Wednesday 22 May 2019

'I hadn't realised that my uncle was one of the Disappeared' - actress Laura Donnelly

As Olivier award-winning actress Laura Donnelly prepares to head to Donegal for the cross-border Lughnasa FrielFest, she talks to our reporter about how her family's story spurred the writing of Broadway-bound play The Ferryman, why women are only now realising their true potential in the arts and her love of Brian Friel

Award-winning actress Laura Donnelly. Photo: PIP
Award-winning actress Laura Donnelly. Photo: PIP

Caroline O'Donoghue

If you have ever seen the TV show Outlander, you'll know Laura Donnelly's face. In a show about time-travelling Celts that features plenty of magic stones and kilts that leave little to the imagination, she brings the narrative down to earth. She plays Jenny, the wise-cracking, logic-abiding sister of the male lead Sam Heughan, and her presence brings an earthy reality to a show that could otherwise run away with itself. In person, Donnelly - who has just won an Olivier award for her role as Caitlin in the Broadway-bound The Ferryman - brings much of Jenny's energy. She's quick, funny and eminently fair.

The Belfast-born actress is a refreshing interviewee: there's no ducking, no dodges. The Ferryman (written by her partner Jez Butterworth, directed by Sam Mendes) is partly inspired by her own family's story, a subject you would assume she would be protective of.

"The part of it that is influenced by my family story is to do with the death of the brother in the play," she says, meeting my gentle inquiry head-on. "Jez and I were watching a documentary about the Disappeared in Northern Ireland and at the end, the faces of the victims came up. I just said, 'Oh, that's my uncle'. He was like 'WHAT?' It was such a bizarre thing to try to explain to someone not from Ireland."

Several of the Disappeared, the 16 Northern Irish people, all Catholic, believed to be abducted and murdered by the IRA, remain missing.

"I did know and I didn't know at the same time. I had known how my uncle had died for many years, and I had known that my mother went on to work with the families, but I had never realised that there was this group called 'the Disappeared' and that my uncle was one of them. There was a lot of things that I hadn't quite knitted up, and it all suddenly came into place."

The couple's discussion of the documentary went on to inspire Butterworth's vision for the play, which is now heading to Broadway after a hugely successful run in the West End.

"I ended up getting into a whole discussion about it with Jez and he was really fascinated by it, and chatting to my mum about what had happened. We also happened to go to two funerals of the Disappeared around that time. Two bodies had been discovered and my mother asked us to go with her. There was something about that experience, that ritual of trying to put a soul to rest that has been away for the past 40, 50 years… it really resonated with Jez and everything he was trying to say with that play."

Donnelly's mother had been pregnant with her when her 26-year-old uncle had gone missing, and pregnant again when the body was discovered three years later. "I was quite amazed that I made it through, to be honest, with that level of stress."

Despite this, Donnelly is relaxed about the fact that growing up in Northern Ireland is a very specific experience, one where terror often becomes everyday.

"Stuff like that gets normalised when you grow up in the North. Things would happen and I would have a vague awareness they were worth noting. Like, having to leave town because there's a bomb scare in CastleCourt. It happens all your life, you don't pay much attention to it.

"In a way, I think I have probably benefited from it," she says cheerily. "It's funny, the extent to which my Northern Irish friends in London don't worry about the current terrorism threats."

It's very clear that Donnelly, despite working mainly in the UK, considers her identity to be very shaped by her Belfast roots. "The North is eternally frustrating for lots of reasons. It's so behind in so many ways. Gay marriage, women's rights, and there's a sense from the rest of Ireland and the UK that, as a nation, we're quite abandoned. The government there doesn't work at all, and yet Theresa May is in partnership with the DUP. A bigoted, racist, sexist, horrible party, but she needs votes. So, the lack of care given to the consequences for people in the North feels very insulting."

Donnelly is a feminist, and a vocal supporter of #TimesUp, namechecking the movement when she received her Olivier award. While she's hesitant to position herself as a role model, she's adamant that the entertainment industry takes responsibility for how it represents women and minorities.

"How people see themselves in the arts has massive consequences in how they go into the world. I think women are only now beginning to realise the extent to which we haven't been represented. At no point throughout my twenties did I think: 'Someone wants to listen to what I have to say'.

"I never thought I could produce or write or direct. In my head, I put that down to men's jobs, because I didn't see any women doing it. So how must women of colour feel? Or women with disabilities feel? To never see yourself represented on, for example, the BBC, which is a public broadcasting body?"

As a Northern Irish actor working in the UK, Donnelly has had her fair share of prejudice at casting calls. "It's still very, very rare that I see a story set about where I come from, or with an Irish character where their Irishness wasn't the main point. There was a film being based in the North and the casting director - who wasn't Irish - said I wasn't working-class enough to play a working-class Belfast girl. I was like: 'What? What does that mean?'

"What does she think a working-class Belfast girl is? Where did she get that idea from? Because it definitely wasn't based on experience."

Representation is a big sticking point for Donnelly, and is one of the many reasons she's proud of Outlander. The fantasy show has been praised for its representation of female sexuality and, in particular, its investigation of male rape.

"It has brought up so many questions around male sexual assault, around representation, around how women are treated on screen, about love and whether you can represent love when it contains misogyny or abuse," she says, proudly.

"Caitriona Balfe, who plays Claire, is an incredibly intelligent, articulate feminist, and she holds her position of responsibility very seriously. She knows what she does matters, and she fights for things. She fights stuff that she thinks is careless or irresponsible."

Despite her love for the Outlander cast and crew, it's plain to see that Donnelly's first love is theatre.

"The hardest thing about TV for me is that you don't feel like you're working as hard, because you spend so long waiting for your scene. By the time I finished Ferryman in October, I was six months pregnant and I had been working eight shows a week, rehearsing since February. It was exhausting. I was so done! But I will look back on that as the best professional experience of my life. I love that pressure."

Her love of live theatre will be revived again this month as she journeys to Donegal to participate in the 3rd Lughnasa FrielFest, performing a monologue from Faith Healer.

"I really have no idea what to expect once I get there. I know I love Donegal. I know I love Friel. We're winging it. It's just a celebration of his writing. I studied a couple of his plays at school. I did Dancing at Lughnasa professionally at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and I did Philadelphia at the Donmar. I think most Irish people have a connection to his work, however small."

She will perform her monologue with no direction, and no interaction with other cast members. Seems a little intense, no? "Intense is good," she finishes. "Intense makes me feel like I'm working hard."

Tickets to see Laura in Faith Healer (August 17, 18 and 19) in Market Hall, Glenties, Co Donegal, at the 3rd Lughnasa FrielFest Brian Friel Festival can be booked at

The Ferryman will run at the Bernard B Jacobs Theatre, NYC, from October 2

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