Monday 23 October 2017

The reinvention of Stephen Brennan

The brilliant Dublin-born actor took some time off to write. Here he tells our reporter about his unusual living arrangements, his delight in fatherhood, his drinking, and his return to the stage

Actor Stephen Brennan says fatherhood is 'fantastic'. Photo: David Conachy.
Actor Stephen Brennan says fatherhood is 'fantastic'. Photo: David Conachy.
Stephen with actress Dawn Bradfield in the Gate production of ‘Jane Eyre’. Photo: Julien Behal

Ciara Dwyer

'The last time I did Pride and Prejudice, I said that my problem is that I look like Mr. Bennet outside but I still feel like Mr. Darcy inside," says actor Stephen Brennan. He has just turned 61. "That's one of the things we all have to deal with in life, but I do."

Far from vain, he laughs at his folly.

"I'm aware that I'm heading into a different period in my career -­­ the older man."

He will play Soren, a retired judge who looks back on his life in Corn Exchange's version of Chekhov's The Seagull. It opens at the Gaiety on October 6 as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival

Stephen with actress Dawn Bradfield in the Gate production of ‘Jane Eyre’. Photo: Julien Behal
Stephen with actress Dawn Bradfield in the Gate production of ‘Jane Eyre’. Photo: Julien Behal

Even before Colin Firth appeared in the television version, in 1994 Brennan was making women swoon with his Mr Darcy on the Gate stage. A vision in a red velvet dressing gown, he had presence and poise. He once told me how some women sent a note backstage. They asked if he would surprise their friend by presenting her with flowers for her birthday. Although willing to do it, Brennan knew that the expectation was for him to be a real-life Darcy. In the end, the women called it off. They didn't think that their pal would be able to cope with the excitement of meeting her idol. The actor was relieved.

For 42 years, Stephen Brennan has been enthralling Irish audiences. In the Gate, he has done many period dramas - from Coward to Maugham - but they are only the tip of the iceberg. He has great versatility. He can dazzle in Beckett or Pinter, he can sing and dance and have us howling with his comic roles. Lovers, losers and lousers, he has played the lot. His performances linger in your mind; it's his timing and the way he transforms for each role, sometimes with something as simple as a change in posture. For sheer brilliance, I can't think of any other Irish actor on stage who comes close.

Last year, Joe Dowling asked him to play Captain Boyle in Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock, alongside the late great Anita Reeves. It was to be the director's final production at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.

"Finally, after all these years I was getting asked to play one of the classic O'Casey leading characters which I'd never been asked to play in my own home town," he says. "It was a great honour to be asked. It's obviously now become very special," he says, referring to Anita's recent death.

"Lovely Anita," he says. "We became close after working on the play Halcyon Days and then we were back together doing this. We used to go to the health-food shop every day. She was ill at the time but she thought she had a chest infection. After she came home from Minneapolis, she was diagnosed with cancer. It was an awful shock for everybody."

"Doing Juno with her was a wonderful experience. After her last exit, I was able to wait in the wings for 30 seconds before I came on. You could hear a pin drop. That was the after-burn of her performance."

When that play finished , Stephen took a break from the stage for over a year.

"My mother [the actress Daphne Carroll] passed away last year," he says. "She was 91 and she wasn't enjoying it any more. It was very hard for her. I wouldn't wish that old age on anybody. It was sad but it was a release as well. Also, it allowed me to take a bit of time out from my working life. I just wanted to get off the treadmill and stop. If you have a few bob, you can do that."

During that time off, he did some writing. In the past, he has written a play and a couple of musicals - one is a jukebox musical using the songs of Thin Lizzy. (He has high hopes for it, if he can get someone to put it on.) This time he was working on family stories.

He has good material to mine; not only was his mother an actress, but his father was the renowned actor Dennis Brennan and all his siblings are involved in drama. Acting is in the DNA. But this break from the stage was good for him. Lying fallow was about unpacking other skills.

"I'm always trying to look at what's in me, artistically," he says. "I've interpreted other people's stuff but there comes a point when you want to see what else is there, internally. It doesn't mean that it's any good but it's always worth exploring.

"But the money didn't last long, so I'm back. I'm not tired of being in the theatre but I'm tired of having to chase the rent all the time. That is wearing. I'm at an age where I should be thinking that the mortgage is gone, the children have grown up and now it's all about me. But it's not . . . maybe that's a good thing."

Brennan may have had to drag himself back to work but now he is relishing his return. As part of the rehearsals for The Seagull, the cast do an hour of yoga each morning. At first, he wasn't a willing participant.

"I was the grumpy guy who said, 'I'm not doing any of this yoga sh*t. I'm too old for all that.' And then I thought, if you want to progress as an artist, you better force yourself to change."

"Change is hard but it's necessary; otherwise you atrophy. So I'm having to re-examine my approach to the work. It's quite refreshing."

Stephen's life off-stage is equally stimulating. He has four adult children from his marriage to actress Martina Stanley - they are separated. Their youngest is in his final year in college. And he happily embraced fatherhood all over again when he fell in love with the actress Dawn Bradfield. They met when he played Mr Rochester to her Jane Eyre in the Gate back in 2003.

