Beige Interview: Angela Clerkin

Angela Clerkin: The Bear

Angela Clerkin’s new show The Bear has been touring and is now at Ovalhouse. Alex Hopkins caught up with her to talk all about anger and murder.

Tell me a bit about your background as a performer. You did a solo show a few years back called The Dreamkillers. What was that about?

It was all about dreams and how some of them don’t come true and how it’s actually great that some of them don’t come true. I read this thing that said that 97% of people’s dreams hadn’t come true. You think that’s really sad, but then you look at how out there and wacky some of those dreams were and you think it’s probably just as well they didn’t come to pass. I mean, back then I  thought I was going to marry Michael Jackson and I’m quite pleased the dream killers stepped in and stopped that one! But the show also looked at why we so often play safe in our lives. Why don’t we take risks and do more things?

But your new show, The Bear, is a two hander…

Yes. I’m working with the actor Guy Dartnell. We’ve known one another since the 1980s and lived in New York together when we were touring a show. Guy’s a straight man, but looks a bit like a bear and would be very popular in the gay bear community, I think! He’s fantastic and we totally rely upon each other in this piece. I’m going to be playing myself and he’ll be playing all the other characters.

So where did the idea for this show come from?

Our director, Lee Simpson, and I wrote a short story called The Bear and decided we’d do a show from that. It’s a co-production between me and a company called Improbable, who I’ve worked with quite a lot. They’re helping launch me to make my own work. The story was a narrative based on the work I did as a solicitor’s clerk for many years while I was doing acting work. I did a lot of murder trials, worked on an IRA case, on fraud cases  and on many cases involving drug barons. Most of these were held at The Old Bailey. We’ve made a story of a case and in it the first thing that happens in the murder trial we’ve depicted is that the defendant says he didn’t do it, a bear did it. I then need to go and search out whether this is a real bear or whether this guy is mad. Is he lying or is there some truth to what he’s said and, if so, what does this mean?

I’d imagine writing a short story with another person could be a challenging experience. How have you found it?

It’s been weird, bizarre and great – a really interesting process. It took Lee and I a long time and when we first thought about doing it we just imagined it being about three pages long. It’s now finished and is more like a novella. It still needs to be polished and we’d ideally like to publish it at some point. We created it using something called ‘the writer’s journey structure’, which is a 12 point structure used in Hollywood for big feature films like Star Wars. It was challenging and ridiculous, but it worked!

And what sort of themes will you be exploring in the piece?

It’s really all about anger and how we deal with it or don’t deal with it in our lives and how, if we don’t deal with it, life goes really pear shaped on both an individual basis, but also in wider society. We quite often see anger as a negative emotion and believe that people shouldn’t get angry, but I think that if you don’t look after your anger and find a way to express it, it builds up and can be very destructive. It’s an energy and is only negative when you lash out with it. It can also be used to do good, but the terrible things that happen in the world are often a result of it coming out sideways. Part of the show is also about the fact that I never used to get angry as a child, so I think may be I go looking for it in other people. Perhaps that’s why I ended up in court with all these people who lashed out.

How did you get involved in the clerking?

It all started when I saw an advert in Essex Road library, on the community notice board, which said ‘crime does pay’ and provided a number to ring. I followed through and went to a few evening classes which showed people how to become a clerk. At one point, in the past, I’d actually considered becoming a barrister. That was my dream and I did Law A level, but I soon realised it was rather boring to learn. But it’s very theatrical and not that different from the acting world. Both barristers and actors tell a story and if something doesn’t fit then they don’t include it. They tell a narrative and a barrister has to get the jury to like them, just as an actor must win over an audience.

The work sounds fascinating. Tell me more about your experiences.

The job itself was really quite basic. You’d take notes at a trial, you’d go into the cells, either on your own or with a barrister, to find out information from the defendants or ask them things about the trial or just to check if they were ok. I met some hilarious people and some very sad people. Sometimes it was scary. I remember being in a cell on my own with a defendant who was being charged with something violent and I could feel the tension rising. There was a panic button and I wasn’t sure whether to press it or not. It was a very volatile situation. Afterwards, I took the file back to the solicitor and he said ‘oh, yes, last time he kicked off with the clerk.’ I was like, ‘why didn’t you warn me?’

It must have given you an insight into the dark side of life…

Yes. I came across some of the grimmest cases in the world, really upsetting things. The last murder case I worked on was particularly upsetting. Everyone involved who came and gave evidence was in a mess. Someone didn’t turn up because they’d tried to commit suicide the day before, people who were tagged came along, you name it. It was horrible and made you realise the extent of the abuse that some people are living with everyday.

So audiences can expect quite a serious tale?

Yes, there’s a serious side, but it’s certainly not all heavy.  There’s also a light aspect to it. For example, we went around and asked people what made them angry and that’s in the show. You’d be surprised at the responses! There’s also a film noir aspect to it and many other strands, including songs and even some Irish dancing. There are bits that form part of the main story and then there are cabaret parts inbetween, but all of these get fed into the narrative, even if they are slightly out of sequence. Ultimately, everything makes sense.

The Bear is at Ovalhouse until 8 June.

Words: Alex Hopkins

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