'I live on my own and I'm good at it. But I'm not solitary'
Does Donal Lynch bow to Ingrid Craigie? Does he curtsey? No, he just listens to her life story as a legend of theatre
Gate director Michael Colgan likes to tell the story of being on tour in Charleston, South Carolina, with a play in which Ingrid Craigie was starring. One evening Michael was invited to an event and asked if he could bring his rather wonderful actress friend along. "We call her Dame Ingrid", he confided to the hosts, "but it's just a little joke. Don't call her that, she'll be embarrassed. She's not a dame, really."
Nonetheless when Craigie was introduced to everyone they curtsied like awestruck commoners, and meeting her I am half inclined to do the same thing. There is something crisply regal about her. And besides, as more than one person points out to me, if we did have the honours system in this country she'd be a dame five times over by now.
Craigie is quite simply a gargantuan talent, one of the very best actresses this country has produced. She can be delicate and fragile like Laura in The Glass Menagerie. She can be ragged with despair as Hester in The Deep Blue Sea. Her performance in Faith Healer was majestic, and it was a sin, and the biggest disappointment of her career, that she did not get to travel with the production to New York - the bureaucracy of American Equity demands blocked her path. But in the words of the song, Broadway was waiting for her. When she played opposite Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple Of Inishmaan the New York Times raved about her performance.
Now she stars in Hugo Hamilton's much-anticipated second play, The Mariner, playing the mother of a shellshocked World War I soldier who returns to Ireland around the time of the 1916 rising, only to find the political and social landscape changed utterly and the women he is closest to locked in conflict.
"The play is about love as much as anything", Ingrid explains. "We are unpicking the story of conflicting needs. Maybe it's really not her son, maybe he's someone who's come back in his place. [World War I] was a time when there was a huge growth in spiritualism, people wanted to reach out to those they'd lost at any cost."
The political foment of the country at that time is also a theme in the play. "This was an extraordinary time in Ireland", she says. "When we think about the First World War we think about the trenches and we don't really think about the sea battles and the navy. But there was a huge tradition of Irishmen joining the Royal Navy. It was a huge part of our history, especially in places like Cork. And, of course, a lot of that was forgotten or perhaps discreetly not mentioned afterward."
This is a theme that has personal resonance for Craigie. She grew up in Dublin in a Church of Ireland family, and her father, George, was an army man all his life. "He was bomb disposal during the Second World War. My uncle was a clergyman in the British army. We didn't pretend it didn't happen but at the same time it wasn't something you really talked about. We wore poppies on Remembrance Sunday but we only really wore them to Church. It seemed to be the First World War that everyone commemorated. I had uncles who had been in the Somme. It was huge all over Ireland. But we thought 'oh it must just be us.'"
She was educated at Alexandra College where a drama teacher told her she could be an actress. From the age of 12 she had her heart set on a career on the boards. "When I was a child I went to see a production of The Borstal Boy - I made my parents bring me. I remember looking at this play with these boys who were so far removed from my world. And it just did what theatre is meant to do. I just completely went into their world. And I thought, 'my God, this isn't just fun, it expands your empathy and compassion and understanding - like reading a novel.'"
She went on to study English at Trinity College and became immersed in Players. The Abbey, which was looking for new young actors, invited her to do a summer workshop - coincidentally taught by Patrick Mason, who directs The Mariner.
At the end of the summer she was invited to join the company. She would go on to work alongside greats like Ray McAnally and Cyril Cusack, whom she admired. It was over dinner with Cusack she was introduced to his son Paul and they would go out with each other for the next 20 years. She remains close to the Cusacks and is good friends with Paul and his wife Elma.
For the last few years she has been having a long-distance relationship with the Canadian actor and director Wayne Burnett.
"It would be more difficult for a young person, maybe, but we are very used to it", she tells me. "You miss some of the ordinary day-to-day things but when I see him it's like a wonderful holiday. I live on my own and I'm good at it, but I'm not solitary."
She never had children. "There are lots of reasons why not. And I think career certainly fed into it. I don't regret not having them. I adore my godchildren. But you know the funny thing is that I realised that in so many of my roles I've played a woman who's lost a child. It's always thought that this is a woman's great tragedy - in Faith Healer, of course, she keeps having stillborn babies. The assumption was always that women create life and men create art and one of the big antagonisms [in art] is that the male resents that."
And like many women of her generation, Ingrid finds the really choice roles become fewer and fewer.
"It's harder as you get older as a woman. I'd love to be in Vikings or Game Of Thrones but there aren't a lot of characters for women my age. I have friends, men, and there are loads of good parts for them. But for women of a certain vintage, there's often only one plum role and they often get someone very famous in from outside to play that."
She has a kind of flinty grace about her, perhaps born of years in the tough and unstable world of theatre.
"You have to be open and vulnerable if you're an actor", she says. "You have to be resilient enough to withstand the disappointments and on the other hand open and vulnerable enough to be able to take on these characters. You have to become very good at dusting yourself off. When a role is over for you it's almost like it never happened."
But this role is just beginning. It's only a few hours before she takes to the stage for the first preview of The Mariner - we hunted poor Patrick Mason from the dressing room - and Ingrid needs time to gather herself.
"I sometimes have anxiety dreams", she says, as I get ready to leave - standing not upon the order of my going. "I once dreamt that I was doing my finals. And I'd wake up in terror and think to myself 'I never have to do an exam again.' But then it dawned on me that I'm in a profession where you're constantly doing an exam of a sort, constantly being scrutinised - and it's all in public!"
'The Mariner' by Hugo Hamilton opens at the Gate Theatre on September 30 for a limited run. For tickets phone (01) 874 4045 or see www.gatetheatre.ie