Friday 24 November 2017

Stage: Big dreams, big Maggie - big responsibility

Reprised role: Aisling O’Sullivan opposite Keith Duffy in John B Keane's Big Maggie.
Reprised role: Aisling O’Sullivan opposite Keith Duffy in John B Keane's Big Maggie.

Maggie Armstrong

A few short weeks to go before Druid's Big Maggie opens at The Gaiety and the wheels of the publicity machine are turning fast.

Aisling O'Sullivan - reprising her role next to Keith Duffy as the eponymous Maggie in John B Keane's 1969 rural dissection - is the face of the business. That is for certain.

Outside, the buses lurch across town with the Kerry actress plastered down the sides - a pale oval face between drapes of widow's weeds, glaring out.

Inside, Aisling sits down to her morning coffee and slaps a heavy script on the table. She played the same part in The Gaiety in 2011, but that doesn't take away the burden. This script has kept her eyes shielded from such hype as billboards. "I'm bogged down with learning lines, so anything like that now would send me running for the sea, and the boat."

You sense she means it.

It's a year since tall, swaggering Aisling O'Sullivan was cast as Hal, King Henry V, in Druid/Shakespeare, the cycle of four history plays, Richard II, Henry IV (Parts 1 & 2) and Henry V that people have rarely stopped talking about since (guilty your honour).

And what a year it's been for the actress behind the boy who would be king.

She is just lately making a comeback on the Irish stage, being perhaps better known from RTÉ's Raw and The Clinic. She went into the Shakespeare part "like a lovely little innocent spring lamb," she laughs. "That will not be happening again, ever."

She and Garry Hynes, Druid's director, have a "love/hate relationship", according to the former. It was Garry, in the driving seat of our national theatre in 1991, who brought Aisling into The Abbey ensemble after she graduated from acting school at 25.

It was under Garry's direction she won Best Supporting Actress at the Theatre Awards as the Widow Quin in Playboy of the Western World. "I owe her a debt of gratitude," says Aisling.

It was also Garry who landed her with the responsibility of playing king when Aisling had never done Shakespeare before. At last year's launch party, the Druid/Shakespeare actors sat in a golden circle while flash bulbs popped and journalists scribbled hungrily. At one point, during interviews, Aisling was heard to utter, "I don't have a clue". She was joking but again, she meant it.

"I hadn't a clue," she says today. "And I made a terrible mistake. I hadn't studied it before we stepped into the rehearsal space. So I literally had eight weeks to try and learn all of this language that I'd never worked with before, and try and understand it. It was very frightening. It was very frightening!"

Then how on earth did she carry off 'Once more unto the breech' and all those furious wartime speeches? Through a strange combination of iambic pentameter and "studying for the Leaving Cert", she says. "What you're trying to do is you're trying to tattoo the lines into your head. So you go over them. And you go over them. And you go over them. And then, you go away and the following morning you'll wake up, and they won't be there. It does feel a bit bendy, a bit unnatural, to be trying to learn those kinds of texts."

With two weeks left, the lines "started to come alive," she says. "It was the hardest I've ever worked."

Her gritty performance, next to Derbhle Crotty's King Henry IV, was the talk of theatre town and the two friends are both up for Best Actress at the Theatre Awards.

This is clearly an actress who knows the struggle between waning self-belief and the judging public. Bad reviews used to hurt her. "I had two very nasty ones when I was a younger actress in England. They had a massive affect on my confidence." Now, they make her "more muscular".

"My personal, constant fight would be not to let the idea of the responsibility, or the criticism, or someone I don't get on with, block the creative flow. They're all there. When they come in, it's a massive block."

"If in any way you were thinking about who's going to be sitting there going: 'her again', that can take from the magic of it."

That magic pervaded in her first big film role, when in her late twenties she played Francie Brady's suicidal mother in Neil Jordan's adaptation of The Butcher Boy. But so did her self-effacement.

When the film came out, the actress - whose name means dream - was pursuing her stage career in London (she lives in Dublin now). She didn't go to the film premier. "I didn't know that that was a thing you did. I wasn't aware of a lot of things. I wasn't very sophisticated." She bought her own cinema ticket and watched the film alone in Brixton. "I remember being absolutely horrified at who I looked like on screen.

"When I was younger, there was the tyranny of beauty. Of never thinking you were beautiful, or fit the right mould. And of course when you get older, you look back and all you can see is your beauty, how beautiful you really were. Now, I'm looking forward to getting even older because I'll look back at me now going, how beautiful I was then.

"When I became a teenager I became aware that that was part of the pressure a woman was under. I remember buying my first Vogue or Elle magazine and slowly realising there was a mould that I didn't fit into. There's some image of perfection. And because you're flesh and blood, there's no possibility of fitting into that. And thank god there's no possibility, because it's ridiculous, and inhuman, and no fun."

The daughter of a school principle, Aisling grew up in Tralee countryside, not 20 miles from John B Keane's Listowel. Big Maggie, she claims, is a masterpiece, its writer a true feminist. "I never met him, but, then, I never met Shakespeare."

Big Maggie opens on February 1 at The Gaiety

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