'I'm a person who walks on eggshells'
A hit comedy career plus a Palme d'Or for straight acting should be enough for anyone. Not ex-Kevin and Perry star Kathy Burke. Now directing a new Sam Shepard play, she talks about demons, heroes and life as a 'smoking humanist'
By Jay Rayner
Three years ago Kathy Burke began throwing plates. She turned over a few tables. 'I called up a friend and just screamed down the phone at them,' she says wide-eyed, as if surprised by the memory. There was, though, something familiar about this burst of anger. 'I used to be terribly aggressive in my twenties,' she says. 'But I thought I'd sorted it out.' Clearly she hadn't. I point out that this sudden lurch into outrage and plate throwing occurred around the same time Burke finally gave up her hugely successful acting career for the life of a jobbing theatre director. We are talking at the Jerwood Space in London's Bankside, where she is currently rehearsing a new Sam Shepard play for the Donmar. We are outside, in the damp, rain-washed courtyard behind the cafe so she can get her nicotine fix in the lunch break.
She takes a drag on one of a succession of cigarettes, and says: 'Maybe it was something to do with the fact that I couldn't switch into being someone else. When I was an actor I had an outlet for all that stuff, but then I didn't have it any more.' Was it depression? 'No. I can get low, but it wasn't depression.' Still, she decided she needed some help, and went to see a therapist. I ask what sort of therapy it was. She gives a toothy mind-your own-business grin and says, 'The 30 quid an hour kind. It was very gentle. I just talked about stuff.' This, she admits, was not the sort of thing she expected to find herself doing because Burke doesn't do touchy-feely.
'I'd always been dead against therapy. I didn't think you needed to pay someone to talk about yourself.' She adds: 'It only went on for four months', as though she would hate you to think her self-indulgent.
She declines at first to say exactly what the problem was. She tells me that it's private, and says the same about her politics, though eventually she will elaborate on both. 'I'm very much a person who walks on egg shells,' she says.
Her mother died of cancer when Burke was 18 months old and for a few years she was fostered with family friends in Islington where she grew up, before returning to her hard-drinking dad and her two brothers. 'From a very young age I'd learned to put on a brave face because of losing my mum. I'd always make jokes if anybody tried to throw sympathy at me. The therapist showed me that it was all right for me to be sad sometimes and for other people to see that.'
Unsurprisingly, this description of her time in therapy comes late in the interview. Burke has been increasingly reluctant to talk about anything recently, let alone herself, though only, she says, 'because I got sick of my own voice'. Before we meet I am auditioned by the theatre's PR people to check I'm not the sort of journalist to bang on about Waynetta Slob - though again, Burke says, only because she's bored of talking about her characters. Even now, three years after she packed in the acting, she still expresses surprise that people should like her and be at all interested in what she's doing. But they do like her - very much. When I tell people I am to interview Kathy Burke, they smile and give a gentle sigh of pleasure.
Appearing on Room 101, Stephen Fry declared that there should also be a 'Room Lovely' for things everybody would want to keep, into which Burke could safely be put. At times in the Nineties she was described as a 'working-class Judi Dench', who could be relied upon to deliver the real sound of a life lived hard. She won a Palme d'Or for her performance as a battered wife in Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth, and a Bafta for her part in Mr Wroe's Virgins. She became a cult figure for playing Waynetta and Perry alongside Harry Enfield. She only had to appear on the screen to lend a production authenticity. Even so, she's not at all convinced by the affection in which she is held. 'It's nice, I suppose,' she says, bemused. 'But there are other sides to me. I tell people how grumpy and stroppy I am but they still seem to like me. You can't win, can you?'
her decision to give up acting was partly out of boredom with the process - she was tired of sitting in mobile dressing rooms for hours on end, waiting for her shot to come round - and partly out of a desire for change after more than 20 years as an actor. It's clear from her saggy old jumper and knackered jeans, and her long flop of hair, that she has fully embraced a non-actor's life unbound by vanity, or, to put it more plainly, that she doesn't give a toss about the way she looks now. The only thing she says she misses from the acting jobs 'is the nice car picking you up in the morning and then taking you back at the end of the day. And the money.' But she earned enough in the Waynetta days, and has described herself as a good businesswoman. 'Well, what I meant was I never developed a cocaine habit. A bit of blow and a can of Stella and I'm fine. I'm a cheap date, me.'
At 41, she still lives in Islington, though she recently turned down the chance to buy the council house her family had lived in, which she could have made a large profit on. 'I already had somewhere to live,' she says simply. 'I wasn't being moral or anything. I just didn't want it.'
Up to now she has made very little out of directing and has very little expectation that she will ever do so. However, her work has, for the most part, been well received. Burke has been directing since her twenties, when she was working the north London pub-theatre circuit, but started thinking more seriously about it in 2001 when she was offered the chance to direct Out in the Open, a new play by Jonathan Harvey, who had written the TV sitcom Gimme, Gimme, Gimme in which she starred.
The moment that play finished at the Hampstead Theatre, she found herself back twiddling her thumbs on a film set, and soon phoned her agent to break the news: she wanted to do more of the directing.
