Gina McKee doesn’t seem to mind throwing herself in at the deep end.
Playing Goneril, the eldest of three sisters in the Donmar Warehouse’s
production of Shakespeare’s King Lear, which arrives in Glasgow tonight
with Derek Jacobi in the title role, she doesn’t really have much
choice. This is partly down to director Michael Grandage, who, rather
than spending hours around a table deconstructing every word, prefers
his cast to be free of the script and on their feet as early on in
rehearsals as possible. It is, says McKee in her soothing Geordie burr,
“It’s really interesting when you do a show like this. A lot of people
know the play, and because I knew I was going to be doing it a long
time before we started, a lot of people were like, ooh, Goneril, evil,
evil. But I wanted to make sure that it’s not just a stock
interpretation of the character, but that we find out what fuels her.
So, I went, okay, what are the facts? We know she’s married to Albany,
and we know she has half the kingdom, which was originally going to be
divided into three before Cordelia was banished, so where does that
leave a woman politically? She has power, but not the benefits of
power, because she’s a woman.
“Her father’s behaving irrationally, and if he can banish his favourite
daughter, just imagine what he can do to you. So there’s a lot at
stake, but she’s a survivor. If only she didn’t fall for Edmund.
Because of that, she goes from being a sharp political operator to
shooting herself in the foot by letting her heart rule her head.”
McKee is in her dressing room in Llandudno as she says all this, an
unlikely venue for such an epic that will travel to New York for six
“There are contrasts, it has to be said,” she says wryly in a down to
earth manner that
dates back to her early days growing up in Peterlee. It was while
living in the County Durham new town that she developed her quietly
fearless have-a-go-attitude that permeates her conversation after being
drawn to a community-based drama club run by the husband and wife team
of Ros and Graeme Rigby.
“I didn’t know what it was,” McKee confesses, “but we went along
because we were curious, and had a great time, even though we pretended
we didn’t because we wanted to look cool. There was a tremendous
response to it, and because it was a new town, the drama group was used
as a way of finding out what it was like living in Peterlee. Eventually
Graeme wrote a play about it which I was in, and which we put on for
In the audience on opening night was former teacher Malcolm Gerrie,
then a producer for Tyne Tees television, who would go on to re-define
music television with the live Friday teatime show, The Tube. Gerrie
brought along some colleagues from the network’s drama department, and
fourteen year old McKee was asked to audition for a new children’s
series that had been commissioned. Titled Quest of Eagles, McKee
appeared in all seven episodes of the show, and her future, it seemed,
had been mapped out.
McKee had originally planned to go to art school to study design, yet
after three summers spent with the National Youth Theatre, “by the time
I was eighteen I knew what I wanted to do. I’d applied for three drama
schools, one of which said to come back the next year, while the other
two said no, and they were probably right, but deciding I wasn’t going
to art school was an eleventh hour decision. I went to the National
Youth Theatre and just stayed in London. I got the midnight bus on a
Sunday to start rehearsing on the Monday morning.”
Coming from a staunch mining community with no artistic background,
McKee’s nearest and dearest were surprisingly supportive.
“They just said, well, why the hell not,” McKee remembers, “and if I
don’t try it, then I’ll never know.”
Such an attitude chimes perfectly with Grandage’s approach to King Lear.
“Just because you’ve tried something doesn’t mean it’s written in
blood,” McKee says pragmatically. “But you’ve just got to get in there
and try. There’s a similar ethos there, I think, which was one of my
early life lessons. I think I probably benefited from not going to
drama school, but really I was desperate to go, and I used to go to all
these classes that would do anything that drama school did. It took me
a very long time to learn to trust the experience I already had.”
McKee’s career nevertheless found its feet for the next decade via
small parts on television and a stint on Lenny Henry’s comedy show.
Then came Our Friends in the North, Peter Flannery’s epic 1996
nine-part television drama that charted the lives of four Newcastle
born friends over three decades. Adapted from Flannery’s stage play
produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and set against a back-drop
of real life events, Flannery’s state of the nation approach moved from
the 1960s civil rights movement to the 1984 miner’s strike and the rise
of New Labour.
McKee played Mary, who moves from living in a badly-built Newcastle
high-rise to become a go-getting Labour MP who, if the series had been
made a couple of years later, would invariably been presented as one of
incoming Prime Minister Tony Blair’s ‘babes’. McKee won a BAFTA award
for Best Actress, although arguably more valuable in practical terms
was the doors which her raised profile would open.
“It was funny going back to it recently,” McKee says. “I was asked to
provide a commentary for the first episode for the DVD, and it still
seems to speak to people. There was a real gear change in terms of the
things it opened up for me after that. After playing Mary, which was
such a fantastic opportunity, to play a character over such a long
period of time, the roles I was asked to go for had more responsibility
While the same could almost certainly be said for her co-stars,
Christopher Eccleston, Mark Strong and future James Bond Daniel Craig.
McKee’s rise to prominence has been more gradual. Even in her early
days, she admits, “It was always a bit of a slow-burner with me. I was
always a bit backwards in terms of pushing myself forward.”
Nevertheless, high profile roles onscreen in Notting Hill and In the
Loop, as well as stage roles at Chichester Festival Theatre in Alan
Ayckbourn’s Separate Tables and again with Michael Grandage at the
Donmar in Ivanov, suggests a steeliness that could easily be applied to
“My favourite parts are those I feel an affiliation with or an
affection for,” McKee says, “that feeling you get when you need to get
something out of your system. My desire is to keep on getting new
challenges or to learn a new skill. I think it’s important to be put in
a place where you’re made to feel scared. Anything so I don’t get stuck
in a cul de sac.”
King Lear, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, tonight-Saturday.
The Herald, March 8th 2011