Cush Jumbo and Anne-Marie Duff had been fans of each other’s work for years before they became friends when they starred in Common at the National Theatre in 2017. They were both preparing to take on major stage roles when the pandemic hit last year. The pair caught up to talk about why theatre is like church and how Covid will change the plays that audiences want.
Anne-Marie Duff: After my first job in acting I believed everybody would be best friends for ever. We’d all become so close. You realise quite quickly that it’s like lots of passionate love affairs. Along the way you collect people and they stay with you. You might not see each other properly for five or six years then you’re back in rehearsals together and it’s as if you never left. That’s the nature of actors – they’re generally very open, funny and forgiving people.
Cush Jumbo: My first professional show was Cinderella in Lewisham with Cheryl Baker and Tessa Sanderson, the javelin thrower. Bodger and Badger were in it. I was 11 and flying high! My mum says I cried for days after it ended. Acting draws different people from different backgrounds, yet when we’re in a group together everyone seems to be able to build these relationships very fast. I once talked to a counsellor about theatre and she said actors don’t give themselves enough credit for the fact they go through a relationship each time – sometimes it’s intense, sometimes a fling, but you give away a bit of yourself each time.
AD: You have to be someone’s wife, daughter, mother, enemy. That energy is charged between you and the other actors and then it’s snipped.
Chris Wiegand: Tell me about your love affairs with theatres.
AD: The place I’ve worked most is the National. I remember when we were doing Common there, it was hard. That play was a brilliant beast. There’s something extraordinary about that building. There’s a heat, an energy, a need to tell tales. When we did Saint Joan in the Olivier theatre in 2007 it was perfect because it was like being in a cathedral.
CJ: The Olivier is much cosier than you’d imagine, especially if you end up connecting with the space. Once you understand what you’re thinking and feeling and saying, it’s like something clicks and the space almost comes into you. I did three plays over 10 years at the Royal Exchange in Manchester and I changed as an actor there. They are both places that make you tingle. I went into the Young Vic during the first lockdown and I broke down – just from the smell as I went through the stage door. It was overwhelming how sad the building was.
AD: Empty theatres are like lungs without breath. Both Cush and I were supposed to be doing plays during the period where it first went quiet. Many of our colleagues are struggling beyond belief, emotionally as well as economically. Rufus Norris told me someone came to rehearse for the pantomime at the National and he saw them afterwards looking upset. The actor told him: “I just remembered I was good at something.”
CJ: Theatres are churches. It doesn’t matter if they’re new or old buildings. Most people don’t do these jobs to make money – you’d be stupid to be doing this to make money. That’s not why we do it. When they shut the actual churches I understood what that was like for people. Do a service over Zoom? No. Streaming theatre, although it’s brilliant, is not the same thing. Churches need to be filled with people who believe. That’s how the magic works.
AD: The temperature isn’t changed by an actor saying “I love you” or “Once more unto the breach”. The temperature is changed by someone laughing or weeping in the audience.
CW: How far had you got with the productions that were postponed?
AD: I was just about to go into rehearsals for The House of Shades at the Almeida. It’s a brilliant play by Beth Steel. I suspect I had done nowhere near the amount of prep that Cush had done for Hamlet at the Young Vic!
CJ: Hey, I can pull it out of my arse any time. Any time! I’m not going to lie to you: you know your process to get you ready, but you’re never really ready. You get all your armour on, and your jetpack and your grenades, and you pack an extra couple of sandwiches because you might get hungry. We’d cast everybody so it really bugged me that those actors had a job and then they didn’t. Who knows whether they’ll be available when we come back to it. The pandemic will change this Hamlet and will change every show that comes back on stage. It will change the way that someone watches a musical in the West End, what kind of content people want to see. When we re-approach Hamlet, hopefully at the end of the year, I’ll go back through everything and new stuff will spring up. Everybody’s different now. There are people who were going to come to my show who aren’t alive any more. It’s a different world.
CW: How does it feel to return to the same character? Anne-Marie, you played Lady Macbeth twice, five years apart.
AD: Yes – with a different husband on stage. That has an effect on you. It’s a different relationship. I was quite nervous about doing it again. Would I have run out of choices? I did Macbeth at Lincoln Center in New York in 2013 and then at the Olivier in 2018. I was the only Brit in the American production.
CJ: We bumped into each other in Zara in New York, when you were on the way to rehearsals! That’s the first time we met in person.
AD: You were doing Julius Caesar at St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. I was a different woman playing Lady Macbeth the second time round. That’s what great about what we do. And why you don’t want to overexpose yourself in terms of telling the world your private shit. You don’t want people to go: “Oh that’s why she’s made that choice – because of all these things in her life.” I would recommend actors revisit characters, ideally in a different production. It’s not easy because your first choices were made before, the quick ones. You have to plumb.
