This week I got the incredible opportunity to sit down with stage and screen actress Emma Davies, while she is touring with the satirical and highly innovative Johnathan Maitland play ‘The Last Temptation Of Boris Johnson’. We sat down over a coffee and discussed everything from the current political climate, the role of politics in art, her experiences as a mother in the acting industry and her upcoming plans.
I grew up watching Emma Davies on Emmerdale, my family’s soap of choice when we got home from work and school and were having our tea at seven o’clock. Anna De Souza was a high flying, emotional and driven character who had a tumultuous 9 month storyline on the show, and Davies captured the very essence of that character. In this play however, Davies is playing several characters: the iconic Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, Sarah Vine- Michael Gove’s long-suffering wife and well-known journalist and the elusive future Tory Chief Whip. An exhausting and very challenging task to take on. She has had a broad career thus far, no stranger to stage and screen, working with Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson on The Hustle, with Tuppence Middleton on The Currant War and with Robson Green on Grantchester. So, how was a political play about our Prime Minister going to fare?
With Brexit ‘done’ and that chapter of our lives closed, and the future of a nation outside the EU on the horizon, I was very keen to know why now, why a play on something so fresh, raw and topical? In summary of the play which explores one night in February 2016, the present, and the 2029 future, Emma explained, “Oh it’s hugely topical! So much so that if anything in particular happens in the news they like to drop it in… The first act of the play takes place around an evening that actually happened and that was in February 2016 when Boris Johnson and his then wife Marina Wheeler had dinner, he had over to his house Michael Gove with his wife, the Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, and a Russian editor Evgeny Lebedev who owns a number of papers, among them at that time The London Evening Standard… They were keen to know which way Boris was going to vote in the Brexit Referendum. There was this always seemingly quite sensible view that whichever way he went he was going to have quite a galvanising effect.”
With such a well known figure being at the core push and pull of political allegiances, he was likely questioning all of his loyalties and so he was seemingly quite troubled in this retelling of events as he encounters the ghosts of Eurosceptics past Margaret Thatcher (Davies) and Winston Churchill (Champion), while also meeting the spirit of pro-Europe ex-Labour prime minister Tony Blair (Wallers). What draws these figures together, you may ask? Davies shared that these leaders all clung onto power, much as Boris has done, “Winston Churchill didn’t step down until he was 80, Margaret Thatcher stepped down when she had to but not necessarily when she was ready, she was there for 11 years, she did 3 elections as did Tony Blair.” Power and the grapple for it sits at the core of this play, as it does for the careers of all the politicians in this play. “They had the power and they didn’t want to let go of it”, and Emma seems to think that is the side of Boris Johnson explored in this play.
With so much of our media right now being consumed by Brexit and what it means for us all, how does one begin to create art about this? Emma shared, “The play is written by Johnathan Maitland who is a playwright but as I knew him originally, as a broadcaster, and he has written a huge amount and all the plays he has written are politically based…In act two when we are seeing the things that are happening now it is funny, the sort of hollow laughs you get.” Along with the fear or passion associated with Brexit there does seem to be this kind of dry understanding attached to any art depicting such relevant and recent events. There are such extremities on the issue, no grey areas only Leave vs Remain and the recently cultivated ‘Remoaners’ culture, and on this Emma said:
“It can bring out the worst aspects of things and usually, because I think people get overly passionate and when I say overly passionate that’s probably the wrong thing to say because it is good to be passionate, but here everyone is going to be teased, we are going to laugh at all of it”.
I read an article released in 2015 a year or so ago now, titled ‘Theatre: The Nation’s Debating Chamber’ which I have thought a lot about more recently. With people being so volatile about their politics and their views, is there really a place for politics on stage or in art altogether? Very insightfully and calmly Emma shared her view that “Even when we think ‘Oh, I’m not feeling very political today’, unfortunately almost everything in some form or action is a political action so there is no escaping it, and I think there are some places you go to expecting to be challenged and you go with the understanding and are accepting of that, but I think there is a very important place for theatre that tells a story that is a reflection and that you can just sit back on and absorb and not necessarily feel so heated one way or another…
In all the anger and the fury and the galvanisation, which is necessary for some things, if you don’t get equal parts reflection there’s no room for manoeuvre and no matter where we are in life there is an element of compromise and I think reflection can be really helpful.”
