My acting days are over
Kathy Burke had it all as an actress – critical acclaim, a top award at Cannes, and a place in the nation's heart as Waynetta Slob. But now she has found a new passion, she tells Jasper Rees
Kathy Burke was, for a period in the 1990s, a sort of cockney working-class Judi Dench.
Straddling the broad comedy of the television sketch show Harry Enfield and Chums and the unflinching realism of Gary Oldman's movie Nil By Mouth, for which she won a best actress award at Cannes in 1997, she was one of those much loved performers everyone got used to always being around.
When an actress slips from view, it's usually because the parts dry up in a business over-reliant on youth and looks. But Burke has gone to ground for an entirely different reason.
In 2001 the playwright Jonathan Harvey asked her to direct a new play of his. She'd done one of his six years before, and then starred in his sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme. But this was the first play she had directed at the height of her fame. Schedules were shuffled, rehearsals held, and Out in the Open duly opened at the Hampstead Theatre.
"And then when it ended," says Burke, "suddenly I was back on a film set at five in the morning and just sat round not using my brain and basically bored, really really bored. And I thought, oh fuck this. I rang up my agent Stephen and I said, 'Look, I don't want to act. I want to be available for theatre directing.' "
This was three years ago. Her agent had seen it coming. "He could see the difference in me. Suddenly I was smiling all the time. To be honest I thought, well a couple of years and I'll probably want to show off again. And it's just not come back. I got quite tempted by something this year. But then once costume fittings were being organised I suddenly felt myself go white and thought, oh no, I really don't want to do this. So I had to pull out."
Burke has now directed seven plays. Last year she had her biggest success to date with the Oxford Stage Company's touring production of Brendan Behan's The Quare Fellow.
Now she is directing her eighth, and third at Hampstead. Love Me Tonight, by Nick Stafford, is a four-hander about a family who have just buried their youngest member. As they drink and reminisce and squabble after the funeral, each one inspects the entrails of their lives for a lost happiness. When Stafford first sent Burke the play, she "really didn't like the children in it. I just thought they were selfish and needed a good slap."
Asking a writer to redraft a play is entirely usual for a director. It just sounds a bit surprising when Waynetta Slob is doing the asking. In fact Burke has a long theatrical training. She first started going to her local pub theatre, the Old Red Lion in Islington, at 18. Although her acting career was slowly kicking off, in her early twenties she decided she also wanted to direct.
The Welsh actor Robert Pugh had written a play and needed funding to put it on. "I didn't know him terribly well, but I overheard him one day moaning that all he needed was a couple of hundred quid to put on this play.
"I'd just done a part in a Channel 4 film so I suddenly had a nice bit of spare cash. I said to him, 'I will produce this play if you let me be your assistant director.' " She also stage-managed. The play was invited to a festival in Amsterdam. "Bob got very disgruntled because I got triple back what I put in."
In the meantime she wrote and later directed a play, Mr Thomas, "purely to get better acting parts, even though I didn't write a part for me. It would show people that you've got a brain. I had to prove that I could understand other aspects of human beings and not just little fat girls."
It worked. By the time she directed Harvey's Eurovision comedy Boom Bang A Bang in 1995 she was a household name thanks to Mr Wroe's Virgins, for which she won a Bafta, Common as Muck and, above all, Waynetta.
"Then I did Nil By Mouth and it all kicked off. I had no desire to be a film actress but if you win a big award like that then suddenly all these scripts are there and you've got to make really quick decisions and it was like crumbs, all of a sudden I'm a film actress." It was on the set of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa that she felt the full force of her disgruntlement. "On the second day I was thinking, I hope I get the sack."
Burke has found a new home in the new writing houses – the Royal Court and Hampstead, where we talk over lunch in the rehearsal room. The Quare Fellow, with an all-male cast of 17, is her only revival thus far. "I found it really weird not having the writer around. It was a bit, 'Who do I talk to?' " Even as an actor she remembers that it was "the writer first and foremost who I wanted to please, not the director".
"On a couple of occasions I didn't get on with the director but I didn't give a shit because I knew the writer was delighted with what I was doing. The last theatre director I worked with was Mike Leigh [on 1993's It's a Great Big Shame] and, yeah, there were certain aspects of his personality that I wasn't too mad about. But working with him was pretty fantastic because he does work in a completely different way to everybody else. I was glad it was theatre and not film, cos I don't think I could have stood the lack of control."
People often tell her she likes directing "because you like control". "There is a bit of truth to that," she says, "but it's controlling in a good way: it's creating a good atmosphere. I like team players. What's important to me is that the ego hasn't taken over. I much prefer to meet actors that are really into the play rather than into the part."
Although she was initially sent more scripts than plays, she has no ambition to direct film, or Shakespeare: "I don't see what I could add that would be different. He gets served enough by bigger and better people than me."
As a joke I ask if she fancies doing a Coward. "Yeah well, see I like Coward. People would think I wouldn't like Noël Coward. I think he was the original punk in a lot of ways. You know. Saucy. Doing his own thing. I've got no class agenda at all. But obviously it's better if I tell stories that I understand."
The alcohol-fuelled wake of Love Me Tonight certainly struck a chord. "I grew up with death because of mum dying when I was 18 months old. I grew up with that word, that feeling of an empty void. Maybe it is something I am attracted to because it's something I understand. I'm not afraid of it, let's say." Rain tumbles out of a sun-drenched sky as Burke lights her second cigarette. "Yeah," she says. "It's quite a good subject. Drink and death."