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Niamh Cusack - me and standing out from my sisters


Niamh Cusack

Niamh Cusack

The Cusack sisters.

The Cusack sisters.

Natasha Richardson and Liam Neeson.

Natasha Richardson and Liam Neeson.

Niamh Cusack

As she prepares to play Juno, Niamh 
Cusack talks to John Nathan about her siblings. Even if you don't know Niamh Cusack by face, you definitely know her name.

Born in 1959 in Dublin, she is the third of four daughters born to Cyril Cusack, the acting legend who was a star of both the Abbey Theatre and, later, the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK. All four daughters are actresses, the most famous being Sinead, who is married to Jeremy Irons. But Niamh, who has carved out her own quietly powerful career on the stage, has always seen herself as slightly separate to her celebrated father and siblings.

"It's because I'm the third of the three sisters, I suppose," she says. "Perhaps that means I have to wrestle sometimes to feel an individual and apart from them."

Niamh is about to star at Bristol's Old Vic as one of the most monumental matriarchs in Irish drama - the eponymous Juno in Juno and the Peacock, Sean O'Casey's classic early 20th-century depiction of poverty in a Dublin tenement block.

Her family being what it is though, she is not the first Cusack to play Juno. Sinead did it at London's National Theatre in 2011 and Sorcha's performance was recently recorded for a radio version, yet to be aired. Niamh insists she isn't fazed by her Juno coming hot on her sisters' heels, although you can't help but wonder.

"This isn't the first part that Sinead or Sorcha has played that I'm taking on after them. I'm always the one who is doing them last," she says with a hint of mock annoyance.

"Then poor Catherine [her younger half-sister] is coming along afterwards. I didn't know I was going to be playing Juno so soon after Sinead played Juno. I thought she was wonderful. But I think what's great is that physically we're quite different. And my whole set up is different. I have a different Captain Boyle [Des McAleer, playing the role of Juno's husband Jack] and my whole family is different."

Off stage, family informs Niamh's life in way that is hard to exaggerate. Acting courses through the family blood: along with Niamh's mother, Maureen Kiely, Cyril brought up five children, including two brothers - Paul, a television producer and director, now retired, and Padraig, a producer at London's National Theatre. Catherine, Cyril's sixth child, from his second marriage, was born in 1968. Yet Niamh's place in the Cusack clan as third sister (Sorcha and Sinead are a good 10 years older) has been as present on stage as it has off. All three siblings performed in Chekhov's Three Sisters opposite their father in 1990 - Niamh naturally played the youngest sister Irina. (She had originally won a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music but it was while watching Sorcha play Olga in an earlier production of that play that Niamh realised she knew exactly how to play Irina and started contemplating an acting career herself.)

"Oh, we've also all performed in The Playboy of the Western World," she adds, almost as an afterthought.

The family links to O'Casey's play go even deeper. There is a recorded version of Juno (available on YouTube) in which Cyril plays Jack's freeloading friend Joxer and Niamh's mother plays Mary, Juno's daughter. (O'Casey himself reads the preface.)

And even in Sorcha's much more recent radio version, Mary is played by Sorcha's own daughter, Beth Cooke. It is hard to imagine any other play that has adopted a family of actors as completely as Juno has adopted the Cusacks.

"I don't know if the Redgraves all played a particular part," says Niamh.

She trawls the memory for other parts played by all the other Cusacks.

"Sorcha and Sinead both played Juliet before I did. But then Sinead didn't play Rosalind [in As You Like It, as Niamh did], she played Celia..." It must feel as if she and her family jointly own the play.

"I don't feel I own it. I feel as if I'm a custodian, like I always feel with any part." Still, she must feel her family has had an incalculable influence on her career?

''When I was younger I really didn't think about how I come from this family where all of us are actors and Cyril was very renowned," she says.

