My Name Is Rachel Corrie is the one-woman play based on the real-life writings of a young American peace activist who lost her life in Gaza. A sell-out success during two runs at the Royal Court last year, the production opens tonight in the West End for a limited season at the Playhouse after a controversial last-minute rejection by a New York theatre. Star of the play Megan Dodds talks to Caroline Bishop about why she’s determined to make sure American audiences get to see it…
Megan Dodds spent six years living in New York. A Californian, she swapped coastlines after college to study drama at the famous Julliard School and grew to love the city where her career started. So that’s why it seems so personal to her that the one-woman production in which she stars in London has been “indefinitely postponed” across the Atlantic by the theatre it was supposed to be opening at this spring, the New York Theatre Workshop.
Of course, that’s not the only reason Dodds is angry that My Name Is Rachel Corrie will not be showing in New York in the immediate future. The decision was shocking, she says, both from a financial point of view, as the plane tickets were booked and paid for, and because of the reason behind it. The postponement (“What the hell is that? If you ‘postpone indefinitely’ it’s not going to happen!” says Dodds.) caused column inches of controversy in the US, with the New York Times picking up the story and rumours being bandied about that the theatre was afraid of the show’s political content. “Yes it is censorship. I don’t think there is any question about whether or not it’s censorship,” Dodds says, echoing comments made publicly by both Alan Rickman, the show’s director, and its ardent supporter and financial backer Vanessa Redgrave. “I feel a little bit ashamed in a way that [the postponement] happened. It’s your country, you know, and that that kind of thing can happen. But it also gives fuel to the fire, it makes sense of why this play should get made.”
The production, which had two sell-out runs at the Royal Court last year, tells the real-life story, in her own words, of Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American who went to Rafah, Gaza to volunteer as a non-violent resistor and was killed by an Israeli bulldozer as she tried to protect a Palestinian doctor’s home from demolition on 16 March 2003. It is a story that Dodds, who plays Rachel, feels the US must hear. “I think that there has never been a time where Americans have needed more to hear stories about people going out into the world and finding out the impact of their own foreign policy on other parts of the world,” she says.
"Yes it is censorship. I don’t think there is any question about whether or not it’s censorship"
A writer from an early age, Rachel Corrie sent a series of emails and letters home to her family and friends expressing why she wanted to be in Gaza and what she thought of the world. It was these emails, published in The Guardian after her death, which first inspired Alan Rickman, along with Guardian Features Editor Katharine Viner, to ask Corrie’s family if they could edit them for a piece of theatre. Craig and Cindy Corrie, Rachel’s parents, not only agreed to the use of the emails, they also compiled all their daughter’s writings from aged 12 until her death, and subsequently the play tells her story up to and including her days in Gaza. It is not simply a political play, says the 36-year-old actress. “There are so many other issues in the play besides the politics and so many young people have identified with Rachel because she asks questions like what am I going to do with the rest of my life? How do I feel about where I come from? What’s possible in the world? It asks all the questions that you ask yourself when you’re 20.”
Dodds can’t stop enthusing, in her soft Californian accent, about how much she loves Rachel’s writing, and the responsibility she feels to do it justice. “She’s got a great sense of humour, she doesn’t take herself too seriously. She has a really specific way of seeing the world, I guess, and it’s brilliant writing, it’s really beautiful writing. I love the work so much I feel a big responsibility towards the work, to communicate it in a way that I think it deserves to be communicated. I put a lot of pressure on myself to do that.”
The quality of the writing compounds Dodds’s anger that New Yorkers won’t get to experience it imminently. However, what is New York’s loss is London’s gain, because as a result of the cancellation, My Name is Rachel Corrie has transferred to the Playhouse theatre in the West End for an eight-week run. It is a big step up for the production, which initially started out as a workshop at the Royal Court before graduating to the upstairs, then downstairs, stage. Dodds, who, as Rachel, is alone on stage for the one-and-a-half-hour duration, had never done a solo show before. “I never wanted to and I never thought I would. I don’t know how I ended up in this position!” she laughs. She says it doesn’t feel like she’s on her own, instead “I’ve always felt like it was this big team effort.” She pauses, before mocking herself (she has lived in Britain for nine years, after all), “that sounds so American! But we were all in it together. It all happened at the right place at the right time, with these amazing people – people at the Royal Court and Alan [Rickman] and Kath [Viner]. They are all so passionate about it and it’s contagious that feeling. I love doing it.”
