Catherine Cusack: Longing for Lughnasa
Catherine Cusack was always known as her father's daughter but she forged her own acting career and had a life packed with incident and colour.
Published 17/08/2015 | 02:30
Though a gifted actress with a string of notable screen and stage credits behind her, it would be understandable, perhaps, if Catherine Cusack felt somewhat daunted at the prospect of playing Agnes in Dancing at Lughnasa.
The play, a glittering cornerstone of Irish drama, is also steeped in her family's history. Her half-sisters Niamh and Sorcha have each starred in productions of Brian Friel's masterpiece, and one of Catherine's abiding memories of her late father, the legendary Cyril Cusack, was him taking her to see the marvellous Brid Brennan perform what might have been the definitive version of the role of Agnes at the Abbey a quarter of a century ago, a night Catherine remembers as "one of the really special moments with Dad, something I'll always remember." Beyond that, she has a strong identification with the character, a homemaker in 1920s Donegal who takes a back seat to the more dominant characters of her sisters, but who is moved, nonetheless, by hidden passions. "I get Agnes, in that for whatever reason I can suffer from a lack of self-confidence", she says. "That can also be matched by a huge ego. There's a kind of contrast. You sort of move between thinking 'I'm nothing' and then 'actually, I'm everything!' I understand her as a person who shrinks away from the centre ground … growing up I was always a bit lost, a bit hiding, a bit wondering."
That wondering took many forms, she explains. She wondered where her place in the world would be and how she would earn a living. She also wondered at the unspoken mysteries of her family life in which "things were never really spelled out, you just sort of had to infer things."
Her father was 58 when she was born, by which time he already had five other children by his marriage to Maureen Kiely. Catherine had been born in England but had been brought to Rome by her Australian mother, Mary Rose, who headed up a textile factory in the eternal city, while Cyril carved out his place in the acting pantheon. The couple had met through a former actor, Dan Cunningham, who had been Mary Rose's first husband and who had gone on to represent Cyril ("that might sound odd but honestly everyone knew everyone in acting circles in London in the 1950s, if you look at the film credits from those years it's all the same bunch of people"). Mary Rose stayed behind in Rome and managed her mini business empire and Catherine spoke Italian and had a "nonna" ('nanny') with whom she was besotted. "I have clear memories of the balconies of the house and the sunshine and the warm colours, I remember really wanting to stay in Rome. But then we moved back to the dankness and greyness of London and the whole situation there. It did seem quite depressing. This was 1972, you have to remember, it was nothing at all like it is today."
'The past is a foreign country', LP Hartley wrote, 'they do things differently there.' Catherine describes the England she moved to as similar, in terms of its assumptions and power structures, to the Ireland of Dancing at Lughnasa. "These women are straight-jacketed by life in Thirties Ireland, the church, politics, just the whole male-dominated establishment. That was very much the story of the London I grew up in. There was a family who used to work for my Dad, the Murrays. He had a cleaner, Mary Murray, and she had such a strong presence. She ran the shop, so to speak. But the broader authoritarian structure was his, and male."
Cyril kept his relationship with Catherine's mother completely separate until his first wife, Maureen Kiely, died, at which point he married Mary Rose. By that stage it was 1977 and Catherine was nine-years-old. Catherine would not meet any of her siblings until she was ten and her father, perhaps showing his sense of humour, took her to see a showing of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind at Swiss Cottage in London, where she was introduced to her half-sister Niamh for the first time. "As you get older you understand that certain things get in your way as an adult and you can't necessarily always help those things", Catherine tells me. "He was caught up in Catholicism in a way that messed him up and he in turn ended up messing everyone else around him as well." Cyril himself would say that "religion promotes the divine discontent within oneself." When they were in Dublin they used to go into the oratory on Leeson Street together and he would always bless himself when he passed a church.
"He was a man of his time", Catherine says. "Of course, I really think his decisions were wrong but there's no point going there in a way. He had an ability to sulk which was quite oppressive. He desperately wanted to be someone who got things right and so he clung onto this identity of a good Catholic man. He was almost a Victorian in some ways."
One advantage of being born after Cyril's other children was that the actor had somewhat mellowed in old age, she tells me. "I got the most patient version of him. He was older by then and he was aware of the mistakes he had made. He never found a way of acknowledging them but he maybe saw me as a chance to do things better. He had an appalling upbringing himself. It was unstable, he was left alone a lot, he was insecure. It made him a very complex man, a man not easy to live with. Knowing that didn't make things easier but it helps make sense of him." The "exotic" excitement of visiting her father on tour helped inspire her own desire to become an actress. "I remember he was doing You Never Can Tell in Dublin and the whole crew just sort of adopted me, people like Ingrid Craigie. It was like getting an instant family, without the boring, hard bits. Of course it's a mirage but you only learn that later." She would go on to win recurring roles on Coronation Street (memorably as a nanny from Offaly who suffered from 'erotomania'), Dr Who (in which her husband-to-be, Alex Palmer would first see her) and Ballykissangel as well as smaller parts in the movies Finding Neverland and The Lonely Passion Of Judith Hearne. To every role she brought a memorable intensity, and in person her emotions never seem too far from the surface. She is articulate, thoughtful and sometimes tremulous, appearing close to tears when we discuss her mother, and, most particularly, her father.