''My memory was that my father wasn't in the house much when I was growing up. But he was in Dublin - we lived about 10 miles outside - whereas the older three who lived with my father were very much steeped in that theatre world in Dublin. Padraig and I weren't. We were really brought up by my mother. We went to a different school. We did go and see my da in Dublin, in plays, and he did come out on Sundays for his Sunday lunch. He was an actor before he was anything else, including a father. He always said his home was dressing room."

He sounds remote. When I ask if Niamh's decision to become an actor was partly due to a desire to get closer to Cyril, she says that it absolutely wasn't but does acknowledge that she found it much easier to talk to him after she became an actor. "We had a common language," she says.

There is little ego on display when she talks about herself but she does betray a hint of sibling rivalry. ''There probably is a sense of competition between the actors," she concedes. "Inevitably. But I think it's fairly healthy. I don't think anyone is eaten up with it.''

Her career is steeped in the great homegrown dramatists, including O'Casey, Synge and Friel, and also in Chekhov and Shakespeare. She is also a formidable presence in new playwriting: she appeared in the original production of the London smash hit The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time as Christopher's sage, compassionate teacher Siobhan. (She had finished her run in the West End version when the ceiling fell in on the audience last year. But her son Callum was ushering that night. "He wasn't hurt or traumatised, but he later realised how incredibly lucky that no one was killed.") Her most famous role though still remains Dr Kate Rowan in the first four seasons of the cosy 1990s TV series Heartbeat with Nick Berry.

"To be honest, I don't think I would have had the career I've had in theatre had I not done it," she says.

Her approach to the parts she plays has always been instinctive rather than heavily worked through. Around the same time she first saw Sorcha in Three Sisters, she also saw Warren Mitchell play Miller's Death of a Salesman at the National.

"I was a mess at the end of the play. That got me thinking that I would love to be able to act like that."

Despite the music scholarship, she became convinced that she wasn't cut out to be a musician.

"All I could do was put something across. I could give you the feeling of the music. And that's kind of what I do as an actor. Juno is quite difficult to play..."

She picks up my copy of the text and reads aloud O'Casey's description of the role: "'...listless monotony and harassed anxiety blending with an expression of mechanical resistance'." She puts down the book. "I think I am the kind of actor who probably doesn't think of a character's 'look'. I think more of what her spirit might be."

Rivalries or not, the Cusack clan are still family, and regularly get together. ''Sinead and her husband have a place in Cork. And my brother and his wife come down from Dublin. We are quite close as a family.''

She pauses. ''Although whenever we get together, the old dynamic reasserts itself. The older three are larger than life. And then there's me and Padraig, who are more subdued. I prefer to see my family in bits. Because they are quite an overwhelming bunch.''


Great acting dynasties

The Redgraves

The Redgraves can trace their acting lineage back to the 19th century: Roy Redgrave, father of Michael, was an early star of silent cinema.

Michael's theatre career spanned five decades while Vanessa, Corin and Lynn, his three children with the actress Rachel Kempson, all became actors. Vanessa's two daughters with actor Tony Richardson, the late Natasha, who was married to Liam Neeson, and Joely, also entered the profession, while Joely's actress daughter Daisy Bevan made her debut at the age of five in Elizabeth, a film produced by her father Tim Bevan's film company.

The Fox Family

They aren't so much a dynasty as a mini-theatrical empire. Patriach Edward Fox is the son of Robin, a theatre agent, and is married to the actress Joanna David.

Daughter Emilia (once married to Jared Harris, son of Richard) and son Freddie are established actors, while Edward's brother James enjoyed brief screen success in the 1960s. His other brother Robert, a producer, was once married to Natasha Richardson (see above), while James's children Lydia and Laurence are also actors, the latter married to Billie Piper.

The Thompsons

The twice Academy-award winning actress Emma Thompson is the daughter of actor Eric Thompson (best known for narrating The Magic Roundabout) and actress Phyllida Law.

She married actor and director Kenneth Branagh and now is married to the actor Greg Wise.

Her sister Sophie is anaward-winning actress - and the winner of this year's Celebrity MasterChef.


Irish Independent