Sunday 15 December 2019

Stage: Crotty's Juno is certain to pack a real punch

Rehearsals: Derbhle Crotty takes to the stage for Juno and the Paycock at The Gate in February.
Rehearsals: Derbhle Crotty takes to the stage for Juno and the Paycock at The Gate in February.

Maggie Armstrong

Think of great Irish actresses. Enormous names pound across my head. Siobhan McKenna, Fiona Shaw, at least one of the Cusacks.

Derbhle Crotty.

"Packs a punch" is how one critic summed her up for me, in notes of fear and awe. "You hire Derbhle Crotty to rip her heart open and leave it on the stage," says the director Annie Ryan, "That's what we want out of her and that's what she's great at."

"You don't at all think of yourself that way," insists Derbhle, armchaired at The Gate during rehearsals for Juno and the Paycock, directed by Mark O'Rowe, with Derbhle playing Juno Boyle next to Declan Conlon's Captain Boyle.

She sighs, and reconsiders the question. How does it feel to be great in your time? "It is wonderful to be part of a continuum. Take a part like Juno, which so many of the great actresses of the past have played. The sense that you are walking in the footsteps of these great predecessors is a singular honour."

Last summer we saw Derbhle die, her face done up in pock-marks and her nipples displayed through gauzy robes, as King Henry IV in Druid/Shakespeare. For this she's been nominated Best Actress at the forthcoming Theatre Awards. Her time is now. It has been so for over 20 years.

Growing up in Cavan, she didn't know any actors. Her father taught in a primary school and "there were books in the house" but no drama. She was academic and thought her "life would be complete" if she got enough points in her Leaving Cert. Law at UCD was a "disaster" but she found Dramsoc. She graduated, then put herself through acting classes at the Samuel Beckett Centre, waiting tables and pulling pints.

"I know there's a lot of competition for worst waitress ever but I would be right up there with the best of them. It's a very emotional environment isn't it?"

At 25 she was brought into The Abbey, and the first to play Millie in The Mai by Marina Carr. By 29 she was Ophelia. She had moved to England and secured a contract with the Royal Shakespeare Company. "When I was passing restaurants with signs up for 'waitress wanted', I would still be compelled to take down the number. And I would have to say to myself: no, you are playing Ophelia. You are playing Asta." (In Ibsen's Little Eyolf.)

She has been able to tear up the script too. During the 'Waking the Feminists' public meeting last November Derbhle made an emotional call for "more women's scripts staged, more women putting them on stage, more women on stage".

The Gate has lagged behind on some of these points and when asked to comment, Derbhle sits up very straight in her chair.

She says she is "extremely hopeful" to see theatres like The Gate having meetings with the organisation. "If you did something about [inequality] every time you noticed it, it would be a full time job."

Now in her 40s, the roles are fewer. "They certainly become thinner on the ground. There are longer gaps now between jobs...

"I used to think of myself as somebody at a fairground, with a rifle, waiting for the ducks to pass, and each row was a new duck coming and bump - I'd knock it off. Load, bullseye, fire. That was a very exciting period, where I couldn't do enough.

She feels "grateful" for the gaps. "I think it's wonderful to have some time to regenerate, and sit at home with the cat, staring at the wall.

"It's so intense when you're rehearsing and you're performing. Your brain is so fervid. It's boiling!

''There's nothing you see or hear that you don't try to apply to the character."

While on the street "you're following people, you're staring at people, you're listening to them, you're so alert to any possibility, you don't want to leave any stone unturned. It's a feverish period."

Rehearsals for Juno seem like a calmer affair. They are reading the lines "without any bells or whistles. We're following the truth of these characters. Their fears and aspirations".

Last year as Druid/Shakespeare played for members of the British royal family in Kilkenny, Derbhle was double-jobbing, rehearsing for Hecuba in a new version for the RSC by her good friend, Marina. She was Hecuba, queen of Troy, a role she "desperately" wanted to do.

During technical week an envelope fell on the floor of her dressing room, from the RSC, inviting her to be an Associate Artist. She joins Mark Rylance, Sinéad Cusack and Honorary Associate Artist Dame Judy Dench in the privilege. "I was quite weak-kneed I must say."

But, adds Derbhle, "No matter what stage you seem to be at to people on the outside, you really don't know what's going to happen next.

''You might often wonder if this is the last time."

Juno and the Paycock previews from February 11 at The Gate

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