Conducting a theatrical interview when you can’t discuss either the content of the play or the interviewee’s character is a little like trying to shave using a bread knife; at best it is uncomfortable, at worst painful and ultimately it just doesn’t work.
This is a problem when I meet actress Jodhi May. The talented performer is returning to the London stage after a four-year absence to star opposite Richard Coyle, Paul Hilton and Celia Imrie in the debut play by Mark Haddon, better known for his novel The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time.
“There’s quite a lot they don’t want to divulge,” May explains as we sit in a sterile-feeling office in the Southwark rehearsal rooms where the cast is rehearsing. “They don’t want to spoil it for an audience.”
“I think you can say that the play’s not in chronological order and that it does re-orientate the landscape for the audience,” May says, offering as much as she thinks she can give away.
The Donmar Warehouse’s own website describes the play as “One man’s struggle to love, support and live with someone suffering from a psychological condition…”
It is May’s character who is afflicted with the “psychological condition”. As the show’s description lets this slip, maybe we can explore it further. Maybe not. “The writing expresses the state of mind… although that’s maybe slightly too graphic, so maybe you shouldn’t put that in.”
To be fair to May, she is clearly toeing a line. I can absolutely understand not wanting to give too much away about a play and not wanting to spoil it for an audience. It is the balance so often missed by critics who divulge the extra nugget of information that saps some of the enjoyment away from those coming to the piece with a fresh, unknowing mind. But when you can’t discuss either play or character, it makes conducting a topical interview a challenge of Everestian proportions.
We can talk about director Jamie Lloyd, who is quickly becoming one of London’s most prolific directors. The Donmar Warehouse Associate Director has, over the past few years, directed productions ranging from Alexi Kaye Campbell’s debut play The Pride at the Royal Court to American comedy The Little Dog Laughed at the Garrick theatre, from Pinter’s The Caretaker at the Tricycle theatre to hit revival Three Days Of Rain at the Apollo theatre. Later this year he directs Headlong’s Salome at the Hampstead theatre and Stephen Sondheim’s musical Passion at the Donmar. “I’m loving working with him,” says May. “He has an absolute forensic attention to detail in the text, which is fantastic and inspiring. He allows the actors an awful lot of space to discover and to create.”
We can also talk about the Donmar Warehouse, where Polar Bears is being staged, which May considers “a beautiful space because it’s very much like a chamber space, so it allows you to be very intimate, but at the same time you have to fill it as well.”
May’s body language makes me wary with every question I ask. She is sitting across the room from me, seemingly not wanting to venture too close. Wrapped up in a scarf and jacket, she has her hands clasped on her lap, feet turned in and is folded in on herself like a child at the back of a classroom trying not to attract any attention, her eyes more often than not gazing at the floor. My questions about the play are not helping her relax.
Neither, it seems, are questions about getting into the industry at a young age. May was only 12 when she appeared in her first film, A World Apart, a tale set in 1963’s apartheid-era South Africa. Her performance was recognised with a Best Actress Award at Cannes, shared with her co-stars Barbara Hershey and Linda Mvusi, and an Evening Standard British Film Award for Best Newcomer, which she shared with Kristin Scott Thomas.
It sounds like a lot to take in for a child on the brink of their teenage years, but May is roundly dismissive of any suggestion that she could have become caught up in a glamorous world of movie hype. “I think those are clichés,” she bristles. “I think those are stereotypes that people attach to certain situations which I think are totally preconceived ideas. The reality is very different. Obviously it depends on whether you’re intelligent enough to be able to see things and put them in perspective or whether you’re superficial enough not to.”
That first film, however, was enough to plant the seed of an idea about a life in the arts in the young May’s mind. She had not given a thought to acting previously, but after being discovered by casting director Susie Figgis at her Camden school and having worked with “really inspiring people” on A World Apart, it “inspired me to carry on after the first job I did”.
As an actress, she is unafraid to stray into testing, discussion-prompting territory; it would be a surprise to see her ever appear in a soap. In 1994 she played one of a pair of sisters who have an incestuous relationship in Sister My Sister, in 2002 she starred opposite Rachael Stirling and Keeley Hawes in the headline-grabbing Tipping The Velvet and earlier this week she was seen in the BBC’s Blood And Oil, playing the wife of an oil worker kidnapped in Nigeria.
But she is also not averse to the odd costume drama, with credits including Emma, The Mayor Of Casterbridge, Daniel Deronda and The House Of Mirth. “I think it’s great to be able to go from a light comedy of manners to contemporary and different-in-tone projects,” she states.
Her last London stage performance was of the more contemporary, taboo-confronting ilk. David Harrower’s Blackbird told the story of a couple who had previously been together, meeting again 15 years later and confronting past issues. The twist on this tale was that May’s character was 12 at the time of the relationship. “Fairly rarely does a play like that get written,” she explains. “Once in a generation I should think. It was special.”
While she has not been waiting for any particular theme or topic to lure her back to the stage – “It’s only about four years. That doesn’t seem very long [to be away from the London stage] to me at all” – her decision to return was influenced by Haddon’s work, which she describes as “an extremely well written play. Of course, any actor responds to good writing.”
That writing, she will say, “is very witty and funny. It’s a very humorous look at a potentially dark subject.”
That is it. There is no more information about the play to be proffered. But May is not employed to be interviewed, is she? As she argues, “I’m sure people don’t want to know about whether I watch TV. I’m sure that’s the last thing they’re interested in if I’m honest.” She is employed to act. If her previous performances are anything to go by, watching Polar Bears will be an eminently more satisfying experience than trying to convince May to talk about it.