The show goes on at the Gate
Performing has been Rosaleen Linehan's life. The day her father died, she had to take part in a comic revue. A year after her husband's death, she is back on stage at the Gate, happily distracted. Ciara Dwyer meets her
Rosaleen Linehan bounds up the stairs of the Gate Theatre and greets me with a warm smile. Clad in black trousers with multi-coloured leopards crawling up her legs and chunky platform shoes, she couldn't look 80 if she tried. It helps that she dresses like she has never grown up.
She tells me the line where a little girl says, "When I grow up, I want to be an actor", to which the reply is, "Well, you can't do both". You get the feeling that she has a wonderfully wild streak. There is something impish about her; it's the way she moves her mouth - one minute her lips are as tight as a duck's arse, then there's a lop-sided smile. And there's that glint in her eyes. Laughter is only seconds away. But that's not to say that she can't be serious. The actor, who is much loved for her comic acting and revues, can do serious too, both on-stage and off.
She is about to face a full day of rehearsals for the Christmas production The Red Shoes which opens this Wednesday. It is Nancy Harris's new version of the Hans Christian Andersen tale, transported to Dublin. She plays the housekeeper to an Irish couple, the Nugents - the wife is a social climber and the husband is a property developer. She tells me that the young girl in it, Stephanie Dufresne who plays Karen, is exquisite.
Rosaleen is clearly relishing being back on stage but she's also on a mission. She wants to blast the elephant in the room. No fool, she worries that the recent allegations against the Gate's former artistic director Michael Colgan will do the theatre, and the box office, some damage.
"I just feel that there has been a bit of a pall over the place," she says.
Now, there is a dynamic new artistic director, Selina Cartmell, who is just over six months into her role. But Rosaleen has her worries that they are paying the price for the alleged sins on Colgan's watch. She doesn't want to discuss that hornet's nest. Instead, she wants to celebrate the Gate, so she comes in praise of it and is thrilled to be back.
She first starred here in 1961 in a revue called Slings and Arrows. She has a very happy history of working in the Gate, just as so many audience members, myself included, have enjoyed the shows there down through the decades. It takes time and a lot of hard work to build that trust between an audience and a theatre. She'd hate to see it crumbling. So, understandably, she feels duty-bound to restore the Gate.
"I'm not a great archivist, but I have these," she says, rooting around in her handbag. She pulls out photos of herself in character in productions down through the decades. There she is in a black and white photo with her hair in a bob and a serious look, a twentysomething starting out. "That was the intense young actress," she says. There are other photos of her in comedy revues, which she did first with Milo O'Shea and David Kelly, one of whom is dressed as a doctor.
"Oh what bold, bold boys!" she says. "You'd come out on stage and you never knew which one would be there. They would always switch around, acting the maggot."
She sounds like she loved every second of it. There is another photo with her comedy revue partner Des Keogh. Their shows, which she co-wrote with her late husband Fergus Linehan, gave so many glorious belly-laughs. There she is in a divine gown and wig in Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer. She is up to her waist in sand for Beckett's Happy Days. And complete with a moustache, she was Feste, in Joe Dowling's production of Twelfth Night. She has played many a man in her day, most recently in Woyzeck in Winter.
"I'm beginning to worry about my sexuality," she says in a deep American accent, and then there are more hoots of laughter.
"I have three Gate stories that I want to tell you," she says.
So I sit back and listen. What a joy. She is a raconteur and that rare breed, an actor who enjoys performing off stage too.
"In 1963, when John F Kennedy came to Ireland, he was late coming from the airport and we knew that he was coming down O'Connell Street. We told the audience, and asked if they wanted to wait until he went past, before we started the show. They did. So the actors went out on to the balcony that used to be above the Gate sign. And the audience were outside. President Kennedy went past and looked up at the Gate sign. He saw us in our costumes with make-up on. He waved up, and gave us a tsunami smile."
The second story is rather sad.
"My father died suddenly on a Thursday. He was old, 82, but it was very sudden. I was in a comedy revue, which was going to run for 26 weeks. I saw Fergus in the green room, and I said, what's all this about? Then he told me. You couldn't be replaced in a revue and it was the first week, so I went on. It was awful but that's what you do in the theatre. You don't realise that in comedy there are so many mentions of death. There were about four in the show. Comedy and death are so interlinked. The funeral day was absolutely desperate but that's what happens. And I had a small baby as well."
How did she get through it?
"It was awful but I had to, so I just did it. After that day in the dressing room, beside my make-up, there was a big garden of flowers and a bottle of sherry, from Christine Longford, Lady Longford, thanking me for going on. And the same was there every single week of the run. Such kindness."
Then Rosaleen reaches across and finds me a photo of her as Mrs Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, which Jonathan Miller directed. She is wearing a silk crinoline dress.
"You should never change your routine," she says. "If you are in a play and you have a cup of tea at a certain time, you should stick to it. I know this, because I broke the rule. One night, I wanted to watch Stephen Brennan do his scene, so I stood in the wings. I leaned back and then, I suddenly felt something sticky. The walls and radiators had been painted blue for another play which was soon to start. I had blue paint on my hands and all over the back of the dress. I ran up to the wonderful wardrobe mistress, Joy Gleeson. She grabbed a role of silk and pinned it around the dress and I was able to go on. Then at the interval, she had every cleaning agent and a hair-dryer. I went on for the second half and she had fixed it."
Along the way, Rosaleen and Fergus had four children. How did she manage them with a successful career too?
