Tuesday 20 August 2019

Obituary: Irish actress Gabrielle Reidy

A quiet career to be proud of on both stage and screen, writes Emer O'Kelly of the actor who has died at 54.

Gabrielle Reidy on stage at the Abbey. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Gabrielle Reidy on stage at the Abbey. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Emer O'Kelly

Gabrielle Reidy last appeared on the Dublin stage in 2012, when she reprised the role of Bessie Burgess in O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars. It was an Abbey production at the O'Reilly Hall in Belvedere College, the national theatre's temporary home while the auditorium on Marlborough Street was being re-configured. She had first played the role two years earlier, and the two occasions were living proof of her ability to give a director what he wanted.

In 2010 on the Abbey stage, Wayne Jordan had made Bessie - the "Orange bitch" of the tenement building which houses a microcosm of the suffering of 1916 - into an outsider figure, a kind of chorus for the tragedy. It was not a successful device, but Reidy was faithful to his vision. Two years later, she came into her own, as Jordan "re-incorporated" Bessie into her pivotal monumental position at the centre of the play, all heart, all sacrifice. And Reidy rose magnificently to the new challenge, giving us a caustic, cynical old woman stripped at the end to apocalyptic motherhood, her only son in Flanders, while her own life is cut off in the violent destruction of Easter Week.

Reidy said at the time that the role of Bessie Burgess had been pivotal in persuading her to go on the stage: as a child she had seen the late Siobhan McKenna play it, and never forgot it. It was a full circle; and last week, another circle was closed when Gabrielle Reidy died far before her time. She was only 54.

With the dominance of cinema in popular culture, it was inevitable that it would be recalled that she played Scarlet Johannson's mother in Girl with a Pearl Earring in 2003, and was Daniel Radcliffe's mother in the 2007 West End revival of Peter Shaffer's Equus. But they were both tiny parts, and Reidy was a finer actor than either role displayed her as.

As a student at Trinity in the 1970s, she played Mai in Samuel Beckett's Footfalls for Trinity Players, the first time the work was produced in Ireland. And by all accounts she was already showing her worth. That worth had become notably apparent in 1989, when she played the haunted holocaust survivor in Fragments of Isabella at the Project Arts Centre. She had already made a mark alongside the then-unknown Liam Neeson in Graham Reid's 1979 drama Death of Humpty Dumpty, in one of the gritty roles which would become her trademark.

Around 1990 she began to make her mark in London, notably in productions for Shared Experience: O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms (during which she met her partner Gary Lilburn) and Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba.

She was also a familiar face in support roles in film for more than 20 years, appearing in Maeve Binchy's The Lilac Bus, in Educating Rita with Michael Caine and Julie Walters, and in December Bride, as well as in Veronica Guerin and in The Devil's Own, a rather dreadful Hollywood take on the IRA, with Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford (the former with an execrable Irish accent.)

Gabrielle Reidy grew up in Malahide in Dublin, one of three daughters of an Aer Lingus pilot and his wife, but she lived for the last quarter century of her too-short life in London, with Gary and their son Finn. Never a star, but equally never type-cast (she deliberately lost her Irish accent to avoid being limited in the roles she could play), she was an actor known always for her co-operation and professionalism, and in recent years she had moved into teaching, passing on her own qualities to a new generation at the Mountview Academy. A quiet achievement, and a good theatrical legacy.

Sunday Independent

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