Tuesday 26 September 2017

A woman of elegance, warmth, craft and unerring comic instinct

Colin Murphy

Susan FitzGerald, who died this week aged 64, was one of the great Irish actresses of her generation, known for her comic ability, her great craft and her versatility, as well as her elegance and warmth.

She had an extraordinary breadth of experience, perhaps best illustrated by the fact that she started her career working with two of the icons of modern Irish theatre, Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóir, and capped it working with a very different icon, of a very different age, Ross O'Carroll Kelly, in the plays by Paul Howard. In between, she excelled in comedy and tragedy, on stage and on screen.

After an apprenticeship at Trinity's student drama society, Players, where she met the man she would marry, Michael Colgan, she made her professional debut in 1972, on the tiny stage of the Eblana in the basement of Busáras, in Look Back in Anger. Within a year, she was playing at the Gate under the direction of Hilton Edwards. According to Alan Stanford, a friend and colleague since then, this was a seminal experience. Edwards, who had founded the Gate with MacLiammóir in 1928 was "a master technician" and helped FitzGerald.

The result was a performer who combined a naturally understated presence with great comic skill. This allowed her to play to acclaim parts that were not obviously her "type", such as Rita in Willie Russell's Educating Rita, at the Gate in 1981, and Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, also at the Gate, over 20 years later.

Her early career as a leading lady was interrupted by the arrival of children Sarah, Sophie and Richard, for whom she made the conscious decision to step back from the stage, and to whom "she dedicated herself with the same meticulous care as she did acting", said Stanford

In recent times, as she fought cancer, she told friends that she had drawn sustenance from the recent weddings of her two daughters and from the arrival of a granddaughter. Though comedy was her mainstay, she relished the different challenges posed by "serious" plays, in particular Samuel Beckett's one-woman play Footfalls, which she played at the Gate's Beckett Festival, and which was then filmed; it was "one of the most difficult things I've ever done", she said.

On screen, she was well known from roles in the classic Irish series The Year of the French and The Irish RM, as Nora Clancy in Fair City and from more recent roles in Bachelor's Walk, Proof and The Big Bow Wow. She most recently performed in John Boorman's radio play Afterlife for RTÉ Radio in December 2012 (which can be listened to at www.rte.ie/drama/radio).

Amongst the theatre community, she was renowned for the support she gave colleagues and friends. Paul Howard recalled the experience of working with her on his first Ross O'Carroll Kelly play, The Last Days of the Celtic Tiger, in which FitzGerald played Ross's mother, Fionnuala. As a first-time playwright "I didn't really know what I was doing", said Howard. But FitzGerald, who had unerring comic instincts, would weigh in with advice: "That joke would be funnier if it was one line shorter," she would say.

She was an actor who knew that less was more. While playing in Brian Friel's Aristocrats at the Gate, she said of Friel's writing: "It's just someone looking out of a window in Ballybeg, but it breaks your heart."

That same sense of stillness and deceptive simplicity was at the heart of her acting. There was great dignity to her comedy, and that often made it tragic.

Colin Murphy

Irish Independent

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