Monday 19 August 2019

Donna 'never afraid of acting' - or of facing real life

A mother, actor and campaigner, funny, honest, open as ever, Donna Dent is back on stage after a five-year absence, writes Emily Hourican

Actor Danna Dent. Photo: David Conachy
Actor Danna Dent. Photo: David Conachy

Emily Hourican

The morning I meet Donna Dent, she is taking a break from rehearsing her first play in five years. Not that she's been idle - she has been busy with film and TV, including Vikings, as well as bringing up her son, Jesse (17), but no theatre. Is she scared? "No, not at all," she says. "I'm never afraid of acting." Or much else it seems.

She has known stage fright, but only once - "It took me very much by surprise" - and has wanted to act since "always! I just wanted to be part of storytelling". In primary school she did a play about Strongbow: "I was the only girl to play a man." In secondary school she played Samson, and Captain von Trapp. "I did burger joints and office jobs but the dream was to act."

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She trained at the Brendan Smith Academy and the College of Music, and has appeared on stage in The Cherry Orchard, A Streetcar Named Desire (she was Stella to Frances McDormand's Blanche) and many more, as well as films including Ella Enchanted.

When she had her son, Jesse, with husband Joe Gallagher, also an actor, she returned to work almost immediately. "He was only four weeks and I was back doing a play; it was mad," she says. "My agent tried to tell me 'this is insane'. I was like, 'it's fine, I've been tired before. I know what tiredness is'. No you don't," she laughs. "Not like that. There was the guilt of leaving him and the breastfeeding..." She describes sitting in her dressing room before the show "with the double-suction pump going".

Those memories are part of why she decided to step away from theatre five years ago. But only part. "There were many reasons," she says. "Roles are few and far between for women of my age" - Donna is 53, with all the vitality and energy of youth - "and work was getting slimmer for Joe, so he got a job in a bar, which meant he was out at night and I was thinking 'I can't be out six nights a week as well'."

Appropriately, her return is for Quicksand, a play by Elizabeth Moynihan, "about a mother and a son. He's 30, he has additional needs and he's on the autism spectrum. He doesn't like being touched, it's always on his terms. That could make me cry just sitting here," she says, "being a mother and only being able to embrace your child at certain moments."

Clearly, staying at home with Jesse was the furthest thing from a sacrifice for Donna. When she talks about him - "he has a great sense of humour, he's academic, empathetic" - she lights up. She tells a story that says much about the dynamic between them: "When he was in fifth class I said 'I'll give you a tenner if you do something a little off in class'," she laughs. "Not hurt anyone's feelings, just sing when you should be quiet, that kind of thing, and Jesse said 'absolutely not'. I told his teacher this, and the teacher said 'You think he's not rebelling, but he is rebelling. He's not being you'." Donna goes off into peals of merry laughter.

Jesse is an only child, but not through choice. "I tried to have more. I could get pregnant, I had five pregnancies in all, but I just have Jesse." This is something she talks openly about: "I think it's very important that women know they can talk about miscarriage. I did think, 'if there's one thing I can do, I can have a baby'. And I got pregnant as soon as I started trying, and then I miscarried."

After the first, Donna was told the statistics. "So I thought, OK. And then came the second one." She talks about the loss of that pregnancy, and about going on stage every night, bleeding. "It was Dublin Carol, by Conor McPherson, and there's a line, 'What's the worst thing you ever saw?' said to an undertaker, who answers 'A baby born down a toilet…' On the Monday morning I was walking out of the house, still bleeding, to get a scan. There was a huge storm, the streets were flooded, there was thunder, and I just felt… that was it." She lost the pregnancy. "I went to the hospital, and I went on stage that night. It never occurred to me not to. You feel the responsibility of a show so much. I think too much.

"My last miscarriage was after Jesse - he was around four. I had asked for another scan, at 16 weeks, so he could be there for it. But after a minute my consultant said 'I'm just going to send you to the main hospital, it's a better machine'. Immediately I said 'there's no heartbeat?'"

They went straight in for the second scan, all three together. "The sonographer put gel on my belly, went over it once, then twice, and then just turned everything off and looked at me and said 'I am so sorry'. They have this little room for families to go into, we went in and Joe was crying, I was crying. Then Jesse said 'Donna, why are you and Joe crying'. And I thought, 'even though I don't believe in God, I'm going to take the easy way out'. So I said 'Sweetheart, I'm so sorry, but the baby wasn't strong enough, so God took it to heaven'. Jesse nodded solemnly, and then said 'who's God?'" She and Joe "both burst out laughing".

"I don't mourn," she says now. "I did, but I don't any more. We were very lucky to get a healthy boy, and for me that is everything." And she is careful to emphasise: "I miscarried foetuses, not babies. They were never going to be babies, they couldn't be. It doesn't mean you shouldn't feel grief and love and all those things, but let's remember the science. I don't compare losing a child to losing a foetus. I think there is a difference."

It is this difference, as well as a strong sense of feminism, which motivated Donna to campaign for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

"I'm a devout feminist and always have been," she says. "I remember I was about five, and my mother said randomly one day 'my maiden name is Rooney'. I said 'what's a maiden name?' 'Oh, that was my name before I married your father, then I took his name.' I just couldn't understand it!

"A group of us dressed as angels coming up to the Referendum - we were angels for choice - we had big huge wings, and our idea was to block the foetus images being held up outside maternity hospitals. There were women with wanted pregnancies that had ended who had to walk past those images."

And then, because she is who she is, a funny story: "One young guy, anti-choice, came up to us and said 'I find your wearing of angel's wings offensive. They're ours'."

She is equally funny about Jesse and his career plans. "He's very clear on what he wants to do. He wants to be a writer." How did she respond to that? "I'm an actor married to an actor. We're poor. My instinct was to say 'you could write at weekends, when you're not in court. Or operating'." She goes off into hoots of laughter.

Over the years of sort-of staying at home, Donna has written a novel. "It's for adults, but about a boy. It's about grief. I was curious - how would a boy deal with his mother dying, in an all-boys school? Apart from the grief, there would be embarrassment. This story started forming in my head. It's fun and it's sad."

It sounds perfectly Donna.

Quicksand runs at The New Theatre from June 11 to 22. On Saturday, June 22, at 1pm there will be a 'relaxed performance' with reduced lighting and soundscape, suitable for people with additional needs.

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