Tuesday 20 November 2018

My memories of the truly remarkable Anna Manahan

Anna Manahan: 1924-2009
Anna Manahan: 1924-2009

Alan Stanford

The voice could be tiny. Like a child who never quite grew up. Can I have? Would you mind? Do you think? The voice could also be mighty: at its best, filling the biggest of theatres, echoing around in the open air, shattering glass at 50 paces; or at its worst, admonishing the errant and the innocent alike.

The smile was just the same: gentle and beguiling when all was well, and sharp and dangerous when she felt threatened. She was, undoubtedly, formidable. She was a force of nature. She was a talent of enormous proportion and density. She was the unique and wholly singular Anna Manahan.

She was a child of Waterford -- a badge she wore with honour and pride her entire life. She finally was granted the Freedom of that city in 2002 but she had made free with it for many a long year before that; and the city, justly proud of its daughter, made free with her. And after a life lived in Dublin and across the vast world of entertainment from the West End to Broadway, she returned to it in her later years, although she might have agreed that in many ways she had never left it.

Like all great tragedians, her life had its own tragedy. As a young woman and newly married, she went touring to Egypt with Michael MacLiammoir, Hilton Edwards and her new husband Colm O'Kelly. While there and to her eternal grief, Colm contracted polio and died. She never remarried.

She was assured her place in the Irish theatrical hall of fame from an early age. During a production at the tiny Pike Theatre in 1957 of The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams, she and several others of the company were detained by the gardai for allegedly possessing a condom, presumably for the purpose of entertaining the public! In fact, no condom was actually present on the stage or, indeed, anywhere in the theatre, but a legend of the theatre was born.

She had a huge career in television. Her first step to fame across the pond being in the remarkable Me Mammy in the 1970s. She followed with a procession of maternal madams in such small-screen successes as Leave it to Mrs O'Brien and the formidable Mrs Cadogan (pronounced Kay-dee-gawn) in The Irish RM.

Although having known her for years, it was in the RM that I first experienced the glory of the Manahan glare. It was all part of the performance, but it was really quite disturbing. I recall feeling at the time that I was glad she was my friend.

She served her time on the big screen as well. But in spite of her undoubted success on screens both big and small she was a stage actress first and foremost. She had a vast repertoire of styles and an innate understanding of the nature of acting. And perhaps more than many of our profession, she was acutely aware of her abilities. She was deeply conscious of her place in the profession and the deference due, but she deserved respect.

She was gifted with the style and manner of a tragic player and could break the heart with the simplest of delivery. But it was this gift that made her far more than simply good. She was in many ways remarkable. I can remember her in revue at the Eblana Theatre back in the '70s, performing in a sketch in which she started brilliantly funny and ended by bringing the audience to tears. This was the skill, not simply of the actor but of something far greater. This was the skill of the clown.

She was in many respects a child of the comfy-cosy period of Irish theatre, where success came from the company that you kept and that kept you. She was never stellar but always a star. She kept cats and would talk to them on the phone when away from home. She was like your granny if she liked you and your nightmare if she didn't. She had poetry in her soul.

John B Keane made Big Maggie just for her. And be it Keane or Synge, the words in her mouth would turn English into our native tongue. She took Broadway by storm with a Tony nomination in 1969 for Friel's Lovers and a Tony win years later for The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

Like so many of her colleagues, she was incapable of retirement. She just kept going on.

I will remember her wit. I will remember her turn of phrase that could define an entire performance. I will remember her energy.

But mostly I will remember a story of Anna in Boston when receiving yet another award. She told me that a little old lady -- maybe fourth generation Boston-Irish came up to her at the event and asked her, quite seriously, whether they would be "picking the potatoes right now back in Ireland for their tea".

Anna looked at her and then checked her watch but seeing the innocent old face beneath the wave of blue rinse, she resisted the temptation to say, "No dear, they are probably having a gin and tonic."

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