The dynamo actor reflects on past roles, her upcoming turn in Marina Carr’s new play and party planning at the end of the pandemic
‘My mother died when I was 17,” says Derbhle Crotty. “Of course, that’s at the heart of everything. It always is… a private part.”
Her words float into the ether.
I had just asked the Cavan-born actress how her parents reacted to her decision to pursue acting after she’d done a law degree. This was not the response I was expecting.
All of a sudden, this warm and clever woman, who had been happily chatting about life, sounds vulnerable.
Her words are hesitant, the grief still raw. With the distance of over 30 years, she still finds it hard to talk about it. But she carries on, and links it succinctly to her work.
Next week, Crotty plays both Virginia Woolf and Mrs Ramsay in the world premiere of Marina Carr’s stage adaptation of To the Lighthouse. Conceived long before Covid, there were many attempts to stage it live, but after several postponements, it will finally be an online production from the Everyman Theatre in Cork.
Woolf’s novel is about grief and loss.
“Mrs Ramsay is at the heart of this family,” says Derbhle. “I don’t have any children, but I’m enjoying playing this mother of eight. She’s endlessly busy.
“She is the carer of the poor, the closer of the eyes of people that are dying. She’s never without the basket on the arm, always knitting. She’s a very attentive, dutiful person with a rich inner life. There’s a wonderful line where she says, ‘Pray heaven that the inside of my mind is not exposed.’
“I’m not giving anything away to say that Mrs Ramsay dies,” says Derbhle. “She is very suddenly taken from them. A huge part of the play is about how a person finds space to be themselves. But also, it’s about the process of grief and how life re-asserts itself after catastrophic loss.
“In the play, they complete a journey to the lighthouse but they are stuck out there and the wind stops and they can’t move forward and can’t go back. They’re becalmed. In a way, grief can be like that, where you may experience the extremities… and of course you will.
“There’s probably a big period where you are almost paralysed with indecision. Where are you going, [what] if you go forward?
“They are difficult things, and all of us are going to experience them in life, one way or the other; how to shed our old skin and intuit the next right direction to take. But it’s never right. It’s all just chaos, and it’s about what we try to impose on the chaos.”
She tells me that one of her mother’s close friends follows her career and laments that her late pal isn’t alive to experience Derbhle’s work. She reckons that she would’ve been supportive of her daughter’s career, albeit terrified by the choice of a precarious profession.
Derbhle seems consoled by this.
Being the eldest of four, that period of grief must have been difficult for her.
“You’re suddenly in a world where your whole certainty has been exploded,” she says. “I was clinging to the flotsam, clinging to whatever I could and forging forward in a very determined way.
“It probably looked very coherent and it was very driven, but when I think of it now, this is survival.
“It was as vehement as I was because you have to keep upright and keep moving forward or you’ll drown. You pin your colours to the mast and you’ve got to keep that up. We find that we’ve made big decisions, and then we’ve got to keep defending them to the death.”
She remembers a TV programme that she used to watch as a kid. Perhaps it was Ripley’s Believe it or Not. In one episode, when there was a lot of crisis in the person’s life, they could press a pause button. They were able to walk around their lives while everybody else was frozen.
“I remember watching it as a kid, thinking that I’d just go to the shops and get a load of sweets.”
She found the Covid pause more complicated. “The pandemic has been appalling and shocking, but maybe in terms of the enforced pause, it has given people an opportunity to take time and space to think and ask ‘have I changed my mind?’ – and that could be about any amount of things.”
Derbhle lives in Crumlin with her husband Tony, who works in apartment management. They’d just bought a little cabin for the back garden when the pandemic hit and she began painting it with fervour. She took to “cycling around some chi-chi tree-lined streets in Dublin with not a soul in sight, savouring the absence”.
There were other times when she craved company and parties.
“I regret not having a party for my 50th birthday. I celebrated turning 40 with a big party – but this time I was putting it on the long finger.”
Then Covid happened and there was no possibility of a party. But becoming 50 didn’t trouble her. Despite what many female actors say about a shortage of roles as they reach middle age, her acting career continues to thrive. No midlife crisis here, so she is determined to celebrate it.
“I’m happy enough that I live my life according to my beliefs. I haven’t been living a lie. I’m going to wring as much pleasure and joy out of it as I can. This is the lesson over and over again. It’s the lesson of life and the lesson of art, to bring yourself honestly to things.
“I’ve had so many fantasies about this party. I’ve walked around our small house saying, this’ll be the dancing room. Of course it’ll be the dancing room, it’s the only room with a little bit of space.
“I’m going to re-experience turning 50 because I’m going to celebrate it in big style. I’m already making a playlist.
“Everybody must dress up. I think that’s important. It’s the opportunity that you have every day to make your life a bit more fabulous.”
During Covid, she managed to perform for a (small) real live audience in Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger in IMMA, working with Cavan musician Lisa O’Neill who was part of it too. And she was in Mark O’Rowe’s The Approach at Project Arts Centre, which was live-streamed. These productions, she says, were lifelines.
“For The Approach there were three of us in that big space, with two technicians. Then outside in the lobby, there was the producer and playwright and director, all sitting at laptops watching us perform.
“It was surreal and mind-blowing – and at some stage I thought I was going to fall off the edge of the world, that my chair would topple over and I’d tumble into endless black.
“The thing I missed most about work was being in a room with people figuring stuff out, as opposed to the finished product.
I love performing live, but I missed kicking ideas around and coming to a creative consensus. That’s a huge part of it.”
Lucky for us that in this strange new Covid-world, Derbhle didn’t decide on a career change. For she is a dynamic actor.
She first sprang onto our stages in the early 1990s, and has been dazzling audiences ever since. There have been powerful performances in many a Marina Carr play, including The Mai, Portia Coughlan and Hecuba.
