Mariah Gale: interview

RSC wunderkind Mariah Gale talks to Time Out about improv, incest and what it's like playing David Tennant's lover in 'Hamlet'

  • Mariah Gale: interview

    Mariah Gale limbers up in Stratford-upon-Avon

  • Excited seven-year-olds with saucer eyes have been among the thousands of unlikely audience members making a pilgrimage to see the RSC’s latest ‘Hamlet’. Doubtless, their desire to travel through time to the seventeenth century has more to do with David Tennant of ‘Doctor Who’ acting in the title role than with any precocious desire to acquaint themselves with Shakespeare.

    Yet although Tennant’s pulling power for them and older fans is justified (on stage it’s clear – appropriately for his inter-planetary reputation – that he has true star quality), he’s far from the only significant talent on display. Against the mirrored backdrop of Gregory Doran’s modern-dress production, Mariah Gale is proving yet again that she is one of the most distinctive actors of her generation.

    It was three years ago that newspapers started to realise that the girl now playing Tennant’s Ophelia may herself one day be a household name. The location was the defiantly un-glitzy Southwark Playhouse, and the production was of John Ford’s ‘’Tis Pity She’s a Whore’, which Gale describes laughingly as being ‘like “Romeo and Juliet” – but it’s incest. If Tarantino had been around in the 1630s he’d be doing something quite similar to “’Tis Pity She’s a Whore”. ’

    In Ed Dick’s explosive production, in which the cast performed for no money, Gale’s performance as the passionately incestuous Annabella quickly picked up plaudits. One broadsheet reviewer described her as ‘remarkable… With her steadfast gaze and sensuous lip, she suggests a woman unequivocally in love.’ Another declared of Gale and her co-stars, Charlie Cox and Laurence Fox, that in ‘years to come, people will talk in awed tones of the time when three greats of British acting… appeared together in a tiny Fringe theatre’.

    No surprise that since then the actress has both appeared on TV (in such diverse dramas as ‘Skins’ and ‘Oliver Twist’) and been scooped up by the RSC. Yet despite a string of positive reviews, in person the Guildhall-trained 29-year-old is remarkably unassuming: not so much an attention-seeking Gale as a steady sea breeze. We meet in Stratford-upon-Avon, where she is performing ‘Hamlet’ prior to its London transfer. With her alabaster pale skin, tied-back hair, slight figure and modest black attire, she wouldn’t attract a second glance on the street. There’s not much hint of her extraordinary capacity to transform herself both psychologically and physically, as in the Young Vic’s ‘Vernon God Little’ where she went from gawky misfit to sexual siren and back so convincingly that it seemed the characters were played by completely different actors.

    Perhaps she’s no luvvie because, as she tells me, ‘I don’t come from a theatrical background at all – it’s uncharted waters, and therefore really exciting because I’ve found my own way through.’ Her mother is Australian, her father British – both are retired architects – and though she’s lived in England for most of her life, she was hugely influenced by moving to Brisbane for two years when she was five ‘where we had a massive jungle garden to run around in’. Despite, as she cheerfully admits, a well-balanced childhood, she was boxed in by shyness for years. Acting allowed her a way out: ‘In a class at school we did some improvisation, and I decided I’d be the dinner lady we had who was really bolshy. Suddenly I could go from who I thought I was – the quiet girl in the corner – to someone much more extrovert.’

    Gale’s close connection with such moments in her childhood resonates in the childlike intensity of performances as notable for their searing emotional transparency as for their playfulness. That sense of release she finds in identities other than her own also comes through in her un-actor-like desire to focus on discussing everything and anything other than herself. When she talks about Ophelia it’s as if she’s a close friend. ‘I think she gets fed up with the sham [at Elsinore]. Greg [Doran] said, “Why do you think she goes to Gertrude and Claudius?” – and I think it’s because she wants to tear down the chandeliers and rip down the velvet curtains, because what she believes in is love. She’s really traumatised – as anyone would be if their boyfriend killed their dad – but in the midst of that she has the strength to undermine Gertrude and Claudius in a really intelligent way.’

    So what’s it been like working amid the media maelstrom surrounding Tennant? She smiles: ‘It’s been weird and eye-opening to see from the inside what it must be like for him with all of the hype. The crowds outside the stage door are unbelievable, and it’s quite sad because he can’t come to the pub after the show. ’

    It’s Shakespeare rather than TV stardom that’s ringfencing Gale’s world right now, since she’s just committed herself to another season with the RSC. Next year she’ll be playing Juliet in a production directed by Rupert Goold, whom she describes as ‘one of the most groundbreaking innovators of the moment; I can’t wait to work with him again’. But what about farther into the future – does she ever wonder if one day she’ll be subject to the same mobbing by fans as her co-stars Patrick Stewart and Tennant? We talk about how they’ve had to go to other planets to get their fame, and Gale ponders what her take might be on this. It’s typical that she plumps for the role of the quirky outsider: ‘Maybe I could appear in “Star Trek” as a mad alien. I quite fancy that!’

    'Hamlet’ previews at the Novello from Dec 3.

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