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Alice Bailey Johnson and Oliver Hembrough in Insignificance courtesy of Alex Brenner

An interview with Alice Bailey Johnson

3 November 2017 Katie Da Cunha Lewin

In Insignificance, four American icons take the stage to discuss mathematics, identity and love. Alice Bailey Johnson, daughter of playwright Terry Johnson, stars at Marilyn Monroe in the first UK revival of the play in 25 years.

London Calling: Thanks for talking to us today! Could you begin by telling us about your role in Insignificance?
 
A: I play ‘the actress’ as she’s known – none of the actors in the play are given real names but it’s strongly suggested by the way I’m dressed that I’m playing Marilyn Monroe. The four characters, Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, and Senator Joseph McCarthy, find themselves in a hotel room late at night, and events unfold between the four of them.
 
LC: Obviously these are all very well known American figures, with interesting histories. How does that work in the play?
 
We all know these people as they are icons, and people might already have a preconceived idea of who these characters are. In the play, you see them become real people and I think you’ll be surprised by who they all are. Especially with Marilyn, she was such an icon, and everyone has this girly image of her that she created. In the play you see her as a real person, she’s damaged, vulnerable and angry.
 

Alice Bailey Johnson and Simon Rouse courtesy of Alex Brenner

LC: How much did you know about the history of the play’s setting in 1954?
 
A: I didn’t know much about it before. In the first week of rehearsals, we all sat round the table and talked about what was happening at that time, where all these characters were, what they were doing and what they had been doing. So the play definitely has a strong sense of that particular point in history.
 
LC: Marilyn Monroe is a very complex character. She was very interested in writing and dedicated to acting and the theatre, as well as being a famous actress. How did you prepare for such a complex character?
 
A: I tried to read everything I could about her, what other people said about her,  people who knew her well, and I watched all her movies. She was often thought of as the dumb blonde, but she was hugely intelligent and really ambitious. It’s extraordinary how hard she worked to get to where she was to prove people wrong, and men in particular, that she wasn’t just this sexy blond. She was a real person. It’s really sad that she never fully managed it. She never felt she belonged, she never felt she had proved her worth. You can see her struggle with this in the play.
 
LC: Her voice is so idiosyncratic – how did you try to replicate it?
 
A: It’s about listening to her and the interviews she did. She did tend to put on this breathy sexy baby voice, which wasn’t her real voice. I tried to get that quality and then let it go and try and find her real voice. There isn’t that much of her speaking on camera so I had to imagine it. I’ve read lots of stuff that people have written about her, that said she could have a really deep and powerful voice, when she wanted to. It’s about working out which voice she puts on when, and what her real voice is.
 
LC: Your dad wrote this piece. What is it like to perform your father’s work?
 
ABJ: It’s great! He’s a really good writer! I have a new found appreciation of him as a writer. I’ve obviously read a lot of his stuff and seen a lot of his stuff, but I’d never seen this one before. But actually going into it, and going into such detail, it just makes me think ‘wow, he’s really clever’! I feel very privileged to be in it and try to do it justice.


Alice Bailey Johnson and Oliver Hembrouh courtesy of Alex Brenner

LC: Have you been discussing the play with him?
 
ABJ: We’ve sort of left each other to it. Obviously, I can ask him questions and he’s happy to help me with them. He’s very respectful and hasn’t been in the rehearsal room.  He came to see our first preview and gave some notes, but other than that, he was quite happy to leave us to it.
 
LC: Were you surrounded by the theatre a lot when you were growing up?
 
ABJ: Yes absolutely. My mum is an actor too, so I grew up in dressing rooms or lighting boxes watching things that went way over my head! I did remember loving the atmosphere of it from a pretty young age and feeling that this is where I should be too. Apparently, I don’t remember this, but I was in the car once and I announced, quite dramatically probably, that I wanted to do what mummy does not what daddy does.  I decided I wanted to be on the stage rather than behind it!
 
LC: Is there anything you are looking forward to seeing or doing in London over these next few months?
 
ABJ: They are bringing the very weird Witchcraft Museum from Cornwall to London. It was started by someone who was a white witch and started collecting all these artefacts and now it’s turned into quite a creepy museum. It’s so bizarre, you’ll come out a little freaked out.
 
LC: You grow up in Balham, South London. What’s your favourite South London hang outs?
 
ABJ: Balham is one of those places that has changed so much. It was always a bit grotty, and now there’s a PizzaExpress! Not a lot of the places that I used to go to are still there. The famous theatre pub, The Bedford, is still going strong and I like to go there every once in a while.
 
Alice Bailey Johnson is performing in Insignificance at The Arcola until 18 November.
 
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