As well as a passion for Corrie’s writing, Dodds also feels a real sense of identification with the young idealist from Olympia, Washington that goes beyond a certain physical similarity. Both blond, blue-eyed girls had a ‘typical’ American life growing up on the West coast, with topics like boyfriends and music high on the agenda, “…and working at some job to make money while you figure out what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. I really identify with that,” adds Dodds.
"It’s nothing to do with me, it’s Rachel, it’s her story… That’s why people come, they want to sit in a room with her"
But by questioning American foreign policy and travelling to Gaza to see its effects for herself, Corrie’s life departed from that of the average American college student, and it is this mixture that enables young people to both identify with her and be inspired by her at the same time. “She’s amazing, a really rare person, and inspiring,” Dodds stresses, “I think that young college-aged girls really relate to it, they come up to me afterwards and just say that’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in the theatre and makes me want to go see more. They feel it’s their story.”
Corrie’s parents are also “completely amazing”, adds Dodds. “They have to be, to raise a child in America who questions in the way she does. It’s a really rare thing.” The Corries have been supportive throughout what must be a disconcerting experience. Writing on the website of the foundation they set up in their daughter’s name, they describe their reactions to the first night at the Royal Court. “At several points in the play Megan enacts receiving emails from us – real emails that we actually sent to Rachel. We had never before imagined our daughter’s reactions to receiving our messages until we saw them on stage.” Despite bringing their daughter’s words back to life, Dodds is humble regarding her part in this and the positive reaction to the production, which was Laurence Olivier Award-nominated this year. “It’s nothing to do with me, it’s Rachel, it’s her story, the way she communicates her ideas to the world. That is it. That’s why people come, they want to sit in a room with her.”
With such a powerful subject matter it’s no wonder that when asked what her favourite role has been in her career so far, Dodds answers quickly and firmly: “This one. Definitely.” It has been a varied career. After leaving Julliard and working in New York for two years, she came over to Britain in 1997 to do Ben Elton’s show Popcorn at the Apollo, in which she played a playboy bunny. Once in London she met her photographer husband and she has remained here ever since, bar a few visits back home. The couple live in Battersea, South London, with their four-year-old daughter. “I love it here, I really feel like I learn a lot,” she says, “There’s a lot of variety in terms of work.”
"When it’s just you there’s this huge onus to carry something for an hour and a half, you just kind of cross your fingers"
In between television roles in the series Spooks and Love In A Cold Climate, Dodds has appeared in the West End several times, memorably with Madonna in Up For Grabs at Wyndham’s in 2002, and last year in the Neil LaBute play This Is How It Goes at the Donmar with Idris Elba and Ben Chaplin. Sandwiched between the two Royal Court runs of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, This Is How It Goes was “such a joy to do”, particularly because she shared the stage with two co-stars. “It was just such a relief that there were three of us on the stage!” she laughs. “You didn’t have to speak all the time, it was mostly their responsibility. It was so lovely to have that kind of balance and time to react from other people. When it’s just you there’s this huge onus to carry something for an hour and a half, you just kind of cross your fingers and hope it goes well!”
She has recently finished a film called The Contract, with Morgan Freeman, filmed in Bulgaria last year, and will next be seen on the British small screen in a new Andrew Collins-penned sitcom called Not Going Out – “a kind of bizarre love triangle basically”. But before that there’s the not-so-small matter of getting My Name Is Rachel Corrie on to a New York stage, something which Dodds is determined to do. “New York is going to happen, if we have to stand on the street. I think that we all at this point feel so passionately that this play has to get done there.”
My Name Is Rachel Corrie runs at the Playhouse theatre until 7 May.