And yet, despite her enthusiasm, it's hard to define the Burke thumbprint, from the eight or nine plays she has so far directed. 'I can't think of one thing that unifies her style,' says The Observer's Susannah Clapp, 'except a willingness to tackle rather abrasive themes straight on. There's nothing precious about it.' That's true: mental illness, in Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange; the (perhaps familiar) alcohol-fuelled tensions of family in Love Me Tonight; the stinking grime of prison in The Quare Fellow
Burke herself agrees that it's hard to categorise her work. 'I try to find the truth in it,' she says, 'and to make it accessible so it's not just one kind of head who can understand it.'
When she started in theatre her father thought she would get into trouble. 'He was worried that I might be taken advantage of,' she has said. 'But I have never done anything I didn't want to do. I would not be bullied by a director.' Now she's the director, she says, she doesn't bully either. 'I like a bit of shouting. They shout at me and then I shout back.'
I point out that she seems a bit unwilling to share her ideas with me in an interview and wonder whether that makes being a director tough. 'Yeah, but when I'm directing it's not just about me. It's about everyone in the room. If someone asks me what I think and I don't know, I just throw it back at them and say, "What do you think?"'
The new Shepard play, The God of Hell, is as different as all the others are from each other. Written at speed just before the 2004 US presidential election, it is Shepard raging against the Republican Party, and is set on a dairy farm in the wide-open spaces of the Midwest that the writer likes to make his own. Out there nothing ever happens, until a government official comes to call, and a mysterious figure is found hiding in the basement of the farmhouse. It is, by turns, dark, surreal and comic. For Burke, it is virgin territory, not least because she has only ever spent three hours in the US, all of them at JFK airport, on the return trip from a stay in Nicaragua in 1984. But she says: 'America seeps into everywhere, doesn't it?'
So is she political? 'Not really. I suppose I'm a smoking humanist.' She sucks enthusiastically on another fag. 'I'm interested in people, and that's what drags me in. I don't like talking about my politics because it's private, but I don't like Bush and what's going on and us being at war with Iraq.'
I point out that, because of the play she's directing, people will now make assumptions about her politics. 'I don't mind that, and they'd be right. I'm on the same side,' which I take to mean, against Bush. She says that when Hurricane Katrina hit and the federal government appeared to do nothing, she wasn't surprised. 'It's the arrogance, the "we're invincible" attitude that nothing can destroy us. It's a complete underestimation of what could happen.'
She denies, however, that it is a purely anti-American rant; argues that it couldn't be because Shepard wrote it. 'What comes across to me is how much Sam Shepard loves America. It's about how much the people in power are fucking it up.' She references Shepard often, says she is doing the play 'for Uncle Sam', and is proud of her gag.
Burke has spoken to him only three times and admits that's frustrating but says she doesn't want to 'bother him too much'. Why is she so keen to have him around? 'I want to check he's happy. I'm into serving the text.' It is the writer who matters most to her. Or, as she puts it: 'If it wasn't for the writer none of us would be fucking working.'
She admits she felt the same when she was an actor, that she always wanted to please the writer more than the director. I ask if she is intimidated working with a text by Shepard. 'Well, yeah, because he's a bit of a hero, isn't he? But I just try not to think about it or you'd just stop, wouldn't you? It was the same when I was acting with big stars. You tried not to think of them as big stars.'
Reviews of the first American production admired its vitality, but wondered whether it had been written too quickly and lacked Shepard's usual polish. Burke disagrees. 'There's all these odd things that happen in it, because it's a bit sci-fi - but I never questioned any of it. It's just, to me, a whole story. It didn't feel like a work in progress.' But then she says, 'I'm starting to feel I should put my passport in my bag everyday,' so she can do a runner if it all goes wrong. 'I'd feel bad reviews were totally my fault, you see. I feel a huge responsibility. They can say what they like about me and my interpretation of the play, but they shouldn't blame the tools.'
I suggest this sounds like she's willing to take the blame if any of the actors deliver bad performances, and she agrees that she is. Which seems a little unreasonable. After all, she must have been in plays as an actor with people whom she knew were going to do a bad job, however good the director was. She admits that she has. 'But so far nobody [in this play] stands out as being crap. I've got four wonderful actors who can't be bad - and if they are it's my fault.' (Ewen Bremner, Ben Daniels, Stuart McQuarrie and Lesley Sharp can now feel suitably absolved of responsibility.)
So how has she responded to the bad reviews for other plays she's directed, in particular for Betty, about a repressed middle-aged woman who finds fulfilment on her 49th birthday by sitting on a washing machine during the spin cycle? Critics dismissed the one-woman show, which went on at the West End's Vaudeville Theatre in 2002, as 'smutty' and 'juvenile drivel'. The problem, Burke says, was the venue, which was too large for what was an intensely intimate piece.
'Whatever the reason, it hurts because I feel I've let down the writer. I can take anything said about me. They've said some horrible stuff about me. As an actor, it's all about the surface so its always really personal. What worries most about reviews like that, though, is box office sales.' Anyway, she says, she doesn't read the reviews, just gets told 'good, bad or indifferent'. And then, after this moment of self-analysis, she sucks noisily on her fag and says: 'Life's too fucking short really.'
A couple of years ago it's possible a bad review might have led to a bit of plate throwing. Not anymore. This Kathy Burke has dealt with her demons and is just getting on with the job.
· The God of Hell runs at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 until 3 December. Box office 0870 060 6624