Surefooted steps from 'Dancing at Lughnasa' to 'Shadow Dancer'
Belfast-born actor Brid Brennan is not afraid of taking on a challenge - such as going up against the London Olympics in a West End production of 'Henry V' It was almost as if I felt a presence at my back; I turned around and looked into this black Atlantic night, writes MICHAEL MURRAY-FENNELL
IT IS THE night of the opening ceremony of the London Olympics and the eyes of the world are on the 80,000-capacity stadium. A few miles away on the banks of the Thames, Brid Brennan steps out onto the bare stage of Shakespeare's Globe theatre and addresses her audience: "O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention, A kingdom for a stage, princes to act, And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!"
"We were told all the West End theatres had closed," Brennan recalls the next day in the Globe's cafe, "and we were only one of three theatres open. But I loved the idea that while all that was going on, we were in another time and we were doing this."
"This" is Henry V, in which Brennan plays the role of "chorus". And there is something delicious in the fact that, while a multi-million-pound swelling scene of flags, flames and fireworks was being unleashed (with indeed a monarch present), Brennan was appealing to her spectators to use only their imagination and transform "this wooden O" into "the vast field of France".
"The play talks about itself," says Brennan. "It seems centuries ahead of its time, discussing narrative and how the dramatist goes about creating this epic story. It's the only one of his plays where he has a chorus who returns again and again throughout, describing what is happening, what is about to happen, and encouraging the audience to help the players - and the writer - to realise this huge story."
Henry V is not Brennan's first Shakespeare play, but it presented its own particular challenges. "I knew I was going to find it hard because I address the audience directly; they are my fellow actors and I'm not acting to anybody else. It's almost like stand-up, and I would never have seen myself as that sort of actor."
Listening to Brennan describe her initial apprehension about the role, you risk forgetting that she is one of this island's most skilful actors. Over the past three decades, the Belfast-born actor has worked on some of the UK and Ireland's finest theatre and television productions, from playing the put-upon Lorna in Graham Reid's Belfast-set series of Billy plays in the early 1980s through to her role as Agnes in the original production of Dancing at Lughnasa - for which she won a Tony award - and onwards to ITV's Cracker in the particularly dark (even by the usual standards of Cracker's writer, Jimmy McGovern) Brotherly Love episodes.
A career highlight was playing Pegeen Mike in the Druid Theatre's 1982 production of The Playboy of the Western World, the first to be performed on Inis Meáin, where Synge collected the seeds and stories for his masterpiece. The cast and crew sailed out to the island in a gale force eight wind ("the sea and the sky were one," Brennan recalls), transferring, for the final approach, both themselves and their set into currachs.
"That night, everybody except the really infirm and babies were in the community hall, the women with their beautiful white hair back in buns, those coloured crochet shawls and red - red! - petticoats." Before going on stage, Brennan waited outside the hall. "While I was out there, it was almost as if I felt a presence at my back; I turned around and looked into this black Atlantic night. It was only the Atlantic and this intense, intense darkness. It was all the loneliness of this young woman, in this universe, and then a young man comes and there is this opportunity of her heart being eased." Brennan finishes, "I never had such a happy and extraordinary experience on stage."
Dancing at Lughnasa is the play with which she is most associated. When Catherine McCormack was asked if she was intimidated about working with Meryl Streep in the film version, McCormack replied that, having seen the play, she was more worried about acting alongside Brennan. Brennan had spent the best part of two years in Brian Friel's drama set in Donegal during the summer of 1936.
"I came out of it a different person," she says. "It's all so beautifully underwritten - subtly written - there was not a word spare in Brian's work. I learnt so much: the striving to get hold of something, to get better and better. Agnes is an extremely quiet, silent woman, an internalised person; she could have almost not been there. It's difficult to make that person live on stage."
At the memory of her last performance in the play, she stares off into the distance and those large eyes brim slightly.
"It was a Sunday matinee in New York, one of those really bright winter afternoons in New York, early evening, and as we came out of the theatre, a man came up to us with a bunch of daffodils that looked like he'd just picked them up somewhere, and said, 'these are for you'. And the thought that somehow you'd got there, that you'd got to him . . . It was an incredible feeling."
Brennan is currently on cinema screens with Clive Owen in Shadow Dancer, a thriller set in Northern Ireland. Speaking with Brennan, though, you get the feeling that her first love is theatre and connecting the audience with whichever play she is in. It is an ethos she shares with the Globe.
"One freezing night in June, our director said, 'there are going to be some very cold people out there, make sure you get eye contact because it does warm them.' And when I went on to do my first speech, there was a woman who looked so cold, she was almost blue, so I had the word 'fire' and I threw it at her, I gave it to her."