Nina Conti pulls on the mask of Monkey in order to lift the mask on the real Nina in her brand new show.
Like so many things, it all started with Star Wars. Nina Conti – she of the foul-mouthed Monkey, demure stage persona and ambitiously intellectual approach to the dark art of ventriloquism – was cast in the recent movie.
“I got cut,” she sighs and shrugs. “I’m probably not even allowed to tell you this, but I met the woman who makes Chewbacca and it got me thinking. Eventually I asked her, “could you make me a monkey suit, that looks exactly like my little puppet, but that I can walk and talk in?” So that was the sensible reason.The other reason is much darker and deeper.”'So that was the sensible reason.The other reason is much darker and deeper.'Click To Tweet
Anyone who’s seen Nina Conti’s shows progress over the years might guess at the other reason.
Her 2007 Fringe debut saw her looking pretty, a little bit sexy, delivering well-spoken and charming patter with this fluffy little monkey puppet on her arm that spewed out filth like it was Irvine Welsh having a fight with Gordon Ramsay.
Gradually, as the show progressed, Monkey rebelled, slowly taking control of her body, with his muffled voice coming from within, as her naked hand wrestled for control. For a man like myself who steadfastly refuses to pay to watch juggling, Morris dancing or ventriloquism, this contrast was surprisingly refreshing and very funny.
In later shows, Nina Conti possessed members of the audience, forcing them to say unspeakable things, undermining ventriloquism whilst rejuvenating it. She’s constantly laughing with a slightly manic edge, reminding the audience that this is just an act, but confessing that she has no idea what’s coming next. It’s sharp, clever and funny, but most of all, a bit scary, and that’s where the darkness comes in.
“I’ve become slightly irritated with the constructed Nina who´s alongside Monkey, disingenuously giggling,” she explains.
“There must be a quality of safety I provide the audience – something that makes it palatable – but I’m just a little bored with doing that. My mum always wanted me to curl my hair and put eyeliner on and my dad always wanted me to be a good girl, so I think I syphoned up all the vile thoughts, released it down my arm and it came out in Monkey. Because Monkey is the truer me and I’m vulgar.”
For the show she’s in the Chewbacca-sized monkey suit – which looks exactly the same as her old glove puppet – mixing audience improv with obscene rants. “I’m just like a bloke with a mike. I’m not wearing heels, my feet are flat on the ground and I don’t have to start a shampoo routine at 5am. It is, unexpectedly, a much more feminist issue than I thought it would be.”'It is, unexpectedly, a much more feminist issue than I thought it would be.”Click To Tweet
Nina Conti’s ultimate deconstruction of ventriloquism might be because she discovered it doing experimental theatre with the late improv genius Ken Campbell after he enticed her into the RSC. Daughter of the actors Tom Conti and Kara Wilson, she fought against her yearning to become an actress for years, studying philosophy and working in publishing. Then she went to see Campbell doing some one man skits at the National Theatre, “which were taking philosophy and making it funny,” bumped into him in Hampstead, and ended up in the cast of one of his 24-hour plays.“I suppose my thing of this innocent girl and this rude puppet really played very well into the noughties idea of how to remain fuckable'Click To Tweet
“He was subversive, a real maverick,” Nina Conti explains. “He didn’t want me being a normal actress at the RSC. One day, he gave me a teach-yourself-ventriloquism kit and wrote a one-woman ventriloquism play for me. Arthur Smith saw it and insisted I enter the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year competition.”
The rest is history. Or evolution. Or possibly devolution, as she returns to the ape within. And yet Nina still exists – she’s just finished workshopping a play with her dad that’s she’s written about Nina writing a play for her dad. She’s been through a divorce, has two kids and is finally getting to grips with who she really is.
“I suppose my thing of this innocent girl and this rude puppet really played very well into the noughties idea of how to remain fuckable,” she laughs. “That was my main thing: jeans hanging off my hips doing this love dance on stage. Now I’m just getting more and more comfortable with the kind of plural aspect of being a person. I promise you – life is much more enjoyable if you don’t worry about being consistent.”