Dervla is ready to graft for her craft
Twenty years after leaving Ballykissangel, Dervla Kirwan is back on the West End stage, but has had to fight for it every step of the way. The actress speaks to Julia Molony about the pressures of her profession, moving to a rural idyll and being married to a heartthrob
The last time Dervla Kirwan was in a play in the West End, she got not just a jo bbut a husband into the bargain. She met Rupert PenryJones, the plummy, yummy Spooks heartthrob and Ms Kirwan's other half when they appeared together in the JB Priestly play, Dangerous Corner. “A play and a date,” she jokes. “How fantastic! Listen, it’s very hard to meet people these days.”
That was 13 years ago and now, one wedding, two children, a move to the country and plenty of television and theatre work later, she’s finally back in the West End with a starring role in a new production of Conor McPhersons’s The Weir, which is transferring from the Donmar Warehouse to The Wyndham Theatre after a sell-out run. “I will be fully concentrating on the play this time, obviously,” she says.
That Dervla is now back at the heart of London theatreland in a high-profile role is testament to many things, not least her sheer grit.
For though she’s had a long, successful and satisfyingly varied career since she left Ballykissangel almost 20 years ago, she’s had to fight for it tooth and claw, especially in the rocky recent past.
She won the role of Valerie in The Weir because she went after it doggedly. While many actors like to bluff the impression that they are in constant professional demand, even when they’re not, Dervla is one who seems to prefer to tell it like it is, and the truth is that it’s not easy.
“The recession has hit my profession terribly hard,” she says. “I know it’s very tough in Ireland, it’s very tough here in Britain. But if there’s anything to be gained from it, it is do it for yourself.”
Of her work/life balance, she cheerfully admits that: “I think sometimes there is a little bit too much life.”
“That’s the cruelty of it all,” she adds. “You have to believe that it will change, and you have to believe that you haven’t been forgotten. And also you have to get off your backside and make things happen.”
She’d worked for the Donmar Warehouse before, starring in Harold Pinter's Betrayal. “I went back going, ‘look, I don’t understand why I haven’t worked for you guys since’. And it’s not because it’s personal, it’s just that they move on, and I said I really want to come back.” In short, talent, even of Dervla’s calibre, isn’t enough and she has had to learn the art of the hustle.
As Valerie in The Weir, she plays a Dublin woman who walks into a remote country pub — part of a world untouched by post-CelticTiger Ireland. The play is a modern Irish classic. Macpherson’s breakthrough hit is rich with gothic suspense, humanity and observations on Irish cultural identity; most pointedly in the complicated ways we conceal and reveal ourselves through the narratives we create. “It’s a little masterpiece,” says Dervla. “It resonates hugely with audiences globally. It’s about community. It’s about people telling stories that unlock and reveal their vulnerability. It’s about drink. And it’s about loneliness...heartbreaking loneliness.”
Dervla’s character is at the centre of the drama — a woman whose unspeakably tragic past is slowly revealed as the action unfolds. When I ask her about the challenges of the role, she’s pragmatic. It is, she admits, “hugely draining” emotionally. “But it’s not like I’m standing for 17 hours trying to take a tumour off someone’s brain. It is acting, let’s keep it real. But at the same time, it does take its toll.”
In any case, she seems to relish the prospect of toil and graft for her craft. She says she had a “a really quiet year” aside from the play.
“Nothing very interesting came my way — my husband was working abroad and is abroad still. I thought do you know what, this is a brilliant time to do the whole work/life balance. Cause once this play starts...well, you’re not really in planet home or family when you’re involved in a play like this, your head is very much in another place.”
After many years in London, she and her husband Penry-Jones swapped their home in Battersea in 2008, for a new life in rural Hampshire, where they must provide quite a thrill for the neighbours. Even the postman, when he calls at the door while we’re talking, is greeted with pure, molten Kirwan charm. “Yeah, I talk to everyone,” she says when I mention it. “I think that’s the secret, you know. Keep it friendly, keep it warm. People just want to connect, don’t they, at the end of the day?”
As the postman heads off, undoubtedly weak at the knees, the conversation turns to Dervla’s husband, himself no slouch in the sex appeal stakes. Commentary about her relationship always has a rather hand-wringing tone. As in, how must Dervla cope with being married to one of Britain’s most desirable men? He’d dated Kylie Minogue before they met, and turned Holly Willoughby to jelly when he sat opposite her on the This Morning couch. But if this speculation reveals any truths, it’s about the impulse to project female insecurity upon other people. Because Dervla seems fine. And for his part, Rupert seems utterly devoted to her.
