Interview with Justine Mitchell

Justine Mitchell is currently performing in the RSC’s production, Love for Love. She talks to Samantha Coughlan about the role of Angelica and how Congreve’s comedy is relevant today.

What drew you to the role of Angelica?

What drew me was Selina (Cadell, the director of Love for Love). We had done The Rivals, another dazzlingly brilliant Restoration play by Sheridan. I found it hard to get a grip on Angelica, not only because the play is hard to read but because she is hard to get a grip on. She’s playing such a game. When you read it at first, you think, is she playing a game? What’s going on with her? Then I read it again and thought she’s fun. She’s an operator. She’s a fairly rare figure in those times and in those plays in that she doesn’t have a father or mother in the play; she has an uncle. She’s atomised because she is independently wealthy which gives her so much more standing in society. You’re effectively rendered mute otherwise as a woman. She’s funny. I love that idea of the outsider looking at the men and thinking, ‘That’s what you think about women. I am in the room, you are talking about me and you think I’m stupid.’

She’s so confident and secure that she doesn’t feel the need to be angry. She plays the men at their own game. I like that extraordinary wit, confidence and security. She’s not beaten down by any of it and she could be. It’s still hard to be alive as a woman but there were so many more challenges back then. She’s not beaten by it; she rises. It’s easy for her: she’s rich, privileged, educated, she’s got all of life’s advantages on her side but still there’s something attractive about her. She’s not presumptively privileged. She uses her intelligence, her privilege to her advantage.

What relevance does the play have for today?

The gags Congreve writes are as funny as any written today. That sense of humour connects us. He’s so dry. That’s why it’s relevant. It connects us right back to people in 1695. They were really no different. We think we’re so progressive, we think we have come so far and this play is such a beautiful connection to people back then. We are the same. People still laugh at other people’s pain and misfortune. We love bad people being lampooned and getting their comeuppance. There’s something in us, we’re programmed to sniff out that story and that’s nothing to do with humour. It’s just the story in general. We’re programmed to be taken away and entertained by that. We get that with Shakespeare, all great literature. That’s why it’s so important.

Also the war of the sexes – it’s on the nose about women and men. Look at all those books that have been published by pick up artists these days. The hunt, the chase, women are just prey, they don’t have souls, they are just something to conquer. That is Scandal’s attitude to women. Some men do think like that. I think it is acceptable still to think that about women or to operate like that. So the humour and the sexual politics make is still relevant today.

What is your favourite play?

There are so many. I couldn’t answer that. I love too many. I do love a good cry and laugh in the theatre. So it’s such a typical response but Shakespeare does do that. For example, I saw the all-female Henry IV - I cry when I watch that play anyway when it’s done with men and women. My favourite play of all time is Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. There’s not a woman in it but it just blew me away. I love lots of Irish drama because it is so savagely funny and strong and the stakes are so high.

What is your dream role?

I would love to play Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I would love to play her because her present is so informed by this tumultuous back story that is so painful that she has created this imaginary fucked up, improvisational world with her husband. They collude about something having not happened. It ignites this maelstrom of painful, deliciously funny drama. I think she is fantastic. She would be scary to get into but I love that play. I think it’s brilliant.

Which Shakespeare character would you like to play?

Viola. I haven’t played her since school. I loved playing her. I would love to play Beatrice. Rosalind. I’m getting a little old! The stage is fairly forgiving, age-wise. Beatrice would be a cracker.

If you could talk to your younger self about acting, what would you say?

Tons! I would say, in the words of Troy McLure from the Simpsons, read my new book ‘Get Confidence, Stupid!’ Be confident, love yourself because that’s where it all starts. Don’t expect this profession to love you back. Don’t index link your confidence and your sense of self-worth to how you’re doing. Love yourself, be confident, make your own work. Figure out who you are, what you like doing, figure out your own spirit, how do you unlock that on the stage? That’s really important. The voice coach here [at the RSC], Stephen Kemble, is extraordinary. He’s so brilliant on voice and how it’s not just this thing that is here [indicates throat] it’s the whole of you. It’s your spirit. He unlocks that and helps you be alive. It’s taken me ages to be confident. Take your space in the rehearsal room, offer up your thoughts and don’t be shy.

What issues are relevant to women in theatre today?

Make your own work. In Ireland there’s quite a big controversy about the centenary of the Easter Rising. The Abbey are looking back at that period and they’re not really looking back at many female playwrights. We’ve got to make our own work, I think. That’s an ongoing thing. We’ve got to be confident about telling our stories and… do it.

Who would you invite to a dinner party, living, dead and fictional?

Lily Tomalin, Carol Burnett, Caryl Churchill, Sarah Silverman – she’d be hilarious, they’re all stand up comics, Hilary Clinton, Sarah Palin, she’d be good, Michelle Obama. This is brilliant. I could go on. Who else? Princess Diana. Writers… Lady Gregory from the Abbey, she set up The Abbey Theatre. There’s so many people. Lauren Laverne. She’s fabulous.

(c) Samantha Coughlan November 2015
Swan Theatre
28 October 2015 - 22 January 2016

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