Monday 17 December 2018

A question of balance

Joe Jackson

SUSAN FitzGerald is one of Ireland's finest actors. That fact must have been powerfully apparent to anyone who saw her most recent performance in the Gate's The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. It will also probably be a defining feature of her latest role in what she describes as "Edward Albee's provocative play about the limits of tolerance" - The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?- wh

SUSAN FitzGerald is one of Ireland's finest actors. That fact must have been powerfully apparent to anyone who saw her most recent performance in the Gate's The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. It will also probably be a defining feature of her latest role in what she describes as "Edward Albee's provocative play about the limits of tolerance" - The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?- which previews this week at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin.

Even so, some of FitzGerald's greatest roles still remain relatively uncelebrated.

Such as? Well, such as the fact that the woman who believes "great actors have to live and eat and breathe their craft" also managed to raise three children, and also is the wife of Michael Colgan, artistic director of the Gate, meaning she must have helped the man set in place many of the support systems that enabled him, and that theatre, to soar over the last 20 years.

Susan certainly sees her own life as starting on a "high" because she was adored by both parents. This may even be the most influential factor in FitzGerald's life, the one thing that sustained her no matter what private pain or losses she may have endured.

"I think it is lovely to sing lullabies to your children and let them know the night is good and the day is coming because we all need childhoods that look forward to the future in a positive way, and my childhood was like that," says Susan, who is one of six children and was born in Leicester after her family moved there from Dublin when her dad qualified as a GP.

"In fact, my mother was Olympic Gold Medal material! She gave me unconditional and dependable love. As Dad did. So I was blessed," she says as we sit in Dublin's Merrion Hotel.

Susan also was blessed by the fact that her relatives included playwright Dennis Johnson and Oscar-nominated actor Geraldine FitzGerald. The latter "probably helped push" her "towards acting simply because it was something someone else in the family had done".

FitzGerald also remembers her first "review" of sorts.

"I was about nine and had just played my premiere as the Virgin Mary in the school play," Susan says. "And then the dinner lady waddled by and said: 'Mary took herself very seriously, didn't she?' But I did! If anyone laughed or forgot a line, I was outraged. That was when I realised acting was going to be my life."

Yet did Susan take her role as the Virgin Mary seriously?

"At that age, and right through my teenage years, I probably was a 'good girl' - but not in any strictly religious sense," she smiles. "In fact, I only joined the church choir because I fancied someone in it, but he turned out to be gay! But at least I discovered I loved singing!"

How did Susan find outthat this guy was gay? By kissing him?

"God, no, we never got that far! I sussed it from his hairstyle and gestures, I guess."

Either way, Susan and her family soon relocated to Ireland where they lived in "a huge Georgian house that hadn't been lived in for 20 years". But weren't there any shadows in her childhood?

"Looking back, you can see things that you didn't realise at the time," she responds. "For example, my mother made her children her life, but

'I feel life can open up, instead of close down, when you reach middle age'

I wish she'd developed in other directions. Before she died we did talk about this, but she said she felt it would have been disloyal to my dad or selfish in terms of the family to focus on her own needs.

"And by that stage I, too, had taken that for granted, as something you did if you were a good wife and mother. But now I think there has to be more of a balance. Particularly when it comes to the Irish mammy, who tends to make her life her children.

"I'll never forget hearing how my own mother, when she was young, joined the Royalette dancers but herfather put a stop to that.She obviously had artisticinclinations but they werenever realised."

All of which brings us back to the question of the balance Susan herself achieved while being a wife, mother and actor. During a Sunday Independent interview two years ago, Michael Colgan told me he and Susan first met "on the steps of Trinity" when both were 22. She was "the leading light in the Trinity Players", and within three years they were married.

Incidentally, at the time of our interview Michael tentatively admitted he was "not really comfortable" talking about their private life, and Susan feels much the same.

But FitzGerald will address subjects such as whether or not her belief that an actor must live, breathe and eat their craft is undermined, to any degree, by the suggestion that she apparently took time off to raise children, be a stay-at-home wife and even sacrificed her career for her family. So did she follow her mother's path in that sense?