“Dervla started so many fundamental changes in my life,” he said in an interview recently, “and there’s been no resistance from me. She’s just the right woman for me, she ‘gets’ me. I can be myself with her.”
When I mention this to her, she roars with laughter. “Did he really say that? Ah, bless him. Is that not a male euphemism for ‘she’s got me by the goolies?’” she asks. “That’s a lovely thing that he said. I obviously had him by the goolies during that interview.”
“I don’t know,” she adds. “I think we’re just very suited. We have a good laugh together and after 13 years we still like each other. I don’t want to tempt hubris. But we’re good together.”
It’s before Christmas when we speak, and they were planning a cosy family festive season in Hampshire. She doesn’t for a second regret leaving London. “I love it here,” she says. “But I also love the fact that I can get on a train and go and get my London fix. But I’m quite a reclusive person. I love the fields and the freshness of the air and the calm. I love the fact that it’s pitch black at night here. I feel very safe here. I just love being in the middle of nowhere.”
The final push for her to move her family came when a murder happened on the street in Battersea where the couple lived with their young children. In the country, she can indulge her reclusive side while also, conversely, feeling more connected to the people around her.
London “is a wonderful city but it’s a lonely place to live. There’s a difference between loneliness and solitude”, she says. “You pursue solitude, I think. But loneliness is a completely different isolating thing. Especially I think for an Irish person who loves to chat. I’m sorry but it’s true, you go to London and no-one talks to you. And I was scared and lacking in confidence, and so that can be misread as being maybe just a bit aloof or cold — it’ s not. It’s just an inability to relax enough and have the confidence to smile because no-one else is doing it around you.”
Twenty years spent living out of a suitcase, travelling between London and Ireland for work, and a career path that demanded flexibility had made her adaptable, so when the change came she didn’t struggle to adjust.
“I think we were ready just to go, we had two very young children who at the time were very little, and I just remember thinking ... We were very lucky to be able to move out. We didn’t know a soul, we just moved. But I think the transient nature of what we do... means that I’m highly adaptable, and I’m not scared about movement or change or upping sticks or any of that. If anything I find it quite exciting.”
As the subject of Christmas comes up, I’, compelled to ask whether the mother-in-law would be coming. After all, Dervla’s relationship with Rupert's mother, Angela Thorne, herself a former actress, came in for a great deal of scrutiny last year after her husband revealed they’d had a huge row over lunch at The Wolseley and both women had stalked off in separate taxis. She has said in the past that the row, was “very personal” in nature but now is all water under the bridge. And Angela would be coming for Christmas. “She’s a great woman, she’s coming, we get on like a house on fire,” she says.
“I’m not the kind of the person who could ever not speak my mind, and she’s very similar to me. So we’re actually very, very alike. But it’s kind of funny. I remember when it happened and we just had a good laugh about it.”
Indeed, if there was any unpleasantness that lingered after the fuss, it was the manner in which the incident dragged up hackneyed old stereotypes that she’s spent a long time resisting, as an Irish woman living in the UK.
“There’s still, dare I say it, a cultural propaganda against the Irish, that we are, as women, feisty. I hate that word. That we drink too much etc etc etc... I think it’s just lazy because actually we’re alive! We’re emotional, sentient beings... I’m a very direct person. And so what? Quite frankly.”
With her professional life busy and fulfilling, 2014 looks set to be a good year, so I ask her about New Year resolutions.
“I hope that I have a lot of courage, because I’d say that in the past I’ve lacked courage and walked away from opportunities because I’ve got frightened. I would say that I hope that I make more friends. And that I just spread a bit of happiness. Because I think we make life such a misery for ourselves, you know? I think it’s important to spread as much kindness as possible. And I don’t meant to sound twee saying that — but I don’t care if I do. I think that is the only thing I’ve learned, in my 42 years. Just spread a bit of happiness. Life is so short and miserable for most people.”
And then she’s off, undercutting any whiff of sanctity with a bit of self-mockery. “Oh my god, there you go, the halo is growing!” she says, “cut to the CCTV footage of me going, [panicked scream] JESUS CHRIST! It’s Christmas.”
- The Weir is at Wyndham’s Theatre London from January 16 th. www.TheWeirLondon.co.uk