"And now, a divil for punishment, I've got two more coming up," he says, referring to their sons Dylan, 8, and Jamie, 6. "But I wouldn't be without them for a minute. It's fantastic. I'm sure that there are all sorts of chemicals being released in my brain by the joy I get out of seeing these boys every day that is enlivening and invigorating. I'm out there doing stuff with them - playing football and riding bikes. Kids need investment of time and energy and no matter what age you are, you should be able to give them that."

Sadly, Stephen and Dawn are no longer a couple.

"Life throws stuff up at you," he says, "and you have to improvise and say, what's the best way of dealing with this and going forward? For both of us, the priority is the children, to give them as normal and happy a life as possible. We're both deeply committed to that."

Their living arrangement is rather unusual.

"It's called SALT - Separated And Living Together," he says. "The last couple of years I lived with my mother but her house is sold, so I can't afford to pay for two places. Now we're finding out how I fit back into the house. We were separated in the sense that we weren't actually sleeping under the same roof but I was up there every day, bringing the kids to school and doing all the normal stuff. So, now I'm snoring under the same roof and being mildly irritating every now and again and she to me, but we're getting on fine."

Brennan tries to make the best of things in all areas of his life.

"I'm great friends with Martina too," he says. "She lives around the corner. It'd be kind of sad after 20 years of marriage and four children, that you wouldn't be able to talk to somebody or that you hated them. The time of separation is very painful and very difficult but wounds heal and life goes on. It's great for everybody if you can get over that and get onto a new stage. I can go around and have dinner and be with the family and she is able to embrace the two boys who have been part of my family as well. So, it's all good for everybody. It'd be terribly debilitating to be at odds with the world or anyone in it."

I tell him that he doesn't strike me as the type to be in permanent conflict.

"Sometimes it's difficult to move on," he says. "I don't think that people go to psychologists enough. I've been to a few and I've found them very helpful. It's a useful thing to remind yourself that you're not right all the time and not perfect. Admitting that you're wrong can be quite healthy."

What made him go to a psychologist in the first place?

"They were relationship-based meetings to see if things could be improved; that awful loggerheads moment where you go, we're just not getting on. We need to do something about this. Maybe somebody can help. Then I thought it'd be good to have a further look at me. Usually if there are problems in your life, it's better to start with yourself and then see how you feel about the world. Because maybe you're not as right as you thought you were."

When Stephen was a child, he never saw his parents act on stage. At that time, his mother worked exclusively on radio.

"And my father, God bless him, the drink had overtaken him by the time I was old enough to be able to see him on stage. He was a television and radio actor, so I never saw him on stage, which is a pity. I believe he was only massive. There was a lot of respect for him and he instilled in us all respect for the profession and the writing and the whole business that he had learned."

As well as being a fine actor, Dennis Brennan was an alcoholic.

"When my father was drunk, there was a deadly hush in the house. If there was a bottle of whiskey beside the chair, that was bad news."

Because of his father's problems, does Stephen ever worry about his own drinking habits or watch them?

"Yes, all the time, all the time. Because I do drink," he says. "I could be described as a functioning alcoholic. I don't drink every day but sometimes I do and sometimes I don't. It hasn't stopped me doing my job and various things. It is always sitting on my shoulder because I enjoy drinking. It's part of my life.

"You want to relax and have a few jars after a show but people make more of that. That's an excuse. You can do a show and go home. You don't have to go to the pub. Lots of times I've made resolutions and sometimes I have given it up for periods of time. You're told you shouldn't be thinking of giving it up permanently - one day at a time and all that stuff. I know from smoking and giving them up, the brainwashing you need to do. I didn't give them up, I changed my mind. The brainwashing is really hard to get involved with and the drink is the same; the idea of never having a bottle of fine wine and really enjoying it; I would really have to de-programme myself to set about that. At the moment, I'm not interested in doing that."

Did drink ever impinge on his relationships?

"Oh yes. Drink always impinges on relationships. People think it doesn't but it does. It creates rows. People say things in drink that they shouldn't have said and people have hangovers and are just a bit on edge and grumpy the next day."

Is he talking about himself?

"I'm talking about me and just about everyone else. People make excuses and say they just have a few jars and that it doesn't affect them but it does. Drink affects your mood, your nervous system, how you think and behave and it permeates into you quite deeply. For somebody who drinks quite regularly, you just have to be careful."

Brennan is admirable in his honesty about his life. In keeping with this, I say that I can never understand why he didn't become a big film star after Eat the Peach.

"Others wanted it more than I did," he says. "I was a father at 22 and a bit of a home-bird. I got offers but I didn't want to be away from the kids for too long. I don't regret it," he says with a smile.

And this, ladies and gentleman, is Stephen Brennan; a man with a mind of his own.

Corn Exchange's The Seagull by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Michael West and Annie Ryan at the Gaiety Theatre October 6-16 (Preview Oct 5).

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