Just more than two years ago, Duncan Macmillan’s play People, Places, and Things premiered at the National Theater in London. Starring actress Denise Gough as Emma, an actress and addict who checks herself into rehab after a performance of The Seagull goes off the rails, the play charts her progress through the 12-step program as she reckons with the various traumas that led her to seek an escape through drugs and alcohol. It debuted to rapturous reviews during its initial run and the following year transferred to London’s West End and was nominated for four Olivier Awards, winning Best Actress. Gough, 35 when the play opened, had been out of work “for a long time” and was considering quitting acting entirely—even though being on stage was the only thing that had ever come so easily to her.
“I was broke; I couldn’t get meetings for certain things,” she said. “Couldn’t get arrested.”
But then, after an audition Macmillan has described as “mythic,” to which Gough brought a bag of confectioners’ sugar and snorted it, she got the part.
Three years later, Gough, now 37, is on the verge of a major breakout moment in America. She is winning raves again for the New York transfer of People, Places, and Things—at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo, Brooklyn through December 3—and, in February, she will make her Broadway debut in the breathlessly awaited revival of Angels in America, reprising her role as Harper Pitt opposite Andrew Garfield from its adored production at London’s National Theatre earlier this year.
Sitting in her dressing room below the stage at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Gough gestured to a letter tacked on the wall written by a man who had attended the show and whose son had died from an overdose five years prior, before even turning 21. A couple nights before, she met another man who had come to the play straight after an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the Bronx. He was 30 years sober, having entered treatment at 18.
Gough, it seems, has fielded countless such stories since the play made its debut; she has spoken about how the play resonates so widely as the result of an opioid crisis in both the United States and United Kingdom that has left few families unscathed. (Just a few minutes into our conversation, I told Gough my youngest cousin, now 20, was about to enter rehab.) But she has also taken in the different ways the conversation about drug use and addiction has manifested in the transition from London to New York.
“There’s a much more cohesive language here around addiction,” she said. “You guys talk about therapy in a different way; there’s much more of an open language about self-examination that we’re too polite to talk about in London.” A native Irishwoman who grew up one of 11 children in Ennis, County Clare, before she moved to London as a teenager to pursue acting, Gough said this politeness did not come naturally to her, either.
This is just one of the transformations wrought when the play moved to New York. In London, the occasional laughs—“her sarcasm, her wit, her boldness, her cynicism”—came as a welcome respite from all the emotion; in New York, the humor, while still welcome, is embedded deeper in the redemption narrative. “At the end of every show in America, I feel like the character’s going to be alright,” she said. (It closes with Emma, emerging from rehab, attempting to reconcile with her parents, and walking into an audition.) “At the end of every show in London, I wasn’t sure.” The conversation around faith and religion—for better or worse—is more central in American life, and American political life, than in English life.
People, Places, and Things is an urgent examination of addiction, but it also reaches outward; during the first act, Emma delivers a monologue outlining the myriad reasons why she gets high, why she needs to find refuge in substances: terror attacks, Brexit, the rise of populist demagogues, the refugee crisis, global poverty, wars in other countries on other continents. “The moral ambivalence you have to have just to get out of f---ing bed,” Emma says—or, as Gough put it, “If there was ever a time when people want to switch off, it’s now.”
Though the substance of the play has not changed since its 2015 premiere, certain lines have been updated “just to make it more current,” Gough said. Donald Trump, for instance, is never mentioned outright by name; one character begins to say the word, “Tr---,” before another character speaks over, stomping it out. During rehearsals, “It became clear that he didn’t deserve to be in the play,” she said. She never once spoke his name during our conversation, opting instead to refer to him, He Who Must Not Be Named-like, as “the man in the position of power in this country.” (She does, however, have a roll of toilet paper illustrated with his face on a shelf in her dressing room.) Earlier in Emma’s monologue, “bombings and beheadings” became “cars driving into crowds of people.”
And then, a car did drive into a crowd of people. Three weeks ago, a man drove a Home Depot truck down a bike path on Manhattan’s West Side, killing eight and injuring 11. It was Halloween. That night, Gough omitted the line (“just to give it space to breathe,” she told me)—but the next night, and when I saw the play four days later, she brought it back.