"To some extent I did, but I think I was a good mother and that the children, now, are quite balanced," Susan replies. "And, actually, I acted while I was a mother. I stopped for about eight years when they were babies but I did a play between having each child.

"Yet if I had a choice and one thing had to go, I would turn down the play, film, whatever. But I still think that was the right decision.

"People say: 'Don't be an actor because you don't have good money, it's so insecure.' But I think it has fantastic strengths, because you do have elasticity in your choices. You can take time out and come back and resume your career, and all that enriches what you do as an actor. So I don't have regrets, at this level, at all."

Susan suddenly pauses, then says, "No, maybe I did get the balance wrong in ways."

Which ways, exactly?

"I may have needed to take more time out and not be so worried that people were going to sink. I always needed to keep the ship floating when it came to my family. I worried about the kids; I was always trying to see that things were as good for them as possible. But now that the children are grown, my parameters are more wide-ranging.

"For example, I could go off to New York in the morning if I wanted, or work anywhere. And I have more time to discuss things with people who stimulate my mind. That's why I feel life can open up, instead of close down, when you reach middle age.

"It certainly is opening up for me because I am not letting my energy be sucked into trying to preserve things as they once were. I always was one to hold on to the past, which I now see was a bit neurotic of me.

"But I'm not going to beat myself up about all this, as I once would have. BecauseI really am happy with my life and I have come to the conclusion that one mistake is thinking other people owe you, or whatever.

"Like everyone, I started out expecting that, but by middle age you realise that, whereas as once in your life something may have been wonderful, you must moveon to new areas, new vistas." I ask Susan to read once again what Michael Colgan said about her in this newspaper and respond. He'd said FitzGerald was "a greatactor", that he was in love with her from the start, that she was the most "extraordinary and empathetic" person he'd ever met - and that as far as he was concerned, she was "the future".

"That's lovely, isn't it?" she says. "And Bryan Murray, who is in this new play, said he remembers coming out of the Abbey one night, when Michael was stage manager and 'so down' after having a fight with me. Bryan said: 'Tell her you're sorry.' Then Michael told him: 'She's in Kinsale.' So Bryan borrowed his dad's car and they drove down right away! "And I remember Michael tiptoeing in and saying: 'I am so sorry.' I was totally overcome by this romantic gesture. So we have had wonderful times. And he has been a joy to work for. Even though Michael didn't actually even know he wanted to do theatre until we met and says he joined the drama society to get to me!

"I am proud of what he's done with the Gate and I love working there. I also would like to think that I contributed to the ethos that is there atthe moment."

The Project, however, is the theatre at which Albee's play is being staged. So what's itall about?

"Well, he originally wanted to write a play about a doctor who injects himself with Aids, but his friends said: 'Don't go there!' That's when Albee realised: 'These are liberal friends of mine so, obviously, there are areas even they don't want to go into.'"

Susan responds, clearly as impassioned by this production as she was by playing the Virgin Mary long ago.

"Then after 9/11, Susan Sontag was attacked for writing in the New York Times that we should understand the Muslim world better - and this incensed Albee and also fed into this play. "But it's also about people who, when they get to middle age, feel they need to engage with the dangerous, explore more unconscious areas of their psyche and develop a 'now or never' attitude to life."

Partly, perhaps, because those people become more aware of death and ache to recapture their youth - which is, arguably, the same reason many middle-aged people seek out younger lovers.

"All those reasons," Susan FitzGerald responds. "But also, and this brings us back to the first part of our conversation today, maybe they are trying to administer to themselves something that was not administered in childhood when it was needed.

"So they then try, say, alcohol, drugs, in an effort to do patchwork on the psyche. But at that stage it's too late, I believe, unless you seek out professional help. Psychotherapists are the only ones who can finally help you love yourself; if that wasn't a feeling you had in childhood. And The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? is about all these things.

"I play the wife this man loves and I love him and we have a great marriage - and there is no sense we don't have a great sexual relationship or that I'm not enjoying his career - but he is confronted with something, and we see what happens to her as a result of this. That's why I say it is a play about the limits of tolerance and allowing flexibility when it comes to setting your moral parameters."

©Joe Jackson

'The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?' runs from May 9-28 at the Project, box office 01-8819613 or 01-8819614,

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