New York's ablaze with world class Irish acting talent starring in the biggest shows on Broadway.

From Olivier Award winning actor Anthony Boyle's star turn in Harry Potter and The Cursed Child to Olivier Award winning actress Denise Gough's luminous new performance in in Angels in America, it's a reminder that our cultural clout is still the biggest story out of Ireland.

When I asked to interview acclaimed Olivier Award winning Irish actress Denise Gough, 38, who is currently burning up the stage (and to be honest, herself) in Angels in America on Broadway, I was told she'd prefer to speak after the Repeal the 8th Amendment vote was completed last Friday.

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Denise Gough in Angels in America

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Denise Gough in Angels in America

Having just seen her marathon onstage performance in the massive two-part play (which has scored 11 Tony nominations) I can see why she waited. The parallels between the anxious character she plays in onstage (an oppressed woman slowly starting to take control of her life) and the condition of Irishwomen since the foundation of the Irish state were all too clear.

Gough, who was born in Ennis, County Clare, has already deservedly won an Olivier Award (and a new Tony nomination) for her performance as Harper Pitt, the nervy Mormon wife of a closeted gay lawyer in Angels in America, but there's so much more to her character and performance than a cliched hoodwinked housewife.

Instead Gough gives us Harper's disillusionment, her growing drug dependency, her slowly erupting rage and her steely determination to save herself. Over the course of two nights we see her transition from agoraphobic doormat to explorer, stepping into herself and her own future. It's hugely inspiring to watch and the parallels to our own historic moment are unmistakable.

“I'm playing a part where under a fundamentalist religion women have no autonomy,” she tells the Voice. We are just expected to do as we were told basically. So the reason I wanted to wait to talk to you was if they don't repeal the eight, I don't think I can be involved with Ireland anymore. Like that's how strongly I felt. Brexit happened, Trump happened, I thought please don't the be a third thing.”

The gay marriage referendum made her more proud to be Irish than she has ever been, she says. “We're in a time where we want to progress. For me it's all linked up into what I'm doing here at the moment. There was a young Irish boy in the line of people waiting at the stage door last night and we just talked for ages about how we feel our country is leading the way at the moment. We really are. From repealing the eight and voting yes to gay marriage that's major.”

Denise Gough, Lee Pace in Angels in America

Denise Gough, Lee Pace in Angels in America

But before we slap ourselves too firmly on the back we need to recall that there's still plenty of work ahead to address issues like sexism she admits. “We had that awful thing happen in our industry where the Abbey Theatre (Ireland's national theatre) in their centenary celebration omitted female writers. And that opened up a huge conversation. I remember at that time Michael Colgan (the former director of The Gate Theatre) was invited to speak on the radio. I remember thinking f—k them, for inviting him of all people to speak on behalf of female writers."

"A few years later it became public how he had treated women over the years (Colgan was accused by several women of abuse and harassment).”
Knowing Ireland as she does, Gough worried till the very end that it would not pass. “I just thought please, please, please don't go backward and we didn't. Now I just feel Irish women have been given the power they should have been given a long time ago.”

Remember the mass grave in Tuam, she asks me then? (Note, I do. I visited the former Mother and Baby Home in Tuam when the scandal broke and I wrote about it extensively in The Irish Voice). “I just think for a long time in our history we have been shamed as women. Going forward now I have a niece that lives in Ireland and I just feel happier about her future as a result of the vote.”

One of the great joys of watching Gough's performance onstage over two epic nights in Angels in America is watching her get beyond the trap that's been set for her so that she can finally step into herself.

“Women have identified with the women I have played here in New York over the last three years and this week an audience member told me she was just so glad that Harper chose herself. In the play her husband will never let go of her, ever. He stands in front of her in the end. He tells her I've done things, I'm ashamed, I'll change. But she's saying you are gay! You are gay! It's such a conversation starter for those men who don't grasp what sexuality is. It's not something that you put on and take off.”

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Denise Gough in Angels in America

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Denise Gough in Angels in America

Harpers husband (played memorably by Lee Pace) is a conservative Republican, a trial lawyer, and for a time the political operative Roy Cohn's right hand man. Being gay in that world is an obvious non-starter, so for cynical reasons he wants to remain married to a person he simply does not desire. The cruelty of the situation is explored in depth as Harper retreats into a haze of valium and magical thinking.

In one of these dream sequence hallucinations she first encounters the plays other main character Prior Walter (played by Andrew Garfield) the young gay man enduring the first stages of AIDS (the play is set in 1985). Right away both characters recognize the strong parallels between them. Both are attached to feckless men who put their own lives over all other considerations, both are suffering from physical and mental health problems. The solidarity and the instant chemistry between Gough and Garfield is off the charts.

“Andrew and I have moments backstage where we just hold each others hand or something. We push each other on because we're f—cked. Seriously I have never worked harder than I am working at the moment. For me Andrew is my pal through the whole thing.”

Angels in America grapples with homophobia, sexism, racism, anti-semitism, political division, American history, AIDS, even God and Heaven. It's a staggering masterpiece in other words and it's raised up on Gough's narrow but determined shoulders night after night. No wonder she's feeling knackered (although you'd never know it from her all electric performance).

“I have a Reiki healer who comes to help me once a week, because I need all the help I can get at the moment,” she confesses. “He's a young gay man and we talked last week about how the age of the straight white man (or people who live as straight white men) is being really shaken at the moment. People who live as straight white men still get all the privilege that women and anyone who is other doesn't have access to. But what we do have access to is each other. If we start empowering each other that is so, so powerful too.”

There's a lot of talk about immigration in the play that as an Irishwomen really lands with her. “Immigrants take a suitcase of clothes and they turn it into a life. We are in a really specific time where resentment against the other is being exploited and we're responding with compassion and vulnerability.”

Those are the tools to fight back with, she says. “Grace, forgiveness, awareness. That's the play. The whole f-cking thing is glorious. There's a really powerful thing happening in that theatre every night. I'm knackered like I have never been in my life but I know I will look back at this production that's happening at this specific moment in history when I'm 80 and I'll be so thankful and glad that I was right here, right now doing it.”

 

 

Denise Gough, Lee Pace in Angels in AmericaPhoto by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg