Saturday 16 December 2017

Working in the family pub was my drama school, says Charlene McKenna

As she prepares to play Daisy Buchanan in a stage production of The Great Gatsby, Monaghan actress Charlene McKenna chats to MAGGIE ARMSTRONG about bar work, typecasting and living with anxiety Photography by Kip Carroll

Photo: Kip Carroll
Photo: Kip Carroll
Peter O'Brien
Charlene as Rose in BBC's Ripper Street
Charlene McKenna by Kip Carrol
Jordan costume
Peter O'Brien costume
Gatsyby pink suit by Peter O'Brien

The Gate Theatre is being dismantled. On a sticky hot June day, men are lifting great big pieces of brick wall backstage, and the auditorium seats are being boarded over. There's theatre ephemera everywhere, and plenty of dust and electric drilling in the air, while inside a rehearsal room, a frenzied 1920s jazz piece is playing, on repeat, to the clatter of heels. Charlene McKenna is somewhere inside all this getting ready for her next big role as Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby.

Daisy is the rich and flirtatious wife with the "voice full of money", who Gatsby is hopelessly in love with and has built his fortune to please. This Gatsby is the first production in the first season of new director Selina Cartmell, which Cartmell has titled The Outsider. In Irish theatre, things don't get hotter than this.

The door to the rehearsal room opens and a parade of gorgeous actors emerge, talking about parties - honestly. They've been learning the Charleston, which they're going to teach the revellers at Gatsby. The show (a hit in London before its transfer here) is immersive and inter- active. That means, theatre fans, that you're in it. The audience dress in 1920s outfits, there's an open bar for your highballs, and access to previously forbidden areas of the Gate. Seats are dispensed with, so this really is something different in the Dublin institution that was once famously accused of being a museum.

Daisy is "cowardly" and "deplorable" and her "conscience must be on fire", says Charlene. "But it's not for me to judge her. I have to find the sympathy within her. I have to understand her. Which I can do. Daisy and Tom are acting out of fear - and fear will make people do a lot of crazy stuff."

It's now her lunch break, and she's curled up on a cream sofa, in a pair of floral-print silk trousers (Dolce & Gabbana), a tank top and black leather sandals. She apologises a lot of times for sweating ("hours of dancin'") and she talks a lot - which later, by email, she puts down to being "starved so my brain kept going". (A tuna sandwich is requisitioned but eating is "so hard").

She does not have a voice full of money; she has a Monaghan accent, and a strong one. She has a habit of clicking her fingers, and swirling her hands in the air to make a point. She's awfully good-looking and she has a real tan. She is both smart and thoughtful. She is 33 but seems wiser.

This play warns us about "the dangers of excess", says its leading lady. "I do think it's a very interesting time to put on Gatsby, with Trump and the American Dream being on the forefront, with the political agenda that he's pushing. The play is this big razzle-dazzle American dream and it falls apart at the seams." Like the Celtic Tiger, she says, which was "success, success, then it bottomed out because, I think, you go up and up and up and then you either level off or come crashing down".

When Charlene heard she'd got the part, she immediately drank champagne. "I was so excited. Because I felt like it was such a challenge - theatrical challenge, technical challenge. It's improv, it's straight in places, it's dancing, it's singing. Sorry I'm chuggin' this," she says as she waves her water bottle.

Charlene as Rose in BBC's Ripper Street
Charlene as Rose in BBC's Ripper Street

She has been on the West End and Broadway, in Ibsen's Ghosts, and recently shot pilots for telly in LA. Yet this, says Charlene, is "daunting". "The Gate has never done anything like it before, or the Abbey. The fourth wall is broken down. Box office, bar staff, managers - they all have to be in costume."

Since the show goes off script as Daisy mingles with the crowds, Charlene needs a massive "artillery" of research to stay true to her character. She is on her third reading of the novel, and reading books about F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, having already walked the bars in Paris where the Fitzgeralds drank. She has watched the Gatsby films - "although I don't like that I couldn't unsee them". This actor won't be copying any moves from Carey Mulligan or Mia Farrow, who previously played Daisy. "I inhabit such a different DNA. I'm fundamentally doing my interpretation of Daisy and they're doing theirs."

Many know Charlene best for playing the prostitute Rose in Ripper Street, or further back, JoJo in Raw. "Troubled" characters, she says brightly, alluding to her recent series Whistleblower.

"I do get a lot of tragedy. And a lot of despair, and a lot of very, very vulnerable but strong characters." She isn't sure why she plays "deeply flawed, tragic girls". "Unless there's something about me that comes across that way?"

Not even slightly.

Charlene grew up in Glaslough, Co Monaghan, where her parents owned a mushroom farm. "I spent a lot of time running around by myself. I used to always pretend that Daddy's trailers were stages." When she was 13, they bought The Pillar House pub at the gates of Castle Leslie.

"That was my drama school. Big time. Because that was the start of studying different characters. Watching people change, in the course of an evening, as they get drunker. Who's bitchin' about who and who's havin' affairs with who. You see it all. They used to say: they come in like lambs and go out like lions."