Even after the Swiss Cottage introduction, she says that her relationship with Cyril's family in Ireland was "a bit strange and, naturally, a bit strained. There were occasions when we'd be together for his birthday or whatever but it didn't just come together as he might have hoped. Perfectly understandable. When he died, however, that really fell away and we could get to know each other properly." Today, she enjoys a warm relationship with all her half-sisters and brothers, and is especially close to Niamh.
Perhaps because of the separateness of the two families Catherine says that her mother and her were "like a little unit" and she speculates that her father, at times, felt a little shut out. "I thought all along that my love was there with her. And it's also because I'm a bit slow about these things. Sometimes you do have to lose someone before you go, 'Oh shit, I really loved that person.''
She was at the West Yorkshire Playhouse with her half-brother Padraig in 1993 when he broke the news to her that Cyril had died, after a long and painful battle with motor neurone disease. "[Padraig] tells me that I screamed. I have no memory of doing that. And he really looked after me then and I just thought 'this is my brother.' All of [her half-siblings] kept reminding me that they were there." She was glad her father's suffering was over, she adds, even if the grief at his loss was overwhelming.
Sinead Cusack also extended a sisterly shoulder to Catherine during the period when Mary Rose was very sick. The two half-siblings were acting together in Sebastian Barry's play Our Lady Of Sligo. In the play, Catherine's character's mother, played by Sinead, was dying of cancer. Thematically, it was all too close to home, and one day, observing Catherine's deep suffering, Sinead told her, 'You know, the show doesn't always have to go on.'
"She had lost her own mother by then, so she possibly had a better perspective than me of priorities in life", Catherine says. Mary Rose was deathly ill with ovarian cancer by that point. She had it the first time after Cyril's death and when it came back again she decided she would have no more treatment. "That was very tough", Catherine recalls. "But I thought I had to respect her decision, she was such a strong-willed woman there would have been no convincing her. All through her life if she came to a decision it wouldn't be irrational but maybe it was lack of imagination or denial. But in my heart I also sort of thought it would go away. It was probably a failure of imagination really; I simply couldn't conceive of life without her." The grief of losing your mother lasts a lifetime, she says. "You deal with it for longer than you think you ever will. It fades slightly and then it comes back again. It's still there, really."
After Mary Rose died Catherine decided that she would retrace her mother's roots and undertook a type of odyssey back to Australia, travelling across parched, fly-blown Queensland to Clonburry, "the literally one-horse town she came from." There she learned more about her mother's extraordinary life and times before she met Cyril. "Like a lot of people who were born in the 1920s she was swept up in the drama of the Second World War, and moved to Sydney and reinvented herself, as an aide to a general. I think it must have been a great pretext for her to go away because she certainly would have wanted to leave and see the world. After the war, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, then two of the biggest stars in the world, came to Australia as part of a touring company of actors. Mary Rose met Dan Cunningham, one of the actors in the company, and fell in love, even if she insisted he work for her hand in marriage. "She rebuffed him at first and said you go back to England and see if you still feel the same way", Catherine explains. "He did and she came over to England and married him, they both divorced, she met someone and wound up in Italy. She was a business woman, who became the director of a textile company." When she went to Australia, Catherine met a long lost cousin who remembered her mother "returning like a film star … there was something of Dancing At Lughnasa [in which a priest returns from the missions] about her return."
Mary Rose was 46 by the time she had her only child, and Catherine tells me that this late pregnancy did make her - Catherine - think that she herself could have children later in life, if she so chose. But so far she has not chosen and she's open about the reasons. "I have never felt a great urge to have children. I have really lovely friends who ask me. My mum had me at that age, and so I knew it was possible all the way up. I have really lovely friends who've had children late in life and they swear it's the best thing to ever happen to them, but honestly, I just really never had the maternal gene, and I suppose I do hope it doesn't creep up on me."
Nowadays, Catherine lives in London with her husband Alex Palmer, an English actor whom she met when she played his wife on stage in 2001. "We didn't fancy each other at all to begin with", she explains. "He was coming out of a relationship and it's never a great idea to get together like that. But it just crept up on us. We're very alike. We're both very open, optimistic people." Alex is a climbing enthusiast and together they run a shop selling climbing equipment in London, the steadiness of which, she says, provides a welcome contrast with the more precarious nature of acting for a living. And the security and stability of her home life makes nice company for the ghosts of the past. They live together in the home she grew up in in West London. "We've changed it a lot", she explains, brightly. "It was very much their house and full of their stuff. So without absolutely ripping them out of the picture we've tried to make our own mark on things." She pauses for a beat. "A bit like life, really."
'Dancing at Lughnasa' is produced by the Lyric Theatre in association with the International Friel Festival, and will be at An Grianan Theatre, Letterkenny, from August 20-23, The Lyric Theatre, Belfast, from August 26-September 27, and the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, from October 6-11, as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.
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