“It sort of feels like the world has caught up with the play,” Gough said. “What we have now become is more politicized than ever.” This also applies to the recent accusations of sexual misconduct levied against major figures in Hollywood, media, music, and theater that began spilling out after allegations emerged against Harvey Weinstein. It has also begun to pour into theater; just last week, London’s Old Vic Theater reported it had received an additional 20 allegations against actor Kevin Spacey, on top of the accusations from young men like Harry Dreyfuss and Anthony Rapp.
“There are more that I’m hoping will come out—one person in particular that, because I don’t have those kind of dealings with him myself, I can’t speak for,” Gough said, alluding to stories she had heard from other women in theater who she hoped would feel emboldened to speak up in the current climate. “I hope he gets his day. I f---ing hope he gets his day.”
She also pointed to women like Brie Larson and Jessica Chastain, who have been especially vocal about sexism in Hollywood. Larson, for example, declined to clap for Casey Affleck when she handed him the Oscar for Manchester by the Sea, later telling Vanity Fair her action “spoke for itself”—after all, Affleck had been sued for sexual harassment in 2010.
“I think it’s a really incredibly empowering time, and really exciting time, for women,” Gough said. “I don’t even think it’s a woman-man thing,” she added. “I think it’s a vulnerable-powerful thing.” And if serial abusers begin to grow wary, to know that the so-called Harvey Weinstein moment could come for them too, “if that’s the case, something has shifted,” Gough said. “It also means that … when you go into a meeting and somebody does something that you think, ‘That doesn’t feel right,’ you can f---ing say it,” she added. “We have to trust our instincts on these things.”
Gough told me that while she was certainly bullied, she had experienced little sexual harassment over the course of her career. She recalled a director approaching her at a bar on the opening night of a play when she was 24, leaning into her ear, and whispering, “That was such a sexy performance.” Since People, Places, and Things, and since Angels in America and the television and film gigs that have come courting, Gough, who described herself (not without a hint of sarcasm) as “super shiny and hot,” has received “the emails of contrition and all of that” from those who had tormented her early on in her career. The play has, undoubtedly, changed everything: Before she returns to Harper, her Angels in America character, Gough is also shooting a children’s film, The Kid Who Would be King, with Rebecca Ferguson and Patrick Stewart. Next year, she’ll appear alongside Keira Knightley in the biopic Colette.
For Gough, performing in People, Places, and Things is a feat of athleticism. A recent New York magazine review described the play as “merciless,” which only begins to do justice to its relentless drive. It’s an exercise in endurance. By its conclusion, when Gough emerges onto the stage to take a bow, she looks utterly drained and told me she feels equally spent, physically and emotionally—and yet, after an average weekend matinee, she will return just four hours later to do it all over again.
It’s required her to live monastically: She eats salads, drinks lots of water gets massages, meditates, sees a Reiki healer once a week; her dressing room is filled with boxes of tea and multiple variations on humidifiers; she sprays sage—“I don’t know if that works or not,” she admitted with a hint of an eye-roll. But all this is part of a strategy she described as “deeply un-method”—“It all happens on stage,” she said. “I feel like my body is the thing that’s being used, my ability to move a certain way.” Emma exists outside Gough; she refers to the character throughout our conversation in the third person, as “she,” and when she sees images shot during the performance, it’s “her.”
She felt the same way about Harper when she took up the role. “It’s Angels in America on Broadway,” she said, incredulous. “Every now and then, you’re allowed to do something that actually means something, and both of the things that I’m doing in New York mean something.”
Her Harper, the Valium-addicted Mormon housewife she will play alongside Lee Pace as her husband, Joe Pitt, in the Broadway production, is “f---ing furious”—that her husband is having an affair with another man, that she’s oppressed by her religion, that she is being lied to. “It’s not about her being homophobic,” Gough said. “She knows the truth. She’s just afraid of it.”
In January, when she returns to New York to begin rehearsals for Angels’ February 23 previews, she plans to relocate from Dumbo to the Upper West Side. The Broadway Angels cast includes fellow alums of the National performance—Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn, James McArdle is Louis Ironson, and Garfield as Prior Walter, against whom she has some of the play's most fantastical, and alternately hilarious and devastating scenes—who have become a tight-knit group Gough described simply as “the best.”
“On Angels, we don’t have any assholes,” she said. “Although I may become one. Broadway might be the thing that ruins me.”
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