In Belvoir’s 2012 season brochure, artistic director Ralph Myers cites Emily Barclay’s cornflakes-and-vodka breakfast scene in The Seagull as one of the memorable Belvoir moments of the year.
No question about it: Barclay’s performance was the highlight of the production – from the moment her goth-clad Masha tottered into view, in smeared make-up and too-high heels, and prepared a bucket bong, to her ultimate disintegration. Her swirling dance to Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’ remains one of the most heartbreaking onstage moments all year.
Truth is, though, Barclay has been an outstanding presence at Belvoir St Theatre since 2009, when she made her theatrical debut in David Hare’sGethsemane, directed by Neil Armfield. In 2010 she performed in Polly Stenham’s That Face, directed by Lee Lewis.
Next year, Barclay returns to the Belvoir stage in Simon Stone’s adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude. She will play Nina – one of the great female roles of the twentieth century. Stone didn’t merely cast Barclay in the role – he found the play especially for her after witnessing her performance in The Seagull.
Barclay, who lives in London, spoke to us on the phone from her home in Hackney last week, just an hour before Belvoir officially unveiled its 2012 season.
Hello Barkers, how are ya?
[Laughs.] I’m good mate, how are you?
Very very well. The Belvoir season launch party is just about to kick off.
Are you there?
I’m actually in the Belvoir boardroom on the phone to you right now.
Oh that’s so funny. I wish I was there!
Well I think it was about two-and-a-half years ago we were in this room together. You were eating hummus.
And you were talking about how your first day of Belvoir rehearsals was a bit like your first day of school.
It’s totally nerve-wracking every step of the way really. It’s almost like, you start rehearsals and you feel like you’ve got no idea what you’re doing. And then opening night comes along and you feel like you’ve got no idea what you’re doing. And you’re sort of left to six weeks of not knowing what you’re doing.
That sounds so stupid…
No it doesn’t! Are you nerve-wracked even after all these years?
I’m a lot more comfortable there now. Partly because I’ve done three plays there, and because I know everyone well who works there and everyone’s so incredibly supportive. You’re part of something exciting and you’re in an environment where you feel safe enough to take risks and try and push yourself.
I love that. Although I’m still absolutely terrified and full of self-doubt and neuroses. [Laughs.] I feel more relaxed and more able to enjoy it than I think I did. That was my experience of The Seagull.
Speaking of The Seagull, after the show on opening night we talked about how the door came off in Gareth Davies’s hand… and you burst into laughter.
What were you thinking? Was there any desire to keep a straight face?
Well, I feel like with [Barclay’s character] Masha there was so much room to move. And that’s also the joy of Chekhov: nothing’s really wrong. I mean if I’d said, ‘Aw, Gary, what the fuck are you doing?’ – it wouldn’t have been appropriate.
But I love it when stuff like that happens. It jolts you awake and you really have to think on your feet and figure out what’s going to happen next. It makes it all come to life. It’s really exciting.
Were there any other major mishaps?
Well, I passed out during a preview. You know about that. Is that what you want me to tell you?
Oh man. I’d honestly forgotten about that.
So I start the play with the bucket bong. I inhaled it. Like, properly inhaled it. I took a few steps and passed out.
Far out. And did the crowd love it?
I think they did – I remember coming to and thinking, what’s going on? I thought I had a preview tonight? And the sound of the audience flooded in. They were laughing so it must have looked intentional. Benno said it was intentional.
Some might have thought it was the highlight of the night. Emily, have any of these characters you’ve played stayed with you?
Especially with The Seagull – this is going to sound very dramatic – I made a conscious effort of letting go of Masha when I finished. It was such an intense space to be in every night and the character was so full of deep sadness and heartache. It wasn’t something you could phone in. You had to really be there. There were some nights the play was elevated and it was an amazing feeling. You know, because of that, it inevitably affects you. Even on a physiological level, you’re there for three hours feeling devastated. You’re bound to take some of that home with you at the end of the day.
It’s quite a downward spiral.
It’s a strange thing. Sometimes you really feel like you’re channelling this person. It’s amazing, because you’re transported, but at the end of it you have to let go of it because it can really, really affect you. And I think it did affect us all over the course of the production. Feelings arise in you… and you realise it’s those parts of yourself you’re having to draw on or a place you have to go to imaginatively sparking off real-life feelings or fears in yourself.
Coming back to London and being removed from it physically – although I really miss everyone – it’s a new beginning.
I suppose you felt the same way after playing that owl in the Ga’Hoole movie.
Yeah I really feel like I’ve still got the owl inside me. Every day. It’s something I have to face. [Laughs.] It was my life. Pretty tough really.
So, with you returning next year, I’ve realised you’ll have done four shows in as many years in the Belvoir Upstairs Theatre. That could be a record.
Not sure. We’ll have to get the fact-checkers on it.
Wow, that’s such an honour. I feel like I’ve been incredibly lucky because I’d never done any theatre before.
I auditioned for Neil [Armfield, former artistic director] and I didn’t do a great audition, I don’t think – It wasn’t theatrical enough, it wasn’t big enough, I had no idea what I was doing. So he really took a massive risk really. And he and the Belvoir have been constantly supportive. If you contrast it with what happens in the film industry, it’s not necessarily about sustaining a career and helping someone develop a career – whereas I feel like Belvoir have put me up and gone, right, we’re going to take you on. It’s a pretty special thing. It makes you feel a part of this family.
I just think the Belvoir is such a good theatre. I really do, you know. I feel like I’m the number one fan of the Belvoir.
Well you’ve given some of the best performances in some of their best productions over the years – and worked with some of our best directors. And Simon Stone is an amazing director.
I’m so excited to work with Simon.
The play sounds bat-shit insane.
Have you read it?
I’ve read the Wikipedia article on it, does that count?
Yeah that counts. [Laughs.] No that doesn’t count.
It’s amazing. Simon’s going to adapt it. We’ve had a couple of conversations about. It’ll be really exciting to see what he does with it. As it stands it’s a nine-act five-hour play. So I don’t think it’ll end up the same. Maybe it will!
Not to say your other roles were minor, but this sounds like something to really get your teeth into.
Yeah, a grown-up role. It’s amazing.
This interview originally appeared in Time Out Sydney in September 2011.