Cutting out anxiety: The return of actor Peter Gowen following brush with cancer
As he prepares to star in 'The Small Things', Cork-born actor Peter Gowen spoke to Donal Lynch about his brush with cancer
When Peter Gowen takes to the stage this month in Cork for Corcadorca's production of Enda Walsh's The Small Things, it will mark a multifaceted return for the actor, who made his name in films like The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto. It is, firstly, a sort of homecoming to the county where he grew up. It is also a reunion with Walsh, in whose plays Gowen has starred many times as well as the renewal of a brilliant stage career for the actor himself. It's also a return that is full of symbolism for Gowen. For most of the last year he has battled a very serious form of bowel cancer. He sees some parallels between his own travails and the production he will star in. The Small Things is about "the stories in which we all live", Gowen explains over coffee at a Dublin hotel. "And it's about how those stories can change. It's about pain and fear and dependence."
Gowen's own story has changed quite a bit lately. It was ironic, perhaps, that just over a year ago, his Fair City character, Ronan, was locked in his own battle with cancer. At the time, Gowen said that the portrayal was inspired by watching relatives who had died or who were chronically ill. Within a few months, he would have a more firsthand well of material about serious illness to draw upon, however. It started with a routine check-up at his doctor in England where Peter is based. The check-up involved him being called into a meeting at his local hospital in London, which he attended with his wife. There, he was told that he had cancer in the form of a tumour in his lower bowel. "I didn't panic but I did feel a big surprise," he recalls. "I have a tendency to emotionally get into the eye of the storm. The things that upset me are the abstract things; actual concrete crises like this are somehow easier to handle for me."
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At the time his children and grandchildren were visiting his home and he put a brave face on it for their sakes, which was reciprocated, he says. "Our family didn't show distress or grief but they were devastated. My grandkids were visiting at the time and they must have had a sense of it because when they were leaving my granddaughter hugged me and wouldn't let go for ages; it was a very intuitive hug, a very beautiful moment."
Gowen had lived a pretty sensible life up to then, he says. "I only drank as much as the average Irish person, which is probably still too much," he concedes. He began Googling symptoms and prognosis but stopped because he found it too depressing. "I was told the worst-case scenario was dying on the table or having a colostomy bag for life. I had to tell myself, I am not my body."
At St Mary's Hospital in Paddington, London, he underwent four hours of abdominal surgery. Afterwards, he was able to eat soft foods in a few days and a normal diet within two weeks, but after that his digestive system seemed to shut down again. "If your digestive system is 'insulted' it shuts down to repair itself," he explains. "For 2-3 weeks I couldn't eat anything and lost three stone. I was fed through an intravenous bag of nutrients. Getting up the stairs was difficult. The recovery took a while."
Gowen has had a successful career; in addition to his film work he has notable television performances, including in Stuart Carolan's Love/Hate. Still, like all actors he lives job-to-job and there is no sick pay. "And because of that we had major anxieties about what we would do financially; my son is still at university," he explains. Luckily he was able to avail of help from an artists' charity which is based in the UK.
Gowen attended his hospital appointments as the chaos about Brexit unfolded and seeing the staff who ran the hospital - who were in the main not English - he was struck by the insanity of Brexit's anti-immigrant impetus. He also felt that after the surgery his psychological health mysteriously began to improve. "It's almost like the piece of bowel they took out also contained a lot of the anxiety in my life," he says. "It's not a moral or spiritual awakening, I do get frustrated and irritated but I don't have the slow-burn anxiety I always used to have. For a few months I thought it might just be a honeymoon period, but all this time later I still feel that way."
The anxiety, Gowen, explains, dated back to his childhood in Cork. Although his home life was idyllic, school was not so easy for him. He grew up in Youghal, the son of two doctors who had met in England but moved back to Cork where they raised Peter and his siblings in a house by the sea. "From an early age I was a bit feral," he recalls. "I never paid any attention in school. I could make the whole class laugh at the teacher's expense."
That, in turn, prompted a kind of brutality on the part of some of the teachers he dealt with. "I remember this one Christian Brother grabbed me by the hair and lifted me around until I started crying, at which point he said 'oh look, the rivers are flowing in Mr Gowen's eyes'. I was seven and I was excited because I was going to school. That began a lifelong anxiety that I am now free of. I remember I wet myself in front of a class aged 14."
He failed his Leaving Cert - a source of huge disappointment to his parents - and went off to live "with drug addicts in a squat" in London. Eventually, at his parents' urging, he returned home and went back to school, eventually earning a place at Trinity College, where he embarked on a degree in economics and social sciences - now known as BESS. He began to become involved in Players (the Trinity drama society) and by the time he had finished his degree (his mother was so proud she always wrote 'BA' - Bachelor of Arts - after his name when she wrote to him, he says) he began picking up professional work. In the 1990s he acted in everything from Coronation Street to Minder and had parts in a number of Neil Jordan's features. Of the Dublin-based auteur, he says: "He is taciturn, he has that reputation… but his work is wonderful and he's very loyal."
Did Gowen ever dream of being a major star? "Every actor, if they're honest, will admit to you that they've written their Oscar acceptance speech in their heads. I was in the adaptation in New York of (Ibsen's) The Doll's House and it had come from the West End and I could have stayed there in New York but I didn't want that. I saw actors who stayed there and didn't make it and they became hardened."
His wife is a lawyer and he has two grown-up children, Lisa (30) and Jack (20). His mother is still alive at 95, his father passed away a number of years ago. He is in remission now, but still gets regular checks in case the cancer recurs. He doesn't stress about it though: "After an illness like I've had you realise what is really important," he says. "That is the people close to me. In a strange way, as tough as the last year has been, it has all been worth it. I feel more peaceful now than I have in a long time, and I'm grateful for that."
'The Small Things' runs June 17-29. Tickets from €20-€30 and are available from Cork Midsummer Festival, online booking at https://corkmidsummer.ticketsolve.com/shows