This importance of shedding light and humour on such divisive topics is very important to Emma, and seemingly the cast and crew of this play as a whole, with satire like Spitting Image and The Daily Show still cripplingly relevant, Emma stressed the importance of laughing at that which is divisive, “there were always court jesters, he was the one who took the piss out of the king at his own risk and most of the time got away with it… I think comedy only works when it is done in truth.” Maitland has taken his political and broadcasting past and intertwined it in this play with the satire needed to address the political climate we have found ourselves in.
In portraying the late Margaret Thatcher, I was keen to find out how Emma got into character as her, since she has been shown on screen before and is such a distinctive and well-known woman. Helpfully, Emma was able to listen to the audiobook of Thatcher’s autobiography, which rather usefully is read by Thatcher herself, so she was able to hear her life experiences years later spoken by the very woman who lived through them. Also particularly helpful, Emma says, was Spitting Image’s creation of Maggie. Steve Nallon’s voicing of our ex-PM is iconic and Emma says “he is extraordinary… and his videos on Youtube videos about how he did it were my initial training ground”. We also talked about the fact that Thatcher learnt to speak in a far more ‘masculine’ way, taking what many thought was a shrill voice and making it lower and lower until she was distinctly recognisable as a female cornerstone of politics. Emma also explained that in “playing such a divisive political figure” she had to park her own political views.
On Thatcher, and women in politics, Davies had some lovely insights to share, “there must’ve been a certain amount of stubbornness about her because she was dropped into a man’s world, and there is a wonderful quote by her actually ‘being powerful is the same as being a lady, if you have to tell someone you are one, you’re not’… They put her in a fairly safe role, in Education, and she shocked people by taking away free school milk, I remember it, and she was vilified for that… I think from that moment in she was taken seriously.”.
Looking at more recent treatment of women who are politicians in the media took us onto the topic of the vilification of Diane Abbott and Theresa May in the media. From ‘mojito-gate’ to running through fields of wheat, both women took a lot of stick from the media and of course no one is by any means innocent but it is often questioned whether they would’ve taken as much stick if they were men. Emma shared “both those ladies have been really vilified in a way that makes you sort of go, really?”, and we discussed for sometime how different Johnson’s bill for Brexit has been to May’s, but realised we didn’t know, since the media had been too busy focusing it’s judgemental eyes on Meghan Markle as that took place.
From Clinton to May, we agreed there was a kind of “burning of the witch” of female politicians.
We also touched upon how many of these female politicians not being mothers leads to their interrogation and criticism, and I wanted to ask how Emma found being a mother to her now 21 year old daughter Camille, had effected her career. “in my career it doesn’t play into it because you aren’t asked, my agent will ask if I want to go up for this and you make that choice before you even put your name in the hat to be seen. It’s a very personal thing and there are times when I’ve been away from Camille that I did not enjoy and there were times when I chose not to work as much. I’ve been very lucky and I think our business allows us to make that decision for ourselves.”.
Emma’s stint on Emmerdale came to a close as Camille got older and so she moved towards more short term screen work and theatre. In light of this, Davies shared some of her plans for the future whilst reflecting on a play that may be re-entering her life. Rage, but Hope, was a play Emma was involved with on the topic of Extinction Rebellion and the climate crisis, which she will be returning to in April once this tour is over. I asked her why these kinds of plays, about things so serious and fresh and why we are even exploring these things on stage at all, to which she poignantly replied, “plays are only stories and stories are what we have used for education, for comfort…for finding your equilibrium…for understanding something you don’t understand better… Nothing is unaddressable”.
To see The Last Temptation Of Boris Johnson, check out tickets local to you for its tour running until the 14th March. Best of luck to Emma and all the cast and crew with the rest of their tour.