"Chaos," she says. "It was chaotic for the whole of life. The young ones say to me now that they are afraid to have babies, that it's so difficult. They ask how I had four children. I tell them, by being totally chaotic. That's the only way to cope. My GP tells me that she sees these young ones who are hyped up to have beautiful homes and good cooking. She tells them 'lower your standards'."
She tells me that she was never a perfectionist on the home-front. It didn't seem to do her kids any harm. Hugh is the culture editor of the Irish Times. Fergus is the director of the Edinburgh International Festival, Conor is a pianist and composer and Evanna is a primary teacher.
"Hugh is the eldest by far," she says. "I lost two babies and then the three came pretty close together. In those days, you could get wonderful home-help. A girl called Kathleen Shields came down from Donegal the day before Evanna was born and she stayed with me pretty much forever; otherwise you couldn't have done it.
"Oh, I adored babies. I'd have a baby tomorrow if I could get into Holles Street... But then leave it behind. My favourite thing in the world is a new baby. I keep looking into prams in supermarkets, and I have 12 grandchildren."
When she speaks of her family, now there is the empty chair at the table. Her beloved Fergus died last year. They met in UCD, where she was studying politics and economics and Fergus was supposed to studying law. This was back in the day when it was based in Earlsfort Terrace, a short walk from her Ranelagh home.
"The 1950s were supposed to be dreadful, but they were just wonderful if you were frittering around. I walked like a magnet towards dramsoc."
She obeyed her Fine Gael TD father by doing the subjects she was told to do. As the only girl in the economics class, she would fume as the lecturer would say "Good morning gentlemen", and ignore her. She tells me that it stoked a defiant spirit in her.
"I remember thinking, I'll show them."
But she was equally intent on having fun. She tells me that she didn't click with Fergus immediately.
"No, I was just at that stage, where I was collecting dress dances like scalp heads. I wouldn't care if Attila the Hun had asked me. If it was in the Gresham, I was going to go. Fergus asked me to the Hall dance and the Clongowes dance and I thought he was grand. I didn't really fall for him until June. I looked across at him and thought, Oh..."
They got married when she was 24 and he was 27.
"We were complete opposites except for the humour. His humour was much deeper, and can humour be wise? He had such a funny bone. One of the first times we went out, it was to see Monsieur Hulot's Holiday with Jacques Tati. I didn't think it was remotely funny, this man bumbling around the beach, but Fergus was falling around, kicking the seat. I thought, oh Jesus."
When they started to work together, it was a meeting of kindred spirits.
"I've always loved lyrics and he was a magnificent lyricist. The funny thing about those revues is that half of them were political and gaggy and the other half were superbly crafted lyrics."
They had two pianos in the house and they would work away at them together. Each show took two years to write. Then, when the script was finished, they would work with Des Keogh and Peter O'Brien and the other jazz musicians. It's hard to believe that the Des and Rosie revue shows only ran for a decade from 1975 before they came back for a brief spell in 2000. They are ingrained in people's memories and she remembers all those lovely ripples of laughter. Rosaleen pretended to be a well-known children's TV presenter, who had a show - Let's Draw with Blaithin. In her sketch, she would draw pictures of the politicians - Garret FitzGerald, with his curly hair, and Charlie Haughey - she'd turn to the audience mid-portrait and declare "He has rotten hair".
Most of her subjects took it well. She tells me that Jack Lynch and Garret asked her for the paintings. Years later, a judge told her that their shows were referred to in a tribunal, for showing the country in a bad light. She got a kick out of this.
In 1985, Rosaleen put comedy on hold. She tells me that it was a tough decision as the revues had paid the bills and put the kids through school. But she wanted to do straight acting. She went on to have an award-winning career with that. She was in Dancing at Lughnasa, Mother of the Behans and Stephen Frears cast her in a cowboy film, The Hi-Lo Country. But laughter has always been the centre of her life and the way she sees the world. That was the big bond with Fergus.
"I probably had more laughs with him, in his own quiet way. My mother used to say that you'd never know he wrote the work he did because he was so quiet. He made me laugh, a lot. We are all devastated by Fergus leaving us," she says. "We had his first anniversary on November 1. We are all so raw, still reeling. I can barely walk down the street.
"Fergus was very sick for five years, going down and down. First he had diabetes and then he had cancer and then all sorts of horrible things. Now that I'm in the house on my own, it feels big and dark. To come back to an empty house is deafening, so I leave all the lights on and the television and the radio too. My friends have been wonderful to me. I usually swim in the Forty Foot every day - there are one or two others there under 80 - but I stopped swimming a little earlier, what with the shows."
After a break of two years, Rosaleen believes that these job offers come from Fergus. Even when he was ill, he was always urging her to get back out there.
"It's extraordinary," she says. "And the work is amazing to get me out. I discussed it [The Red Shoes] with the kids because the run is so long. They said, you know, mum, it's going to be dark at 4.30pm and the house is big and dark. It isn't going to be too demanding. Also it takes me off their shoulders. They don't have to be worrying about me at five in the evening."
Dr Theatre to the rescue, once more.
The world premiere of Hans Christian Andersen's The Red Shoes in a new version by Nancy Harris opens at the Gate Theatre on Wednesday, gatetheatre.ie, 01-8744045. Tickets: €25-€40. Shows: Mon-Sat, 7.30pm; matinees: Wed and Sat, 2.30pm. Age guidance: Strictly eight-plus. Parental discretion recommended for U12s
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