‘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.
Mullen was 17. Photographs show an earnestly beautiful young woman, her blond hair tied back from her open face. Hynes, a novice visionary in those pastel-coloured 1970s, must have spotted something of Mullen’s ability to “empty herself out and become a vessel”. She cast the ingenue as a 90-year-old woman in Brian Friel’s The Loves of Cass McGuire. The play went well and, with the salt of success still on their tongues, the young Hynes and Mullen approached Lally, “a scholar with a voice like silk”, who was then teaching, and persuaded him to hang around Galway for the summer and put on another play with them.
That other play was JM Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, produced with some college friends, a couple of red flannel skirts, and £350 from Bord Fáilte to entertain the tourists. “I thought it was a potboiler, not a beautiful drama. I didn’t understand the language.”
The year was 1975 and the production, in Galway’s Jesuit Hall, was packed out. This was the moment, however billowing the flannel or bald the interpretation, that Druid Theatre Company was born. Druid and Mullen are synonymous. Although Mullen is now, by choice, a Dublin-based freelance, it is almost impossible to separate the two.
Parented by “innocence and arrogance”, Druid created and premiered work in Galway, crossing every crooked stile to bring theatre to people who couldn’t get across a bumpy western sea to the mainland, let alone to Dublin, to see a play. “We felt we had something to say in the west of Ireland,” Mullen says.
Nationally and internationally, Druid’s success is unprecedented. It has, since its inception, almost 40 years ago, been a furnace of talent, giving voice to Irish writers, actors and designers across the globe.
The early years of Druid – of constantly working, of finding plays, of moving from flat to flat, of trying to locate a permanent home for the company, of being adopted and fed her Sunday dinner by Hynes’s family, of McGinley joining the company, of “never having any money left, whatsoever, by Tuesday” – are fresh in Mullen’s memory.
Clear, too, is her understanding that it was when the playwright Tom Murphy became writer in association at Druid, in 1984, that the company grew up. “His work is very difficult,” she says. “You have to have a big generosity to be approaching good. You have to be very honest. He is exhausting, in a good way. There is no mincing of words. He tries to deal with our ugliness and our beauty, and that is a great gift for an actor.”
During rehearsals for Bailegangaire, Hynes, Mullen, Mary McEvoy and the late Siobhán McKenna (whom Mullen also describes as an excavator) listened while Murphy guided them through the text. “Garry didn’t open her mouth for a week. He told us about his anger and frustration. He talked about what kept him awake at night. There was no such thing as a stupid question. He would protect us, and we would protect him.”
Does your work give you great joy, I ask. “Joy, yes, but it’s not about the actor. It’s always about the work. It’s all about the words. I go in with my script, peel it away, decipher it.”
Thirty years after the company’s virginal onslaught on Synge, Mullen and Druid would return to the writer, when the company staged a festival of six Synge plays, touring them from Salthill to Sydney, and causing the New York Times’s theatre critic to write: “Ms Mullen’s achievement may well come to rank among the legendary acting accomplishments of the era.”
Mullen is clear that she has been the recipient of a rare gift for an actor working in this country: she has been part of an ensemble, allowed to work consistently, allowed to develop her craft. “I had a lot of security; we had each other,” she says.
Honesty and potency
Before marrying McGinley, in 1990, and settling in Dublin, Mullen had a spell at the Royal Shakespeare Company in England. Hynes had gone to direct a handful of plays, and she asked Mullen to accompany her. Both had felt the need to spread their wings. “I was terrified of being in another culture, but Garry was there; she believed in me.”
Mullen saw a kind of hurt at the RSC that she had never experienced at Druid: young actors, believing there was no other theatre in the world, having their dreams dashed. “I was mature enough not to fall into the politics of the place. I knew there was another world out there, but I felt . . .” She hesitates. “I wasn’t complete.”
Róisín is now 21, Mairéad 16. “They are the richness in my life I never thought I’d have. Everything else falls into some other kind of place, and suddenly you are in control.” The family are close. In the early years of the girls’ lives, Mullen worked less. If McGinley got a TV role or a few days’ filming, he could commute from Dublin. When she worked, he was there with them.
And now, despite all the awards, despite a lifetime’s excavation of other people’s texts, there is the same old question that dogs an actor’s life: what’s next? “I’d like to do one or two big things,” she whispers. “Big plays! It’s all about the play,” she says again. “All about the words, the way that something might go into you.”
There are actors driven by the pulse of celebrity, shooting stars who burn with the intensity of a tea light, and then there are craftsmen, men and women who develop their skills over long, physically and emotionally demanding years and bring to playwrights, directors, fellow practitioners and, especially, audiences an honesty and potency that feel very like their souls. Mullen is of this tribe.
‘Among the legendary acting accomplishments of the era’ What the critics have said
On playing the lead in five of the six plays in the DruidSynge cycle (2005-6), among them Riders to the Sea:
“Ms Mullen’s achievement may well come to rank among the legendary acting accomplishments of the era.”
New York Times
“Marie Mullen emerges as the greatest Irish actress since Siobhan McKenna.”
“Marie Mullen is astounding.”
On playing Mary in Colm Tóibín’s Testament (2011):
“Mullen’s measured, textured performance resonates.”
Irish Theatre Magazine
“Marie Mullen is perhaps the only actor who could make these words resonate with such commanding, unlaboured force.”
The Irish Times
On her role as Maureen in Martin McDonagh’s Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996):
“Ms Mullen gives the most bewitching dichotic performance of the season.”
“In Garry Hynes’s superb production, perfectly pitched between the comic and the grotesque, it is Marie Mullen who embodies this vision. In one of her finest performances, Mullen combines a minute sense of detail in her movements and expressions with the ability to suggest all the time that those details never add up to a stable whole . . . She forms the broken heart of the play’s clever games of form and meaning.”
The Irish Times