From her big stage break leading the National Theatre’s Her Naked Skin to starring in Olivier Award-nominated comedies in the West End, former Atlantis star Jemima Rooper is fast becoming one of London’s most in-demand actors.
But there’s a level of panic in Rooper’s voice when I speak to her during a swift rehearsal break. “I don’t know… I think it’s going well…” It’s halfway through rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Rooper is having a crisis of confidence. But if this is a crisis, it sounds like a pretty exhilarating one.
“It’s liberating… [to be out of your comfort zone]. Sometimes the director has a very clear idea of what they want and shoe horns you into that, whereas this really feels very free and like a safe place for experimenting… We were on our knees crawling on the floor before we’d even read it through.”
This is not surprising perhaps when you’re in the rehearsal room of a director who – actor John Heffernan once told me – has used snogging as an icebreaker. On the first day. Putting sex dolls, food fights and bongs centre stage, Joe Hill-Gibbins is one of the most mischievous and surprising theatremakers shaking up London’s theatres.
Perfect then for an actor who has never shied away from a dirty gag or the chance to make herself the – perfectly executed – butt of the joke. From Hand To God, in which she played the love interest of a schizophrenic potty-mouth with a puppet for a hand, to Breeders, the show she stole with just one snowman-costumed entrance, Rooper has fast become the queen of comedy on stage.
From 16 February, she stars as Hermia in Hill-Gibbins’s “dark and subversive” take on one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays. “It’s not just another production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Rooper explains. “Joe’s vision for things is pretty unique. I think he would only do it if he thought he could do something legitimately exciting.”
So, what can we expect? A stripped-back stage, intense energy, no “realistic vision” of the forest, a Hermia who has swapped her smug, spoilt ways for a more complex psychology and a set of lovers with a few extra years on them: “We’re all a bit older than it was written for, but we’re not ignoring that. We’re using that to make it as complicated as possible, which makes it all a bit more interesting, rather than playing silly teenagers.
“The girls aren’t playing these pure, innocent virgins. They are definitely women. The first scene is my father telling me I have to marry this guy. It’s a kind of weird world where this can happen, so we have to believe in that. But we also believe that we’re a little bit older and more experienced than Daddy might know.” Bottom, we’re not in the enchanted wood anymore, it seems.
So, no sniggering at asses, then? “There are very, very funny parts of the play still, but they are funny in a much darker way,” she explains. “I think black comedy in a way is the most true to life, especially as you get older and things get more complicated. Things become much funnier. They’re not superficial. It’s funny because it’s so awful!”
If that all sounds a bit too close to home in today’s Trumpian world – and the gender politics of A Midsummer Night’s Dream may feel maddeningly more relatable than they should – well, you should know that even in the theatre those imbalances rear their ugly heads: “As a woman you start realising that there are definite peaks and troughs when there just suddenly aren’t any parts or suddenly all the parts are of a type. I don’t see any of my male colleagues having to deal with those kinds of things.”
With Hill-Gibbins’s inevitable spellbinding directorial flourishes and magical themes, this will still be escapism of the best kind, just, according to a now more assured Jemima Rooper, in an “alternate universe rather than a parallel universe”.
And with that I leave Rooper to go and help create that alternative universe. If the chance to visit a different universe isn’t a good reason to book a theatre ticket in times such as these, then I don’t know what is.