CJ: You see, this is what makes Anne-Marie an actor’s actor. She says that like it’s the most obvious thing in the world: “Oh, all your first choices!” She’s looking for what else is there – that takes lots of time and energy. It’s a risky thing to do.
AD: That’s the kind of actor you are! Forensic. Some actors you need to prod a bit; some just do it. Cush is a real storyteller, looking for more marrow in those bones.
CJ: And everyone else is saying: it’s done! It’s finished! Quick, everyone out before Cush comes up with another idea!
CW: You’ve returned to your Josephine Baker show, Josephine and I, over the years too.
CJ: There is another life happening for it which will involve us running the theatre show again. I always wanted to do it again because, just as Anne-Marie was saying, I was a totally different person when I first did it. I’d never been to New York when I wrote the show, then I ended up living in New York. And I’d had a line of terrible boyfriends and then I ended up with a really nice husband. I’d love to play Lady Macbeth one day. Some characters come and go; others infiltrate your life. My version of Josephine is one of those. She is often popping up to haunt me.
CW: You’ve both played Nora in A Doll’s House.
AD: I had terrible stage fright playing her. I had to have a word with myself about becoming too immersed in a character. It doesn’t make you better at your job – it’s serving nobody. You get these writers who are huge taskmasters like Ibsen and O’Neill. They are oceanic. If you allow yourself to drown in them it’s not wise. So at the Lowry in Salford in 2000 I walked offstage and Paterson Joseph just looked at me and put his hands on my shoulders and said: “There are so many hundreds of people out there, they’ve all paid for their tickets, Anne-Marie Duff.” And I turned around and went back on stage, because suddenly it was tangible. That play is a real head fuck. As a young female it pushes you into a corner of yourself and makes you have to deal with your bravery.
CJ: The other thing that counsellor said to me is that when you’re playing a role, your brain knows you’re playing a character but your body doesn’t. When you become traumatised, the body keeps a memory. There’s only so long you can keep doing that. People who aren’t actors like to throw around these terms like “method acting” and “people who really go there”. It’s the finest line – you’re trying to go as far as you can within the role, and be the most authentic, but you’re trying to do all these other jobs at the same time. You still need to be accountable to your teammates and you need stamina to get through the run. You don’t want to collapse because you’re so completely in it. So for teammates, like Paterson, it’s about knowing when to help somebody. I’ve worked with some people who absolutely indulge in that blurriness to the point of negatively affecting the other cast members.
CW: When did you first feel exhilaration from acting?
AD: I remember getting the bus home from my very first job. I was skint, on Equity minimum, it was a small part. I cried with happiness. I thought: My god, I’m actually doing this. I’m actually acting for a living. I came from a world where it would be considered fucking stupid – dreaming of becoming a classical actor on a grey breezeblock council estate. I couldn’t believe my luck.
CJ: I was in Bugsy Malone in the West End as the cigarette girl. I was 11 turning 12. The first Friday they gave us a £50 note for expenses. I’d never seen a £50 note before. I was walking back to the station with this note in my backpack. And I thought: nobody knows that I’ve been in the West End! Every night I’d get out the tube and walk to the theatre and hope that someone saw me go in the stage door. Because they’d know I was a star!
AD: Can you imagine how giddy we’re all going to be when we’re back in theatres?
CJ: There’ll be so much love in the room. It’ll be like James Brown in that video, you know when he’s fainting when he goes off stage and they’re going: “It’s OK, James! It’s OK!” We’ll all be like that. But I also think people’s bullshit detectors are going to be slightly stronger. We’ve had a danger in the past of straying into the territory of: “Ah, that’s good enough, put it on.” Now, if people are going to go, and pay money they can afford less than before, they don’t want to feel like you think you’re smarter than them. I want to see a musical but I don’t want to feel slightly disappointed and ripped off. People will want us to really tell stories and not cut any corners. That’s a good challenge for the business.
AD: Being in a room when a dancer holds another dancer or an actor makes themselves vulnerable is going to be so potent. We’ve been behind masks for ages. It’s very powerful psychologically what that does to us – you can’t see me smile, can’t hear me properly. It will be amazing to hear someone play a guitar in front of you. The real world is what we do, but the arts are who we are.
CJ: There’ll be orgasms in the aisles!
Cush Jumbo supports The Black Curriculum and Magic Breakfast. She stars in The Beast Must Die on BritBox this spring. Anne-Marie Duff supports the Theatre Artists Fund and Freelancers Make Theatre Work.