Brian Cox: ‘The Irish have been so subjugated’
The actor, who was born in Dundee to an Irish family, stars in Conor McPherson’s ‘The Weir’ in London. He talks Irishness, displacement, drink and his support for Scottish independence
Brian Cox: ‘My family are all Irish. They were forced to move, to wander and be uprooted.’ Above, in Conor McPherson’s The Weir. Photograph: Helen Warner
Shortly after 6pm, the stalls and balconies in the Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End are empty. A faint smell of paint and wax lies in the background. The building, softly lit and shadowy, has the air of an empty church.
The image is not inappropriate, since Brian Cox, one of the stars of Conor Mc- Pherson’s The Weir , sees the theatre in quasi-religious terms. Two hours earlier, a full matinee audience on a wet, dreary day had hung on every word as the actors explored the aching nature of loss, ghosts and memory.
“I think it translates well,” says Cox, sitting in a tiny room upstairs in the cavernous, winding Wyndham’s. “I think there is a universal quality to this. It is what the Mass used to do for Catholics, the celebration of the Eucharist. The Mass had a kind of mystery about it, and the theatre has a mystery about it.
“It is a secular transubstantiation, dealing with your own ghosts. People are touched by it, because any human being recognises these stories. You feel it from the audience every night: you feel the laughter. I had a woman in the other night who was in tears later in the restaurant. She was still caught up in it.”
Back at The Weir
Sixteen years since its triumphant outing in the West End, The Weir has returned – a success once more, but subtly different as well. Cox’s portrayal of Jack (a role first played brilliantly by Jim Norton) is angrier, while Dervla Kirwan’s Valerie has about her a nervous, damaged simplicity.
Risteard Cooper’s Finbar is the local who has moved to the town, done well and now brags to hide ever-increasing self-loathing;. Ardal O’Hanlon’s sparse depiction of Jim says more in a gesture than most actors achieve in a night. Peter McDonald’s Brendan – the barman estranged from domineering sisters, unwilling or unable to change – is given, like the other characters on stage, time to breathe in a production that never hurries.
For Cox, who is 67, McPherson’s work has echoes of his own background. He was born Catholic in Dundee, Scotland and raised by four older sisters after one parent died and the other suffered mental illness.
“I do feel that my heritage is part of who I am,” he says. “It is a tortured heritage, but it is very muscular. This play rings so many bells with me. I have no difficulty with it at all. I have no difficulty with the starkness of it, the loss of it, the accuracy.
“My family are all Irish. My great-grandfather came from Derry. My great-grandmother came from Donegal – the McCann side of my family. The Coxes all came from Enniskillen. They were forced to move, to wander and be uprooted.”
Cox’s family history is steeped in tragedy, but also in community. His father died when he was eight. His mother, who worked as a spinner in Dundee’s jute mills, had repeated nervous breakdowns.
“I did a thing recently about my great- grandfather from Derry, who ended up going up into the poorhouse with his six-year-old boy when he was 39, having had eight kids, lost his wife at 36, and lost five of his kids.”
His great-grandfather had lived in Glasgow, which “was unremitting towards the Irish – it was not a very good place to be”. His grandfather, James McCann, “got away”, first serving as a soldier. “Then he would come back to Glasgow and never work. Eventually he got to Dundee, and there were Irish communities there, and it was very well-organised because the Irish had stolen a march on things.”