Tuesday 23 January 2018

Bondings: A true love story told in two acts

In true dramatic style, Anthony Traynor is playwright and actress Billie Traynor's first - and second husband - writes Andrea Smith

Married, divorced, married: Billie and Anthony Traynor met aged 18 and 21, and never get bored of each other’s company. Photo: David Conachy
Married, divorced, married: Billie and Anthony Traynor met aged 18 and 21, and never get bored of each other’s company. Photo: David Conachy

A talented and versatile actor, Billie Traynor's personal life is as dramatic as any role she has played. While the central plot concerns her relationship with her husband Anthony, whom she married, divorced and then remarried, there are plenty of subplots bubbling to keep everyone glued to the action.

Billie (62) and Anthony (65) are very engaging and witty people, who met when she was 18 and he was 21. Her pal was madly in love with him from afar and dragged her to a nightclub he frequented. Billie didn't know it was him when a very handsome, long-haired young man wearing a brown velvet suit asked her to dance, but he made her laugh and they bonded over books. She backed away when she realised who he was, but they kept meeting randomly after that. Anthony pursued Billie and eventually they began dating. Billie's pal wasn't impressed and they kind of fell out.

"I thought Billie was wonderful," says Anthony. "Bright, smart, sparkly and great fun. She was probably the most intelligent woman I had ever met, and her body was as amazing as her mind."

Billie had just come back from London, as sadly, her promising ballet career came to an end when a male dancing partner dropped her during a lift and she damaged her coccyx. She was named after Billie Burke, who played Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. Her late mum, Maureen Burke, was a very well-known drama teacher, who taught at The Leinster School of Music & Drama. Her late dad, Ossie Keane, was an accountant, and Billie is the youngest of their seven children. "My poor mother kept telling me I was born to act, but I wouldn't listen," she says. "I just wanted to dance. I went to the amazing school, St Paul's in Greenhills, where my singing and dancing developed."

When she met Anthony, Billie was working in an office and singing in cabaret. Feeling brave and revolutionary, they moved in together, which horrified her parents. They were married in 1978, and while Billie was told she couldn't have children, to their great delight she gave birth to Jessica seven years later.

Anthony grew up in Finglas as the youngest of the late Noel and Jessie's four children. ''Encouraged," by his mum, he got a job at Dublin Port Company and remained there for 35 years. When he took redundancy in 2006, he was working in staff training and development, and then he worked for a few years as a consultant in performance management. "Anthony is a writer in his soul and he was in a job that didn't suit him," Billie remarks. "He was once nominated for a Hennessy award for a short story he wrote."

After staying home with Jessica for a few years, Billie went to drama school for a year and got a role straight away in Flow Like Honey, written by Kevin McGee and directed by Brigie de Courcy. As her acting career flourished, the relationship between herself and Anthony imploded. "I began to have a very different life journey and it was difficult for both of us to adjust," she says. "We made a lot of effort to try to put ourselves back together, including going to marriage counselling, but it became irreconcilable. We had always had such amazing communication, until we had none.''

When the marriage ended in 1997, they sold the lovely house in Rathgar, and Billie moved to Churchtown and Anthony to Drumcondra. Jessica, then a teenager, lived with Billie but spent a lot of time with her dad, but her parents avoided talking to each other where possible. "I often said that it was so hard for us to speak because there was still unfinished business there," says Anthony. "I think we knew that in the back of our minds. We were apart for 11 years, but I never really ruled out the possibility that we could reconcile."

The couple ultimately divorced, and even embarked on other relationships while apart. Billie had romantic dalliances, but Anthony had a more serious relationship with an Italian woman that lasted a couple of years. They also both went into therapy, separately, and did a bit of work on themselves and Anthony completed two MBAs during this time.

When he retired, he was upset and rang Billie. For the first time in years, they spoke for hours, but then went back to not speaking. One evening in 2008, Anthony was walking home through town, when he realised he would love to chat with Billie. He also decided that he would love some of the lovely Christmas pudding she makes! Buoyed by a lingering sense of guilt about the marriage ending, he plucked up the courage to call her, telling her they should be together again.

At the time, Billie was in the middle of a run of her own play, Life After Love, which was a very emotional role. She asked him to wait until it was over to have that discussion. "In the play, the character says that she hasn't had such a good conversation with a man since her ex-husband, and that was true for me," she says.

When the run was over, Anthony came over to Billie's house for dinner and never really left. The pair came back together as very different adults as the experience apart had shaped them. They were delighted, although they worried about telling Jessica. "How do you tell her that all of the trauma we put her through as a teenager was a mistake?" Billie says. "Initially, she just said, 'What in the world are you doing? You couldn't even live together.' Then as she began to see the two of us together again, she accepted it completely."

Billie's theory is that when you really love someone, you never stop loving them, even when you hate them. They were in their early 50s coming back together, and having lived independently, they had to come to terms with the new people they now were. Did they mind, or was it weird for them that they had other relationships while apart?

"We were OK but not OK about it," laughs Billie. "Anthony was still friends with the Italian woman and at one point, she wanted to come over and stay at his house. I said, 'No way! She can be a friend from The Gresham, not his house!' Anthony has the biggest heart I have ever encountered and he has a great sense of humour. He is intelligent and immensely compassionate, and we don't ever get bored."

When Billie and Anthony decided to remarry, they picked the same date as their first wedding, July 7. They felt a bit self-conscious going to the registrar with their marriage and divorce certs, and had a very quiet, low-key civil ceremony. Their relationship is still fiery on occasion and they don't agree on everything, but that makes life interesting. "I wouldn't say it's easy but I'm happy with that as I like a challenge," says Anthony. "Billie's best qualities are her communication skills and her concern for other people. You are very lucky if you have her as a friend. She's a great mother, a wonderful cook and is just as interesting as she was in 1973."

Billie and Anthony adore Jessica who is now 32. There is great excitement as she and her husband Declan are expecting their first baby, a little girl, in September. Jessica is a talented published poet who has written for the stage, and was literary manager of the Abbey Theatre for four years. She is now curating the Epic Ireland Emigration Museum.

In 2012, Anthony sadly had two strokes, which caused him to lose all sight in one eye and 70pc in the other. It was a terrifying, life-changing experience for himself and Billie. He can no longer drive or read the paper, but can read online and type thanks to technology, and tends to his beloved garden.

While Billie is a wonderful actor - she played a blinder as Norrie Macey in The Chastitute at the Gaiety recently - she set up her own theatre company, DoItYerself, 10 years ago because she felt nobody was writing for older women or older actors. Her fifth play, Beryl and Eejit, is about to start its run and is a darkly comic production. Exploring themes of sibling rivalry, jealousy and the potential for old ladies to be anything but sweet, it's about two sisters who live in a crumbling old house and cannot abide each other. They find a will left by their mother and discover the house is not actually theirs. Their mother left it to a mysterious man and they wonder who he is?

Billie's previous plays have been crackers, so fans are looking forward to this new one, none more than her proud husband. "I'm in awe of Billie's imagination and her ability to change persona on stage," he says.

'Beryl and Eejit' starring Billie Traynor and Helen Roche runs at Theatre Upstairs, Eden Quay, from August 24 to September 9. www.theatreupstairs.ie

Sunday Independent

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