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.