Tuesday 20 February 2018

Hannah masters the art of living

It's not as if Hannah Yelland has been idle... sure wasn't it only recently she was popping into the White House to chat to the president, and what with all that success on Broadway... and now the British actress tells Joyce Fegan how she's relishing her current role at the Gate Theatre

'One of my favourite poems is Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken -- I read it at my wedding," explains Tony award-nominated actress Hannah Yelland. "I took the road less travelled by and I think there's something in that." There must be, because for this ethereal-looking actress, her life is comprised of one unexpected adventure after the next.

The 35-year-old British actress, whose father is renowned actor David Yelland, studied in Cambridge but never went to drama school. Her acting career took off after university and she has worked on both sides of the Atlantic and toured for many years. During this time, she fell in love, married, starred on Broadway and was up for a Tony award alongside Vanessa Redgrave.

Yelland currently plays Rachel in the Gate's production of My Cousin Rachel. Even the way she was cast for the part happened by chance.

"Michael Colgan had only seen me in A Doll's House when it was at the Abbey -- that was in 2004. So My Cousin Rachel came out of the blue."

For eight years, and unbeknownst to Yelland, Michael Colgan had been keeping her in mind. Before the Gate, Yelland was between roles and so was being the suburban wife in Washington DC. She'd finished up on Broadway in Brief Encounter, for which she was nominated for a Tony award. So how does an English actress, with Broadway success end up living beside the White House? "Michael, my husband, is a US naval lawyer. He was asked to come to the White House and work on national security."

The only thing is, though, Michael's no longer in Washington DC. He's on a four- month placement in Afghanistan. So when an Irish Michael gave her a call and asked her would she like to star in Joseph O'Connor's adaption of My Cousin Rachel, she willingly accepted.

"I'd always wanted to act in the Gate. When I was at the Abbey in 2004 I always thought I'd love to work up there."

As our conversation goes on, it becomes apparent that that is how much of Yelland's life works. She has had "no master plan or burning ambition". Most things are "happy coincidences". Just like how she met her husband. "We went to the same university in Cambridge. He started the October after the summer I left -- so we just missed each other." She explains that he made friends with people she knew and a few years later they "met at one of these mutual friend's weddings".

"We haven't had a honeymoon yet." They're married two years now. This is how their lives operate -- she never turns down work. Brief Encounter, which started in the UK, went straight on to Broadway after their wedding. Michael went to the White House. Speaking of her American husband's career, she says that "there are certain things I can't say". But then there are certain things she can. "I met the president." Hannah and her husband were invited to the White House for Hanukkah on account of her husband being Jewish.

"We got security clearance. It was like something from a movie. There was all this wonderful food and this band playing Gershwin in the corner." When she went to have her picture taken with the president she expected it to be with 50 other people. Luck was on her side again. "I have a picture with literally just me, Michael and the president and the First Lady.'

For the wife of an American naval lawyer, she doesn't hide her politics. She doesn't hide much of anything, really. She's open and frank with her own opinions, yet totally poised and ladylike at the same time. '"I feel I have a responsibility to say that he's a good guy, the president. I mean he was hugely affable, with this incredible aura. You feel you can trust him."

Trust is something Yelland possesses in abundance. How can she live such an uncertain life? "It's taken some work at accepting you're not largely in control of your destiny. I have gotten used to uncertainty." She toured constantly for five years where she had no distinct roots. Yet all her friends are "old ones". She and her friends arrange 'Skype coffees' where they'll set a time and have made their coffees and then sit down to chat.

Aside from her fluctuating place of residence and work, she has the highs and lows of theatre to contend with, too. What happens after the final curtain call -- after all that clapping -- can you just go home and catch up on your ironing? "You don't go to bed for a couple of hours -- the adrenalin is so much."

And what about the lows? She admits that after Brief Encounter finished up on Broadway she felt "an emptiness", where she had to work at "letting go". There's the rejection, too.

"Of course, I take things personally, I really do. It's horrible. As an actor, you really open yourself up to letting people say what they like about you."

Yelland is both made from and married to strong stock. Her 85-year-old grandmother visited her last weekend to see the Gate's production. She visited her in New York, too, and walked across the Brooklyn Bridge in minus seven degree temperatures. Her husband's German grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. She's 87. "You look in her eyes and imagine what she might have seen and yet she loves life and is so positive."

It's easy to see why Yelland has become such a successful theatre actress. She has this sense of personal strength, yet in such a fragile, vulnerable way. She's mastered the art of living, where you manage to both gently let go and steadily hold on. Just as we're leaving and still thinking about the two women she says: "It's truly amazing, really, life is life until it's not any more."

'My Cousin Rachel' runs at the Gate Theatre until May 25. See: www.gatetheatre.ie

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