Caroline Bishop discovers the dark side of Speaking In Tongues actress Lucy Cohu.
When I arrive at the labyrinthine rehearsal rooms at the Union Chapel in Highbury, the cast of Speaking In Tongues has just finished the first run through of Act One and Lucy Cohu is scared. “That was in a rehearsal room and I felt really sick!” she laughs.
Cohu hasn’t been on stage for eight years. She had stage fright back then, and now, returning to the theatre in a high profile West End play, the nerves have returned too. “I probably could have done with doing something slightly without the huge amount of focus, like go off to Pitlochry and do a small play, and I’m choosing to do a huge West End one! God, I don’t know,” she pauses, considering what she is preparing to do. “I hope I am throwing myself in as opposed to throwing up! I hope people don’t come and see this play and end up seeing me throw up, that would be really awful.”
She laughs and it echoes around the deserted, gloomy room at the Chapel where we sit facing each other on grey plastic chairs. Petite, with her dark hair tied casually back and wearing tracksuit bottoms and layered T-shirts, 39-year-old Cohu is dressed comfortably, verging on scruffily, yet somehow she still manages to appear effortlessly chic.
She may be scared, but Cohu is nevertheless enjoying getting to grips with a play that is, she says, “right up my street”. So much so that it tempted her back to the theatre after years of screen work, which she found more conducive to her parental duties to son Alexander. “Because I’m a single parent and it’s very difficult, I haven’t wanted to go off and leave him for long periods of time, that’s basically been it you know. He’s just turned nine, and this is a fantastic play, wonderful cast and it felt like I just had to do it. I felt like it was time.”
A complex, multi-layered drama billed as an ‘emotional thriller’, Andrew Bovell’s Speaking In Tongues centres on a detective, John Simm’s Leon Zat, who investigates the mysterious disappearance of a therapist. Each of the four-strong cast plays multiple roles; Cohu is both the missing therapist and Zat’s wife. “I think fundamentally it’s about love, love and relationships,” she says. “It’s about how we love and how we need to be loved and how we are frightened of loving and what we sort of show to the world as opposed to what we are really feeling.”
“I hope I am throwing myself in as opposed to throwing up!”
Cohu chooses her words carefully, long pauses breaking up her sentences as she ponders the meaning of the play and the complexity of the various intertwined stories. “It’s like [Ingmar] Bergman films, they are so intense and dark, but they are actually quite life-affirming to watch… because you are actually touching on things that really, really matter. And I think there’s such a fashion these days to spoonfeed people, to spoonfeed audiences and deal with issues on the surface level. It’s quite fantastic that someone dares to go underneath.”
I get the feeling Cohu doesn’t do light and fluffy; dark and complex is much more her thing. “Give me a bit of miserable old Ibsen and Chekhov any day,” she smiles, telling me about going to see director Katie Mitchell’s 1998 production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya for the Royal Shakespeare Company. “It was four hours long, it was f***ing great! I remember walking out and feeling so alive having witnessed this tragedy; it invigorated me. So I hope this play does the same sort of thing, if we get it right.”
Cohu has always leant towards the darker side of acting. She was drawn to the profession from an early age, but not out of any extrovert tendency; rather, she was a shy child who found it “easier to speak other people’s lines and to be someone else than to be yourself”.
At school she was cast as an Ugly Sister rather than Cinderella – “that was a much better role!” – and her propensity to attract darker parts continued at Lincolnshire Youth Theatre. “We did an adaptation of [Dickens’s] A Tale Of Two Cities. The most beautiful girl played Lucie Manette, with long blonde hair and blue eyes, and I played Madame Defarge, the old hag who knits as people’s heads are being chopped off. But a better part, a much better part!”
That is not to say that she didn’t aspire to the romanticism of Cinderella or Lucie, but as she grew up she realised the character roles were the more interesting. She has continued to attract “parts that err on the dark side”, illustrated by her television credits over the last eight years, which include Torchwood, creepy C4 series Cape Wrath, forthcoming thriller Murderland, and her Emmy-winning performance in television film Forgiven, in which she played a wife who forgives her husband after he sexually abuses their daughter.
The latter was one of two profile-raising jobs in her career to date, the other being C4 drama The Queen’s Sister, in which she depicted the eventful life of Princess Margaret. “Television normally can fall into one of three categories; you either play mothers, whores or police officers. To be given the opportunity to do both of those projects was just a joy,” she says with a smile.
“I remember walking out and feeling so alive having witnessed this tragedy; it invigorated me”
I wonder if Forgiven, which is based on a true story, was a particularly difficult job for Cohu, as a mother herself. “Yeah I did find it difficult,” she says, pondering the question carefully. “Some of the decisions that the mother made we changed slightly in the making of the film because I said I just can’t believe that a woman [would do that]. There’s a scene in the car when she absolutely flies at him and that wasn’t in the original transcripts. The mother said when the daughter told her that she had been abused that she was very calm and I just thought no, there had got to have been something going on inside of her, and so we shot that scene in the car when she absolutely flies at him and it felt right. And it was very interesting because I know that when Paul [Wilmshurst, the director] showed it to the family, the husband said to the wife, ‘I don’t remember you being that angry’, and apparently the wife said ‘I wasn’t but that’s what I was feeling.’ So I’m pleased that we got that one right.”
Cohu certainly doesn’t take the easy route, which may explain why, despite her near-vomit-inducing nerves, she is prepared to take to the stage once more, after eight years away. “Maybe that’s why I do it, that’s probably part of why we do what we do, because there is that element of being so scared,” she muses. “And it’s quite interesting because it’s sort of what this play is about. It’s about people getting to a certain point in their lives where life has become, not mundane, but they’ve lost that sense of excitement they had as children, so they want to recreate those sensations by going out and having an affair, going and having a one night stand, to see if that’s going to make them feel alive again. Maybe that’s what we are all looking for, maybe we are all thrill seekers.”
But acting is a thrill she says she wouldn’t want her son to have. What would she rather he pursued as a career? “Oh God, anything that he wants to do, but I think [acting] is a very, very hard profession.”
I suddenly wonder if she regrets doing it herself. Cohu hesitates, considering the question, before plumping for a firm “No.” The half-smile that comes with her answer tells me I might have encountered less hesitation if I had asked her that question after her first nervous night back on a West End stage.