Charlene McKenna by Kip Carrol
Charlene McKenna by Kip Carrol

"I 100pc believe that bar people and hairdressers are therapists. You just hear everything, and you're sober, watching everything devolve into this lunacy. I'm still pulling from stuff I saw there."

Have we mentioned that she has five older brothers? Five brothers! "I'm the BABY!" she sing-songs. "In that sense, I can relate to Daisy in being spoilt. But in our house it was one thing to be spoilt, but another thing to act spoilt."

She spent her childhood both "swinging out of their jumpers" and "changing outfits five times a day". "It's nice to have both sides."

Her parents, who left school young, were "incredibly entrepreneurial and ambitious" and everything they tried was a success.

She isn't sure where her desire to act came from. There was music and writers and poets in her extended family but no actors. "However, my brothers are the most amazing mimics. They can take off anyone who comes into the pub."

Like many an Irish actor before her, her debut was in the chorus of Oklahoma!. When she was 13, she joined the new Monaghan Youth Theatre with Aoibhinn McGinnity, her best friend since they were in knee socks. At 16, she played "a very posh little girl" in a Disney TV show but at 18 she was headed for conventional life, studying music and theology at the Mater Dei in Dublin.

Theology - now, that's interesting. "The course was too geared towards Catholicism," she says. "I was very interested in spirituality. I was always very questioning. I always want to know the why under the why under the why under the why. I didn't get more and more answers; I got more and more questions."

She takes a long pause with her lips all pursed up. "I guess I'm agnostic. I don't know what I believe but I know I believe in something."

Anyway, after two years, she had to drop out because she had an agent and lots of work coming in. A part in Neil Jordan's Breakfast on Pluto was followed by the Irish telly drama Pure Mule and a Martin McDonagh play. She has been based in London and on the road since, from LA to Cape Town, filming for the small screen.

"I'd be screwed if it stops now, because I've no qualifications except acting. I mean, I can pull a mean pint because I worked in my parents' pub all my life, but other than that I got nothing."

One Christmas, though, she started feeling terrible. She was in her mid-20s and living alone in London. She hadn't stopped working for years.

"The anxiety was in my body and I was wondering: 'What's wrong with me?' I couldn't figure it out. I went back up to Monaghan and I went home for a month; I saw nobody. I look back at them times now as a blessing. There's a good quote that says, 'When the sea is rough, mend your sails.'

"I thought I had to say yes to everybody, and I was breaking. I wasn't taking care of myself. I went job to job to job - not taking into account that I was a rural girl, planted into London. This is before iPhones; this was with maps and books.

"I kept trying to take everything in my stride, and take in the intimidation of these massive auditions, where you're hearing these famous names flying around. And then I just hit a wall, and slid down it and just broke.

"As I've got older, I've got a bit better at sticking up for myself and at saying no, in a good way. I have a great therapist that I talk to if I need to, not all the time."

She advises readers who have been through similar ordeals: "Talk to people. Talk, talk, talk."

Her experience prompted her to work on the HSE's Cavan- Monaghan anti-suicide campaign and the Cycle Against Suicide. "But anxiety, it never goes away. It ebbs and it flows. So there'll be times when it's worse - it's screaming, and it's deafening. And then times it'll be quieter."

Live theatre wouldn't be the first choice for someone who gets the mean reds, surely? On the contrary, says Charlene, nerves can be "electric". Actors are the "shyest, most scared" people she knows and performing is a release valve.

"You're always in the wings going, 'I don't want to do that, I don't want to do that - no, no, no - where's the exit?' and then, BAM, you're on stage and you're in the thick of it.

"You can let your head run away with you and then you can go, 'At the end of the day, it's a play. It's a night's entertainment; it's a story to tell. It's not open-heart surgery. No one's going to die.'

It is a life that's both "very lonely" and "banal beyond words". "Between jobs, your hours are spent by yourself reading your scripts, learning your lines, reading your books about your scripts, going from these huge big collaborations to being just by yourself. Filming, filming, filming, filming, filming. Or travelling, travelling, travelling, travelling, travelling - by yourself, by yourself, by yourself, by yourself.

"I'm very, very intimate with my suitcase. So many times I've gone, 'I'm done. I'm done, I'm quitting.' It's like you go on holidays, but there comes a point when you're ready to go home."

She may come from a mushroom farm, but her life these days is not miles from the East and West Egg extravagance of Gatsby. All those Oscar parties in Hollywood. With her long-distance boyfriend, Ripper Street co-star New Yorker Adam Rothenberg, she's been "very privileged to have had a lot of summers in the Hamptons".

Her Irish actor friends in what she calls "show business lunacy" are sane people like Amy and Mark Huberman, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Bradley and Aoibhinn McGinnity. She and her friends often chat about how they'd like to do "normal things", like ironing, or "lunch with a glass of wine, cinema, theatre, talking, reading. I love reading. I do like cleaning. My boyfriend calls me Rain Man. When I'm cleaning, he says, 'Ah look, she's in her happy place'.

"I think it makes up for the chaos that's in my mind. So if everything around me is neat, I'm like 'Yes! This can rage away.'"

