Tuesday 20 February 2018

Learning to go with the ebbs and flows... actress Kathy Rose O'Brien

Actress Kathy Rose O'Brien talks to our reporter about playing Cinderella with a dark side and how she's finally discovered the life of a true artist

Sense of purpose: Actress Kathy Rose O’Brien has found a 'guardian angel' in her great aunt, the late novelist Kate O'Brien.
Sense of purpose: Actress Kathy Rose O’Brien has found a 'guardian angel' in her great aunt, the late novelist Kate O'Brien.

Julia Molony

Blonde-haired and blue-eyed, her voice laced with sugar and her dress dusted with sparkles, Kathy Rose O'Brien seems a perfect fairytale heroine when she steps on stage at the Unicorn Theatre in London as Cinderella.

But all is not quite what it seems. With just a hint of malevolent glitter in her eyes and the suggestion of a raised eyebrow, we know that something is up. Kathy Rose plays a version of Cinders as you've never seen her before - a knowing, tricky and scheming version of the story-book favourite. It's the nuances of O'Brien's performance - her gift for the subtle tell - that have earned her the special attention of UK critics for her turn this Christmas in the smash-hit children's show Baddies: The Musical by Nancy Harris and Marc Teitler.

Kathy Rose is no stranger to a rave review. She started her theatre career in style, practically tumbling straight out of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) into a role in the Garry Hynes's production of Leaves at the Royal Court in London, for which she won an Irish Times Theatre award. Her first thought was, "Oh My God! This is just how it works! This is my life now, it's amazing", she says.

As is often the case, her early run of luck didn't turn out to be exactly the Cinderella-style transformation she may have imagined. In hindsight, she admits more than 10 years later, it's been much more complex and challenging.

O'Brien grew up in Dublin 4, the daughter of well-to-do parents, both of whom are businesspeople. As an only child, she says she got used to performing, and benefited too from a certain "inner self-confidence. I felt like I could have a conversation with grown-ups. I had a voice," she explains. She followed a predictable course for a nicely brought up, well-spoken girl; doing well at school and winning a place at Trinity College, followed by RADA, after which she found work quickly in Ireland and the UK. She was cast in the landmark RTE drama Whistleblower, which dramatised the Dr Neary scandal, and for several years enjoyed being one of the most in-demand theatre actresses going, appearing in a run of roles, back-to-back, at The Abbey and The Gate.

But an actor's career ebbs and flows, and a fallow period followed not long after.

Choosing an actor's life usually means foregoing the comforts of convention, and it was no exception for Kathy Rose. In the past year she has moved between London, New York and Dublin following different professional interests and leads. Ultimately, she's had to change her mindset. In the past, she says of herself, she was someone who "liked everything to be planned and organised. I wanted a very clear journey in my career, and if I did this role it could lead to this role." However, she has had to adapt. "I really am much more mindful now," she says. "I have learned, and it's only just come upon me this year, but I have learned to be in the moment, because really, you have to be."

In fact the change in perspective has paid dividends. By learning to go with the flow, she has, this year, not only found herself in a hit new show in London, but has also discovered a whole new strand to her career.

During a period of "resting" last year she did a screen-writing course at the National Film and TV School in London, "completely as a hobby", she explains, having realised: "Woah, I have a good few months ahead of me that I might not have any work on. To keep busy, if I'm really honest." It turned out, she had a bit of a knack for it.

When the Channel 4 TV producer who ran the course singled her script out and pressed her to keep going, her first reaction was to say: "No, no, no, I'm an actress, I don't want to write the work, I just want to be hired. I really don't want to start a whole new profession trying to be a writer, that is as freelancey and messy and complicated and hard as being an actress, when I just got a handle on that."

But he persisted and she was persuaded, and now she has a script in development with more than one party interested in producing it.

Not just that but she's got a second, more personal writing project on the go too - a one-woman show in collaboration with Limerick County Council and the Lime Tree Theatre. It's about the life of the Irish writer, Kate O'Brien, who not only happens to be Kathy Rose's great aunt, but who also has, happily, been helping her make sense of that "freelancey, messy, complicated", style of life she's chosen.

"I thought she was a bit stuffy, maybe a bit fusty," she say of her initial feelings about her great aunt, who died before Kathy Rose was born, until she "started researching her and reading her work. She has an incredibly modern, feminist voice. She was so strong in who she was, she travelled extensively on her own, she had a play on Broadway, but she was broke. Her books were banned in Ireland." In her great aunt's writings, she found an ally - a woman who pursued a life in the arts, despite its challenges, which were particularly pronounced in her era, and who embraced freedom and authenticity of voice over convention. "A lot of the characters she wrote about in her books were actresses or performers, middle-class, Catholic Irish nice girls," Kathy Rose says, so she was moved and affected when last year, she met and spoke to Kate O'Brien's biographer Eibhear Walsh, who told her: "You are a Kate O'Brien heroine. . . but I wonder would she be surprised at a lot of the difficulties you're facing. How little has changed in 70 years."

It thrills her to be a descendant of Kate's, "acting and performing and having an independent life without a husband or a family - trying to make a life in the arts," she says. "I didn't have any connection with her and saw her as quite old-fashioned, but I now have a bit of a guardian angel. And through her writing and her work and her independence, there is, I hope, a map for me. Or some kind of connection. And then I'm also interested in seeing what hasn't progressed."

It's the lack of progress which has inspired her to become an activist lately too, getting involved in setting up the Irish Chapter of Women and Film and Television - a body which aims to lobby for funding and representation of women in the industry.

"In a risky profession anyway - and it is risky - why is it riskier if you are a girl?" she asks.

Ultimately, amongst all the uncertainty she's found a new, powerful sense of purpose, and also greater peace of mind. And the same applies both personally and professionally. She used to get caught up wondering "Oh God, where am I? If I'm with a partner, where are we? What are we doing? Trying to wrestle it and lock it down, and I'm in a much more successful place, probably romantically, and socially by not obsessing about it," she says.

Baddies: The Musical runs until the 24th of December. www.unicorntheatre.com

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