Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Monday 14 October 2019

'You can be at the end of your rope - and then the phone rings' - Jane Brennan

As she prepares to star in a new Nancy Harris play in Galway and at the Gate, actress Jane Brennan tells Donal Lynch about grief and career renaissance

Actress Jane Brennan. Photo: Damien Eagers
Actress Jane Brennan. Photo: Damien Eagers
Jane Brennan and her late husband, playwright Tom Murphy
Jane Brennan with Saoirse Ronan in a scene from Brooklyn
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

For Jane Brennan, the Gate theatre, where we meet, is a place filled with old ghosts. As a little girl she played here in her father's dressing room, and blushed when theatre legend Micheal Mac Liammoir, his faced caked in Panstik, spoke to her in a voice like tarnished silver.

Brennan's late husband, the playwright Tom Murphy, had a career-long clash with the Gate's former director Michael Colgan, famously dumping a plate of curry over Colgan's head at a party in Colm Toibin's house.

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Though Brennan ultimately became better known for her film work - including an IFTA winning turn in the movie adaptation of Toibin's Brooklyn - she also acted at the Gate in numerous productions, including Pride and Prejudice, Pygmalion and Jane Eyre.

"I've such a long history with this wonderful theatre, going back to my childhood," she tells me. "It feels great to be back here."

Jane Brennan and her late husband, playwright Tom Murphy
Jane Brennan and her late husband, playwright Tom Murphy

Murphy died last summer, and Jane has been bravely wading through the grief since then.

"It feels like a different portion of life, there's a gap there in my life," she explains. "After Tom died I spoke to a friend of mine whose husband had died a few years before and she told me 'your friends and your family will get you through' and she also said 'accept all invitations' and that was the best advice because not allowing yourself to sink into grief and depression is the most important thing."

Grief interweaves with the themes of the new Druid play in which Brennan is about to star.

Written by Nancy Harris, The Beacon deals with guilt, loss and the fallout of a secret in the family.

"It's a fascinating and layered play which brings the characters on a psychological journey," Brennan explains. "My character's son arrives back from America with a new wife, and you know right from the start that there is something not as it should be with this relationship. She (her character) is an artist and there is a lot about the single-minded nature of the artist and the casualty that is the offspring not having the focus of the parent."

These are themes that Brennan said resonated in her own life. "I was married to a playwright so I know a lot about that single-minded approach to the work. It was a compulsion for him (Murphy), but being an actor I understood it and admired it and in a funny way it was part of the attraction. I loved seeing the creative process up close. Even though his mind was on what he was doing the result would be worth it."

Jane Brennan with Saoirse Ronan in a scene from Brooklyn
Jane Brennan with Saoirse Ronan in a scene from Brooklyn

She cites the example of Bailegangaire, Murphy's play about unprocessed trauma, which started life as a Christmas story for his children from his first marriage.

"It was to be a story for his children for Christmas but slowly it started to turn into a play. And he was like, 'forget the kids!' He said they got Dinky Toys for Christmas rather than the play he was going to give them. It wasn't that he didn't love them."

This understanding of the obsessive nature of the artist went back to her own childhood. Her parents were both actors and they rented a house in Brighton Square in Rathgar. "It was faded grandeur, it (the square) wasn't what it is now - it was still flatland and bedsit," she recalls.

"We rented our house, we didn't have a car, we had no central heating. It was very different times. My mother went into Radio Eireann rep and that kept us. My father got TB when I was a child and my grandmother was living in the house. I was the youngest by five years and a bit of an afterthought. When I came along it was a lot going on for her. Barbara, my sister, was 10 years older than me so she was like another mother to me."

Brennan waged an internal battle against following her parents into the theatre, but, in her teens, she took a drama course and was on her way. "My first job was as a ferret in Toad of Toad Hall, an auspicious debut!" She says with a smile.

"I got my first job with Druid in 1983 and that made me more confident in saying I was an actor. Suddenly I had a career, and then I met Tom."

There was a large age gap between them - several decades - but she says this never bothered her.

"We didn't tell everyone straight away. I think the age difference gave people pause; they were surprised to put it mildly. We just clicked. He had a very youthful persona and spirit - it [the age gap] was probably more in his head than mine."

She says the Dublin theatre world of the 1980s was as rife with sexism as one would imagine, "but I was never a pretty young ingenue so I never got the brunt of any of that. I know people who did and they would have had comments and things. It was so common that one didn't notice it.

"It did feel like the world was run by men, but then in the 1980s, when I was getting going, Garry Hynes and Lynn Parker were getting started. They sort of changed the whole landscape here and I worked a lot with them".

The most difficult part of her working life for the following few decades was the insecurity of not knowing when work was coming in. Eventually, noting that there were few roles for women over the age of 40, she set up her own theatre company, but it was swept away in the funding cuts of the recession.

In the last decade she has enjoyed something of a career renaissance, driven by her recurring role as Lady Bryan in The Tudors and her award-winning part as Saoirse Ronan's mother in Brooklyn.

"I read the book and thought if there was a film ever made of this I'd love to play the mother, thinking that was completely never going to happen. Then one cold March day, my mother had been ill and I was over minding her and I was thinking to myself 'Oh, I'll never work again'. All of a sudden the phone rang and it was my agent telling me 'they want you to play the mother in Brooklyn'. They didn't even ask me to audition.

"They said Saoirse Ronan is playing your daughter - and then it all happened. It was an incredible thing to be part of."

She pauses, hopefully, when she thinks back on the curious serendipity, of it all: "I thought - 'Wow! This is the way this life, this business works!' You can be right at the end of your rope and then, suddenly, the phone rings."

Druid and Gate Theatre present a co-production of 'The Beacon', by Nancy Harris which will premiere at the Town Hall Theatre, Galway (September 20-28) before transferring for a four-week run to the Gate Theatre (October 2-26) as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2019

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