Beautiful, dignified and courageous, the extraordinarily talented actor could play anything, writes Emer O'Kelly
SLIGHT, delicate and beautiful, with an elfin face that kept its lustre to the end, Susan Fitzgerald had the spirit of a Titan. Ravaged by cancer for more than two years, it was only in the final couple of months of her life that she allowed herself to be forced into living like an invalid.
The last two occasions we met were at parties: she was composed, elegant, and as interested in what was going on around her as ever she had been. People might never have guessed that she was dying save for the terrible pallor that was so valiantly hidden behind carefully applied make-up. At a crowded Christmas drinks party, she was asked in my hearing why she hadn't been on stage for a while. "I'm not really well enough at present," she replied quietly. More questions followed. "I have cancer," she said. And she smiled.
A couple of months later, she was as serene as ever at a lunch party. But her slender legs seemed almost to swim in her high boots; she was visibly wasting. And suddenly, her energy gave out. She was too exhausted even to wait to be collected as had been arranged. I dropped her home, and watched in misery as she was helped up the steps, too weak to make it on her own. It was the last time I saw her.
Susan was one of the pre-eminent actors of her generation, an accolade often bestowed thoughtlessly. In her case, it was magnificently true. Her ineffable ladylike quality and her almost English Rose looks (despite her dramatic dark colouring) might have type-cast another, less talented actor: Susan, it seemed, could play anything. She could even make herself plain, always a test for a beautiful woman.
I recall her luminously tragic Mrs Linde in Ibsen's A Doll's House at the Gate, and the older Jane in Jane Eyre, as well as an hysterically funny Madame Arcati, the nutty medium in Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, a part immortalised on film for David Lean by the mountainous Margaret Rutherford. And she revelled in it, despite, as I told her at the time, probably still able to get away with playing the sylph-like 30-year-old Elvira in the same play.
Another triumph in recent years was as Ross O'Carroll-Kelly's long-suffering mother in the Paul Howard adaptations of his now pretty well immortal south Dublin satire, which brought her to an entirely new and different audience. "I'm having an absolute ball," Susan said with relish. "It's so different from the Gate." (The productions were staged in the Olympia.)
But she also towered in serious plays: she was extraordinary as May in Beckett's Footfalls in which she toured for the Gate Beckett Festival, and also for the Beckett on Film project.
And although mainly associated with the Gate Theatre, Susan crossed the Liffey on several occasions to make her mark at the Abbey, the first time in 1996 for Thomas Kilroy's version of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. Patrick Mason, the Abbey artistic director at the time, remarked that he found it hard to believe it was a National Theatre debut for such an extraordinarily talented actor.
Susan came from a distinguished theatrical family: the Hollywood actor Geraldine Fitzgerald was her aunt, and the playwright Denis Johnston and his actress wife Shelah Richards, (Shelah eminent in the Abbey, and Denis at both the Abbey and the Gate) were previous generation cousins ... which made Susan cousin to the equally eminent novelist Jennifer Johnston, and to the director and previous Peacock artistic director Caroline Fitzgerald.
She became involved in acting while a student at Trinity, where she met her future husband Michael Colgan. They had three children, Sarah, Sophie and Richard (whose godfather was the late Hugh Leonard). And while the children were young, Susan, typically, put her own career on hold for their sakes, while giving steadfast and unwavering support to her husband's successful production career, although they separated a number of years ago.
But she came back, and Irish theatre was the richer for it.
I was at a Fringe Festival production in Dublin on Monday, after the news of Susan's death came through. At the end of the performance, and following that throat-catching and heartbreaking theatrical tradition, a memorial round of applause was called for from the stage after the curtain came down on that little production. I felt I could hear the more thunderous and resonant ovations echoing from the auditoria at the Gate and the Abbey, and from all the little stages involved in Irish theatre that night, for one of their own, who so richly deserved admiration and acclaim as an actor, but also as a supremely dignified and courageous human being.
Another sometimes overused phrase comes to mind, again deservedly in this case: we shall not often see Susan Fitzgerald's like again.