Thursday 18 January 2018

'Even in her silence, she is very strong'

Kirsty Blake Knox talks to Seána Kerslake about her upcoming role in 'King of the Castle', which shocked conservative Ireland when it first appeared at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1964

Contemporary themes: Seán McGinley and Seána Kerslake in the 1960s play King of the Castle. Photo: Matthew Thompson
Contemporary themes: Seán McGinley and Seána Kerslake in the 1960s play King of the Castle. Photo: Matthew Thompson
IFTA nomination: Kerslake and co-star Nika McGuigan (left) in 'Can't Cope, Won't Cope'

The 1960s did not swing for everyone in Ireland. Back in 1964, the League of Decency was, not for the first time, up in arms.

Founded by JB Murray in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision to allow the importation of contraceptives, the League liked to keep a close eye on those working in media and the arts. RTÉ often provided a focus for their concerns - but that year, it shifted to the Dublin Theatre Festival (DTF), and Eugene McCabe's debut play King of the Castle.

Now, as the festival celebrates its 60th anniversary, the controversial play is about to get people's attention again with a new staging that sees Druid stalwart Seán McGinley and rising star Seána Kerslake taking the lead roles.

Born in Glasgow in 1930, McCabe moved to Ireland when he was nine years old, and after graduating from University College Cork, returned to Clones to work as a farmer.

He started writing plays after tuning into one too many uninspiring RTÉ radio dramas. Thinking he could do a better job, he wrote to Hilton Edwards of the Gate Theatre, and soon began working on King of the Castle.

The storyline was based on local rumour - a tale that McCabe had heard from a priest.

It was a tragedy of sorts about sexual politics of the time and a self-made farmer called Scober McAdam.

Through his grit and tenacity, Scober is a man who almost has it all - the Big House, the Good Room, and a young Trophy Wife.

But the house has lost its sheen, the good room is full of animal feed and syringes, and his wife, Tressa, is deeply frustrated.

Scober is impotent, but he is determined to produce a son and heir, and arranges for one of his workers to sleep with her.

The frank way in which the characters discuss sex was considered by some as shocking and unsavoury.

In fact, it led to the Professor of Irish at University College Dublin writing a letter of condolence to McCabe's mother, in which he expressed "sympathy for this awful play Eugene has written".Nowadays, of course, the League of Decency is long gone. It faltered after the death of JB Murray, who famously suffered a heart attack while phoning the papers to complain about seeing a naked woman on RTÉ drama, The Spike.

In some regards, McCabe's play too has faded from our minds.

As a playwright, he is often overlooked in favour of the other literary greats; King of the Castle was first staged at the DTF 53 years ago, alongside Brian Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come!

But for Druid's Garry Hynes, the play still resonates deeply with our national psyche.

"It is a big, epic story full of emotion, it's about people and their community," she said. "That will always be relevant. Staging it this year made sense as it was the 60th anniversary of the theatre festival."

The director of the festival, Willie White, adds: "Ireland is rapidly urbanising, and in that context, it's good to remember that we're not that far from the land. In a way, this piece reflects a part of the country's hidden soul."

Hynes previously staged the play 30 years ago in an acclaimed production on the Abbey stage, with Eugene McCabe's daughter Ruth taking on the lead role of Tressa.

It was, to say the least, an usual piece of casting, but Hynes believes it is simply "interesting rather than relevant".

She says the 2017 version won't be a restaging of the former production, but something new entirely.

"It was 30 years ago," she says. "That detail is stripped from my memory, so of course it will be very different."

This time, Seána Kerslake has been cast as Tressa, while Seán McGinley plays Scober.

Most of us know Kerslake (26) from Stefanie Preissner's twenty-something drama, Can't Cope, Won't Cope.

She played car-jacking, vodka-slamming Cork woman Aisling O'Dowd, alongside actress Nika McGuigan, the daughter of boxer Barry.

Seána is known for playing contemporary women on screen in works like A Date For Mad Mary, and Kirsten Sheridan's Dollhouse, and on stage in productions like From Eden.

Stepping back to rural 1960s Ireland is a definite change of scene - "I've never been in anything that isn't set in 2015, 2016 or 2017, that isn't set now really," she says.

"This is my first period piece, ever. It's a new challenge, and nice to get to put on all the costumes."

Growing up in Tallaght, the middle of three girls, Kerslake began taking drama classes at a young age. She was studying English and music at NUI, Maynooth when she was first spotted by a talent agent.

"But it wasn't until I worked on Dollhouse that I started thinking that this could be something I do," she says. "On your own doorstep."

After receiving an IFTA nomination in 2013, and securing a lead role on Can't Cope, Won't Cope, she began featuring on plenty of '30 Under 30' listicles, with some writers comparing her to Scarlett Johansson. "People say that but I don't see that," she says awkwardly. "I just keep doing my thing and pottering away."

"If you didn't, you wouldn't leave the house," adds Seána. Instead, she prefers to focus on work. "It's about the next job, the next audition. Being an actor is precarious. After this show I might not be working till next summer, that's the reality of it."

That seems unlikely, given that RTÉ have commissioned a second series of Can't Cope, Won't Cope. But Seána says she hasn't received a script yet. "I have no idea about it - other people keep telling me it's back, but I haven't heard.

"Last series was a mad shoot but a fun shoot; it's nice to see strong women on screen and a privilege to be part of that."

Seána was one of the actresses who took part in the Abbey Theatre's Waking the Feminists movement - which aims to even out the gender disparity in Irish theatre.

"I am a feminist," she says, adding: "I think the word feminist scares people because they think it means you hate men or are going to go on a rant."

As a feminist, the subject matter of King of the Castle must be difficult to digest - a man asking another man to sire his wife.

The subject seems to have particular resonance with the recent first public sitting of the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment. I ask Seána if she thinks McCabe's words will tap into a larger conversation about women's body autonomy.

She's unsure, although she acknowledges that others have drawn comparisons between McCabe's play and the recent Emmy-winning TV series The Handmaid's Tale.

"But I think Tressa is a strong woman," she says. "That's important. She holds her own in a cast of 10 guys.

"She might be silent, and serve the men or make their dinner, but even in her silence, she is very strong. To hold everything together in that silence is very difficult to do".

King of the Castle runs at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre from October 11 until 15

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