‘It’s not about the actor. It’s always about the work’
Team player: Marie Mullen. photograph: bryan o'brien
Marie Mullen, a Druid founder and one of our greatest actors, will be presented with a special tribute award at this weekend’s ‘Irish Times’ Irish Theatre Awards
A couple of years ago, Marie Mullen was preparing to play Woman in Colm Tóibín’s Testament, a provocative and demanding piece of theatre, concerning Mary, mother of Jesus, and set 20 years after her son’s crucifixion.
The piece, shaped into a one-woman show by Tóibín from his novella The Testament of Mary, unleashed a challengingly mortal Mary who had little to do with skyward-gazing plaster Virgins. His is an all-too-human creation who challenges the orthodox ideal of womanhood. Mullen describes her as “real and natural, full of faults, a woman who thought her son was strange”.
After an initial reading, Mullen spent six months learning the part before rehearsals started in earnest the following autumn, under the direction of her great friend and collaborator Garry Hynes. “I was in a state – insecure and troublesome – and I’m not normally,” she says.
Mullen is radiant. She may look elegantly wintery – pale-blue eyes, yellow-white hair – but she radiates warmth, affection, openness and a generosity of spirit. It is hard to imagine her being troublesome to anyone.
Despite worrying that she was intellectually unequal to Tóibín’s text, despite worrying about very tall members of the audience being uncomfortable in Francis O’Connor’s imaginatively boxed-in set, and despite worrying, as she always does, about doing her “duty” to the writer – “I thought Colm was so brave” – she found her way through, guided by Hynes, to create a performance of unsettling intensity. “Colm paid me a great compliment,” she says. “He said: ‘I will never forget the stillness of the audience.’ ”
Mullen, a founder member of Druid Theatre Company, a Tony Award-winning actor, mother of Róisín and Mairéad, wife of the actor Seán McGinley and recipient of this year’s special tribute award at Sunday’s Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards, will turn 60 this year. “I’m still here, still going, day by day asking, What will I do next week? What do the girls need? Where’s Seán?” She takes a breath. “I’m delighted about this award – I can’t tell you.”
Power and rage
On stage, Mullen can conjure power and rage; there is something elemental about her, something raw. In person, small hands wrapped around a coffee cup, she is tender, thoughtful. She has certainly never seen herself as an intellectual theatrical heavyweight. “I’m a smart chap, but I’m not Mensa.”
Hynes and Mick Lally, her cofounders of Druid, she describes as “the educated visionaries”. About herself, she is neither arrogant nor self-deprecating. “I am an emotional intellectual,” she says. “In-the-moment emotion is how I expose the script.”
Even her mother, when Mullen received a best-actress Tony Award for her portrayal of the caged, loathing, raging Maureen in Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, said: “I’m glad Marie got a prize, because she has no confidence. It will make her very happy.” And did it? “I couldn’t conceive of it. This is too big, I thought. We were in Radio City Music Hall. I was talking to myself, telling myself not to get drunk – and then they called my name. Honest to God, it was so brilliant. Fifteen years later, I’m still dining out on it.”
“Excavating” and “exposing” are words Mullen uses often to describe her way of approaching a play. These words are also the language of archaeologists, people who pore over texts and symbols, unearth meaning, dig for forgotten truths. It was as archaeology students at University College Galway that Mullen and Hynes first met.
Mullen was born in Drumfin in Co Sligo, the eldest of nine children, a daughter of modest, hard-working parents. She won a scholarship to boarding school and later to university. Her father was a great believer in education. Marie was a trailblazer, with five sisters and three brothers behind her. The plan was that she would become a teacher. But Mullen had done a play at secondary school and wanted to do another, so she found her way to Dramsoc, where she auditioned for Hynes.