Thursday 18 July 2019

'Fear just gets in the way' - Derbhle Crotty on her new play and the impact of Waking the Feminists

Derbhle Crotty tells our reporter about preparing for her new play, taking part in Waking the Feminists and why she thinks the movement's biggest impact will be on women's perception of their potential

Reflections: Derbhle Crotty says the Waking the Feminists movement came too late for many of her Trinity peers. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Reflections: Derbhle Crotty says the Waking the Feminists movement came too late for many of her Trinity peers. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Fresh take: Derbhle Crotty as Henry IV

Joanne Hayden

When Derbhle Crotty has lines to learn, she takes to the roads. She puts on her long coat and walks around Crumlin, Perrystown and Terenure "marching out" the script, "pacing it out" until she can move to any part of it and instinctively know what the next line is.

Because so many people talk into their phones these days, she gets fewer strange looks than she used to. Regardless, she tunes out everything else. When she's in a play, the play takes over.

"You give yourself wholly," she says. "You create new channels in your brain to accommodate this new existence."

It's no surprise that Crotty's process is so immersive. Renowned for the power and emotion she brings to her characters, she has twice won best actress at the Irish Theatre Awards - in 2008 for Masha in The Three Sisters and in 2015 for Henry IV in DruidShakespeare, a gender-blind reworking of four of Shakespeare's history plays. Since she began acting professionally at the age of 24 she has played many of the classic stage roles for women - Lady Macbeth, Juno, and first Ophelia and then Gertrude in Hamlet.

Fresh take: Derbhle Crotty as Henry IV
Fresh take: Derbhle Crotty as Henry IV

We meet on a cold January evening in a warm hotel bar. It's barely a week into the new year and she's come straight from rehearsing The Approach, Mark O'Rowe's new play which opens in Project Arts Centre on February 1.

Set in contemporary Dublin, The Approach revolves around three women - two sisters and a friend who used to share a flat in Ranelagh. Cathy Belton and Aisling O'Sullivan play the other characters. At the beginning, there is an estrangement. Crotty is reluctant to give away much more of the plot.

"There's certainly a mystery element to it," she says. "What may seem pretty calm and everyday on the surface is concealing great depths. As in life, there's a lot more going on than meets the eye."

There is a presumption in the play, she says, that we're constantly reinterpreting our own past in order to make accommodation with the present. She describes the script as "comprehensive, intact and very brilliant", comparing it to a wonderful clock or instrument. "In the first week you smash it on the ground and you try to reassemble it."

The language of the play - O'Rowe's first since Our Few and Evil Days in 2014 - is halting, searching and extremely true to life, she says. So as she walks the roads with the script in her head, she tries to understand the different levels on which the words function, as well as learning the lines in sequence.

"Is it a bid? Is it an absolute statement? Is it a lie? All the hundreds of ways that we test ourselves with language."

A Landmark Production, The Approach is also directed by O'Rowe who's directed Crotty twice before - in Brian Friel's Afterplay and in Juno and the Paycock. The day we meet, they've had "quite a big and intense debate over whether a certain point in an early part of the play needs to be amplified as much as it is".

It's extraordinary, she says, that she's able to tease things out with the writer. "It speaks greatly to the trust that we have."

But teasing things out is fundamental to her, and probably one of the reasons she's such a master of her craft. As we share a big silver pot of tea, she considers questions carefully, probing her way towards the truth. She's an excellent communicator, funny and very real. Approaching her 50th birthday, she's astonished that she's now been acting for 26 years.

"Isn't it in the postal service that you do 30 years and then you retire? Or it used to be that way."

Acting wasn't part of her original plan. She grew up in Cavan and studied law in UCD but was "shocked and horrified" to discover it wasn't for her. She threw herself into Dramsoc and after graduating did a performance diploma in Trinity. Her mother had died when she was 17 and for the first 10 years of her career, one of her biggest motivations was to reassure the people who loved her that she was going to be okay.

She got off to a strong start, playing roles in The Mai, Portia Coughlan and Katie Roche, plays that were written by women and - in the case of Portia Coughlan and Katie Roche - directed by women, too. This anomaly was something she referenced during her poignant speech at the Waking the Feminists meeting in the Abbey in 2015, an event convened to address the under-representation and inequality of women in Irish theatre.

In her speech Crotty talked about how her early roles gave scope to her own "contrary, turbulent and passionate nature". Most of the women who graduated from Trinity with her, she said, fell away from the profession because of the scarcity of roles. She called for more women's scripts to be staged, more women to put them on the stage and more women on the stage.

Reflecting on Waking the Feminists now, she thinks the movement was particularly successful because it "didn't sing off a single hymn sheet. Everybody came to it with their own stories and their own point of view.

"It unquestionably has made an impact," she says. "Perhaps the most profound impact will be in women's perception of their own limitless potential. And the absolute justification of their presence in all areas and the naturalness of that, the absolute uncompromising rightness of that."

Not everything changes quickly though. She hoped the gender-blind casting of DruidShakespeare - in which five women only played men - would trigger more of a revolution.

"We felt that it was groundbreaking and it would inevitably be followed, that this was now the only way to do things really. And it hasn't been followed. And things have reverted. Not that Ireland is coming down with Shakespeare performances or big classical performances. But you wished that it had comprehensively knocked down doors."

Crotty has had a long and fruitful relationship with Shakespeare. She's an associate artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as of Druid. Earlier in her career she lived in London, but she's glad she moved back to Dublin, where her siblings and nieces are. London was beginning to get prohibitively expensive and she felt she would have been overwhelmed by the city unless she changed her attitude towards organising her life.

She used to feel like a "ship out in a stormy harbour" when she didn't know what her next job would be, but she's become accustomed to the uncertainty of the business and maintains quite a freewheeling attitude towards life. As an actor, she says, you have to take and communicate joy in what you do. When she thinks about opening nights, she replaces the word terrifying with the word exciting.

"I really appreciate that we're hurtling through life and we're choosing to do the things that we're doing, nobody's making us and perspective is everything really. If you can see it as exciting rather than terrifying you have a much better time and you do the job just as well. Fear only gets in the way of everything. It's only a distraction."

The Approach runs from February 1 - 24 in Project Arts Centre, Dublin and February 27- March 3 in The Everyman Theatre, Cork.

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