She won't be settling down, though, ever, by the sounds of it. "My version of settling down mightn't be the normal version. It'll be a kid with me, in the trailer somewhere, or on their own, and that's just gonna have to be their upbringing.

"I just think I'm going to try and reach for the stars." She imparts a basic life formula she learned from her parents: "If you work hard, you will succeed at anything."

It's back to the grindstone today, but in Gatsby-esque form: more dancing, then dressing in roaring '20s attire for our magazine shoot. "I'm a chandelier for the whole play! Mark Huberman's [who plays Tom] arms are going to be ripped open, dancing with all these crystals. It's just so gorgeous! Vintage Cartier flying around.

"It's only really dawning on me now: this is wonderful. It's a real gift. Although the terror of what the audience will say, there's no accounting for."

Anyone wary of this hyped-up Gatsby might take heart from Charlene's five brothers. They're afraid of audience participation too. "They're like, 'Oh God, don't talk to me if I come. What kind of suit do I have to wear? Twenties, it's meant to be '20s?' It's like, 'Just wear a suit - it's going to be okay.'"

The Great Gatsby opens at the Gate Theatre on July 12 (with previews from July 6) and runs until September 16; see

'Everyone thinks they know 1920s fashion'

Couturier Peter O'Brien (pictured inset) is a designer with a particular vision: "I always say I never want actors to look like they are wearing costumes. I think they should look like they're wearing the character's clothes."

With this philosophy, the Dubliner - formerly creative director of the respected, now defunct House of Rochas in Paris - designed for several characters in the Gate Theatre's interactive take on The Great Gatsby. Over coffee at Balfes, we have his hand-drawn sketches laid out before us, when Peter volunteers: "I was kind of scared about doing it because it's the one period that everybody thinks they know a little about."

He rhymes off the dress-up stereo- types, "like sequins by the yard, hairbands, awful chicken-feather boas and cheap polyster fringed dresses". But that's not how it was in the '20s, says Peter, who lectures on design for theatre and film at IADT in Dún Laoghaire. "Until about 1924 and 1925, the dresses were actually quite long and it was only in 1926 that they got very short - just below the knee for a while. Then they were down again as the 1930s approached."

He jokes that he "didn't want it to look like an am-dram production of No, No, Nanette," but there was never any fear of it. With a breadth of knowledge already under his belt, Peter researched with a passion, going to the V&A, looking to tomes in his already plentiful library in Dublin's Donnybrook, reaching for books like Les Années Folles 1919-1929 from the Palais Galliera; Jean Patou: A Fashionable Life by Emmanuelle Polle; and Sylvie Aubenas, Virginie Chardin and Xavier Demange's Elegance: The Seeberger Brothers and the Birth of Fashion Photography.

"There are practical restrictions in theatre," explains Peter, "like how do you get in and out of the clothes? Is crepe de chine strong enough to do buttons and loops? Will those loops last for a three-month run? And then there are budgetary considerations so you have to get your magic wand out. "I made costumes for [Noël Coward play] The Vortex a few years ago and they were in really good nick so some of those may be pulled into service for secondary characters."

Peter recalls, "When the movie came out with Robert Redford [in 1974], Selfridges did Gatsby windows. I remember being fascinated by the costumes and going to some kind of premiere and finding Mia Farrow [as Daisy] beyond, beyond, beyond irritating. Then when we came to do this, I read the book and I think, 'They are all awful people, all of them.'"

Whatever his views on the characters, he gave them stunningly gorgeous costumes. Daisy has a day dress with a silk crepe top and skirt in cream georgette, with an Art Deco print in green, and three playful layers of skinny accordion pleats. Very Peter O'Brien, or 'POB'.

Daisy's ill-fated admirer, Jay Gatsby, has a marvellous pink suit (pictured below right). Peter says they "searched high and low and eventually we found pink men's suiting in a beautiful fine worsted wool from Garigue, a French company in London. The single-breasted suit has a matching waistcoat and pleated trousers with turn-ups that go high up on the back and are held by braces. I was thinking Hamptons/Waspish and we got the blue shirt with white collar from a company which does reproduction shirts. We also got jodhpurs for Tom Buchanan and Wilson and a check suit for Wolfsheim. Some other pieces for the men came from Cosprop [in London] because they specialise in men's period clothes."

Myrtle Wilson's stunning outfit (above right) was a gift from her lover, Daisy's husband, Tom Buchanan, but the posh frock and coat makes her the butt of jokes. "The dress is chiffon with black sequins, embroidery and silk tulle. The coat is solid black sequins with old gold sequins like roses, and it looks like [French fashion designer] Poiret. The jacket is almost like a kimono, and in the 1920s they loved things that were Asian."

Peter explains that because the actors are in front of the audience all the time, the number of costume changes depends on opportunities and how much time the director gives the actors to change. However, the audience will also play a part, he reveals. "The audience are going to help choose clothes because there are lines in it, like when Daisy says to the audience: 'Which dress should I wear?'" Interactive and intriguing...

Irish Independent

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