Brief Encounter With … Michelle Gomez
Brief Encounter With…Michelle Gomez
Author: Theo Bosanquet for What’s On Stage
Published: 19th February 2009
Michelle Gomez is an actress whose West End stage credits include Trainspotting and Boeing Boeing, while on television she’s starred in award-winning comedy series The Book Group and Green Wing among others. She’s currently playing Kate in Conall Morrison’s RSC production of The Taming of the Shrew, featuring Stephen Boxer as Petruchio, which recently transferred to the Novello Theatre.
Did you find it a struggle to get into the industry?
Just the same as everybody really. You think, ‘I want to be an actress’, and then spend the next fifteen years saying “would you like bread with that?”
So it was a slow process?
I’d say it was a Chinese burn – long and painful and seemingly pointless at times. I’m a first generation actor, so I was completely clueless. I had my favourite television shows, went to the theatre a couple of times, hated reading and hated applying myself, so I thought, ‘well I’ll be actor, that would be perfect’. And that completely backfired because I’ve never had to read so much and I’ve never had to apply myself more stridently, so if anybody’s got a lazy bone in their body, don’t do it.
What do you identify as your big break?
I think probably Trainspotting at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow and then in the West End. We came down with the intention of playing at the Ambassadors for a month, and we ran for a year. And so for me, that kind of got me out of the kitchen and onto the stage. There were other things, obviously, that I was really proud of and happy to be in, but that was the one that got me a London agent and set the ball rolling – I didn’t really have any game plan, and I still don’t. I would say televisually, my break was The Book Group.
And then Green Wing obviously brought you to a wider audience
Well if you’re on the telly a couple of times it changes things in terms of audience perceptions, but I quite like that. I like it when people are very quick to make up their minds about you, about who you are and what you do, but then they see you in a theatre and you do something completely different. I like never knowing what’s going to happen next, it keeps me on my toes. So I would never want to be pigeon-holed as a particular character.
Most people perceive you primarily as a comic actress
Yeah, I think that’s fair thus far, and may continue to be – comedy’s certainly where I feel most comfortable. But being with the RSC for fourteen months and being tragic, from where I’m sitting, I don’t feel funny! I feel a bit battered and tragic. I mean that’s really why I did it – when I met Conall (Morrison) and he talked about his reading of the Shrew, I realised what a really brave, noble, raw version he was planning – this isn’t ‘slap your thigh’ and Kiss Me Kate.
Did you know the play before getting involved?
I had absolutely no knowledge or understanding of Shakespeare, none whatsoever. I was very allergic – I had him in a little box marked “don’t bother” until I arrived at the RSC about two years ago and saw Marianne Elliott’s Much Ado. I was completely blown away. I was just coming along to see a friend in a play, and I never expected to be on my feet at the end. It was just a brilliant experience. I never knew it could be like that, I never knew that I could actually understand it and ‘get’ it. So that was a big turning point for me, and it was perfect timing when about a year or so later my agent phoned me about The Taming of the Shrew.
Many people read the The Taming of the Shrew as misogynistic
It’s been interpreted by a lot of people as being a misogynistic play, but I would challenge that. It’s an illustration of misogyny, a play-within-a-play. We had to retain that element because what you’ve got is a man’s fantasy – Christopher Sly’s fantasy of what a perfect woman would be, and of course what he ends up with is a Stepford wife. In a long-term relationship, there always has to be compromise. Otherwise you leave, as we do in society today, you divorce and you take your bag of crap somewhere else. Or you stick in there, and you see if you can maintain some sort of relationship that will go on to a more loving, compassionate level. But with this story, her spirit is completely broken. And he ends up with what? Has he won? What has he won? And who cares? So he plays god and then ends up with a shell of a woman.
So you’ll be tackling Shakespeare again?
I’m actually doing a course with the RSC in teaching Shakespeare, so in my twilight years I will have something to do! If you’d told me two years ago that A. I’d be playing Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and B. I’d be partaking in further education with Shakespeare specifically, I would have laughed you out the room. But here I am, teaching 23 children at my local school on a Wednesday afternoon about Shakespeare – it’s a very out-of-body experience! I cannot believe how much this job has given me, mainly confidence. As to whether I’ll be acting in more Shakespeare then yes, probably in the future, but way, way in the future.
What would be your dream acting job?
I would say Hello Dolly at the Menier Chocolate Factory with Roger Allam or Douglas Hodge as my Walter Matthau. Could you make that happen?
Michelle Gomez was speaking to Theo Bosanquet