s a very grounded production.

CC: There’s a heat under the play that is very omnipresent throughout; how do you go about creating that?

KG: Once Blanche is inside she rarely ventures outside. Past the second scene you don’t see her outside, and there’s a fan going constantly throughout. You could argue that with a production in a more modern setting, heat is one of those things we’re much better able to manage now than in the 1940s. We’re not ‘playing heat’, you know fans or fake sweat, a lot of it builds quite organically and naturally. We’re under hot lights and it’s a very physical production so Chelsea has it that we build the heat. It builds in the text but also in the way we move, the way we take space, it builds quite organically. By the end of the play I’m soaked in sweat but it’s not something that’s consciously played in, it’s just there, it’s omnipresent, it’s within the writing. There are times when you slow things down, the movement is heavier, but it does it itself.

Image Credit: The Other Richard

CC: Conversations around women in the media are slowly beginning to change, and with that in mind how relevant do you think the play is today?

KG: There’s a Leonard Cohen quote that says with good writing you don’t wind up writing about one thing, you actually find you’re writing about everything. Tennessee Williams has so much to say about mental health and how we treat one another, particularly with Streetcar because he wrote it about himself as a young gay man. I’m pretty sure there’s a version of this play that will happen at some stage where Blanche will be played by a man and it finally gets to be what it really is. Whereas at the minute with the conversations we’re having around women, and the portrayal of women, it’s a really useful thing to have Blanche played as a woman right now in this particular version of it. I don’t think it will always have to be this way. In many ways it’s a real shame that it does still have something to say. It comes down to her final line of the play; ‘I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers’. You never know what someone else’s experience is. Unless you’re a young black woman you don’t know what it is to be a young black woman, unless you’re a young gay man you don’t know what it is to be a young gay man. It’s the same as the way that women are spoken about or treated; it’s so rarely kind. It’s always through a different kind of lens. You’re an object, you’re attractive or you’re not attractive - you’re reduced to these things. And actually what Streetcar Named Desire does is it cries out for us to stop putting people in boxes and stop trying to label them. ‘Just be kind’ is what lies at the heart of Streetcar. And that will always have a place and that will always need saying and we will always need reminding. I think part of the beauty of Tennessee Williams writing is that that’s what lies at the heart of it.

A Streetcar Named Desire is on tour now until 16 June. You can find all the dates and ticket information on the English Touring Theatre website