Gemma Whelan’s route into the world of professional acting was anything if typical. After studying for a degree at Middlesex University and then going onto complete a postgraduate degree in Musical Theatre, Whelan first enjoyed success as a stand-up comedian – often performing as the prim-but-filthy Chastity Butterworth – before going on stage and television roles. She is now probably most recognizable for her portrayal of the steely, iron-willed warrior Yara Greyjoy in HBO’s Game of Thrones, but she also gave a dazzling, intense performance in Philip Ridley’s solo show Dark Vanilla Jungle. This week Whelan re-enters the Ridleyverse in Radiant Vermin.
The world of Philip Ridley’s plays often blend the contemporary, the urbane and the ‘hyper-real’. There is a surreal current underpinning much of the language that his characters speak. How do you approach making the words feel natural when performing them?
I tend to think that if it’s good writing, it does most of the work for you. Even if the story and the language exist in those fantastical regions, you’re still constantly seeking to draw the audience into this hyper-real world. Fundamentally, the writing in Ridley’s play is so vivid and extraordinary that it practically tells you how to say those words! But of course, David [Mercatali, director of Dark Vanila Jungle and Radiant Vermin] is a very front-footed and fearless director; he’s unafraid and creates a very positive space that allows us to push ourselves and experiment. You never feel stupid for trying things.
Do you have a particular process for slipping under the skin of character in the Ridleyverse?
The biggest thing for me is that despite how strange and fantastical the events themselves might become in the world of a play – as long as you’re honoring the truth of the words you’re speaking and the way in which you’re speaking them – that’s what I look for; I really want to be sucked in and taken on a journey; it’s great when the actors on stage are painting a picture of a world with the words they’re using. I think it’s about being authentic; if someone isn’t speaking from the heart, you can see it in their eyes, and they’re not engaging you. The essence should be to honor the character’s truth; not your own truth as an actor, but to be a vehicle for these words to be spoken. There’s a great deal of frightening sincerity and truth in what Philip Ridley is doing.
There’s been something of a Ridley renaissance in recent years, and he’s remained prolific in bringing new plays to the stage year upon year. What is Radiant Vermin about?
It’s a play that tackles real, contemporary issues around housing in a ‘hyper-real’ way. Radiant Vermin is essentially a play about a young couple trying to get a foot on the housing ladder and the lengths they’re willing to go to get what they want – but their aspirations become larger and larger as it goes on. In some ways, it’s a play that demands a lot of its audience, and though the world of it is hyper-real, the characters are oddly believable.
What’s it been like working with director David Mercatali once again?
It’s a complete collaboration. He is fantastic on text and really helps us to paint the picture of this world more clearly. He always has such a positive, relaxed energy. He’s happy to let the process run it’s course and allows for things to just happen in the rehearsal room, rather than demanding the result right away; he’s aware that we can’t run before we can walk, so to speak. We feel very safe.
Do you have a preference in terms of performance for television, film or theatre? You’ve also performed stand-up comedy, so is performing live something that comes more naturally to you or is it the other way round?
When you’re working on a play, you’re able to go over and over it and really pin down the story in one go, whereas with filming you have to make sure you know your own journey. With a play, you have the luxury of exploring that process from beginning to end every night, but with rehearsal times on television, there really isn’t that time. They’re all so different. It’s a bit like saying do you prefer swimming or running – they’re both exercise, but they’re both interesting and joyful in their own ways, for very different reason.
Radiant Vermin is at Soho Theatre, London, from 10th March – 12th April 2015
Exeunt’s review of Dark Vanilla Jungle
Here Be Monsters: The Exeunt interview with Philip Ridley