She is a fearless performer and hugely versatile. She’s been in plays by John B Keane (Sive), Tom Murphy (Bailegangaire), Sebastian Barry (Tales of Ballycumber) and Martin McDonagh (The Beauty Queen of Leenane).
Whether her performances are comic, emotional or earthy, they are always imbued with intelligence and sensitivity. From O’Casey’s Juno to a Princess Scherbatsky in Anna Karenina, she has worked hard at not being pigeon-holed.
At the Waking the Feminists event in the Abbey in November 2015, she said that in terms of working with female collaborators, she has had “a blessed career”. She’s worked with Garry Hynes of Druid, Annie Ryan of Corn Exchange and Marina Carr – amongst other female creatives.
Just before Covid, she’d completed Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard with Druid in Galway and it was about to transfer to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.
As the years have gone on, there has been no drought in roles for her. They continue to be meaty and varied, and there have been many films too. She was in Notes on a Scandal and last December she was in Mandrake, a horror/thriller film which was made in Belfast.
As she says herself, “It hasn’t been all aprons and bare feet and howling at the moon. I’ve played a lot of period, a lot of classics – Oscar Wilde, high comedy, straight comedy, and a fair smattering of glamorous roles. I scrub up well.”
As she says this, an image of her moving performance as Greta in Frank McGuinness’s adaptation of The Dead comes back to me. She was Ophelia in Hamlet at the RSC and one of three actresses who inspired Mark O’Rowe to write his psychological thriller, The Approach.
“In Ireland, you can’t afford to do only one thing. It’s not interesting. You’d get bored with it yourself.
“And as a stage actor here, you’re lucky to be doing five productions a year, so you work really hard to choose the roles to give you some variation.
“None of us are breathless 20-year-olds anymore, where being on stage is enough.”
There is always something compelling about her performances. And she’s not afraid to do different.
“I played an English king in DruidShakespeare,” she says, referring to her blood-stained Henry IV.
In a way, these roles were coming full circle, as her first ever part was a breeches role in a school play.
When she was a young girl at Loreto College in Cavan, there was an announcement over the intercom. Some girls were called up to the hall. The school was about to put on a production of The Sound of Music.
But Derbhle was not one of the chosen few. She didn’t take it well.
“I marched myself up to the office. I won’t say that I demanded an audition, but I really didn’t want to leave that office until I was considered for it.
“I don’t really know what that was – some kind of impulse, as opposed to forming an idea that this could be a good thing to do. I hadn’t been to drama classes and I wasn’t a singer.”
She got the part of Max, the family friend and impresario.
“I had to look good in pants. I did The Sound of Music and it became a complete obsession. Then I was in South Pacific, a production in the local boys’ school with a few other girls. The thrill of live performance was life-changing and I had the desire to get that high again.”
Nonetheless, when it came to choosing a career, Derbhle her gut instinct led her to study law at UCD.
“I wanted to change the world. I wanted to right the wrongs and I wanted to use brilliant arguments to see justice done. More than anything, I wanted to be effective in the world.”
I say that she was very serious for a young girl just out of school.
“These days they get called “social justice warriors”, but it is the young who want to make that difference. It’s the young who want to commit their lives to making the world a better place.
“I was investing in something that was rule-based but then I realised that a creative solution is not required in law. You apply a theory, a law that is already written. You’re not called on to come up with unique solutions.
“In the end, I crawled myself to a degree. I didn’t cover myself in glory.”
In UCD, while she was falling out of love with law, she was passionate about plays. She spent the bulk of her time in Dramsoc.
It was a creative time. Playwright Conor McPherson and actors Camille O’Sullivan and Aidan McArdle were her peers in UCD at the time. There was no going back. It was to be an actor’s life.
In hindsight, she remembers how she the seed was planted very early on.
In Cavan Town Hall as a young girl, she had been mesmerised by Cavan playwright and actor, Jimmy Fox who had a gift for comedy. He walked out on stage, cracked an egg and swallowed it whole.
There were pantomimes and she still remembers how the town was jubilant when Hacklers Theatre Company, which included writer Dermot Healy, won The All-Ireland drama festival with Waiting for Godot.
“There was a crackle around the town and pride in that. Everyone loves to win and there’s something about the conferring of that importance. It’s a snapshot but it made a big impression on me.”
In 1996 Derbhle went to live in London for six years. “I went over with Portia Coughlan which was in the Royal Court Theatre. It was like visiting a temple. My God, John Osborne’s ground-breaking The Entertainer with Laurence Olivier happened here. All that history.
“It was a great Irish moment in London and it was enormously exciting. I was in Conor McPherson’s The Weir and Martin McDonagh was exploding. It was super-trendy. I had a loft in Shoreditch and that was my moment of cool.”
While there, she didn’t just do Irish plays. She did a lot of classics by Ibsen and Shakespeare at the National Theatre.
“I stumbled in to it and stumbled out of it,” she says of her time there.
“I came home in the end. There was something turbulent happening in me and I couldn’t put words on it.
“Anytime I would come home, which was fairly frequently, I would be spellbound by meeting strangers. I’d sit there enthralled by old men in bars, feeling that I was profoundly missing this. It was a fluency and shorthand and sense of humour.
“Emigrants find this all the time.”
Then one day she was walking on the beach in Brighton, and everything became clear.
“There was a storm gathering and it was as if somebody outside of me said, ‘It’s OK, you can go home now. You’ve done what you came for and you can go home.’”
And she did. She followed her gut once more.
Hatch Theatre and the Everyman, in association with Pavilion Theatre, stage Marina Carr’s adaption of ‘To the Lighthouse’ as part of Cork Midsummer Festival. June 25–27. everymancork.com