Gifted comic actress who savoured challenge of tragedy

Long association with Gate Theatre

Sat, Sep 14, 2013, 02:04

Susan FitzGerald, who has died at 64 after a long illness, in a 2006 interview with The Irish Times gave a quick character assessment as she prepared a stage role. “She’s charming, she’s delightful, she harbours no rancour. She’s able, with her quick thinking, to set off little explosions everywhere.”

She was describing Constance Middleton in Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife, but, echoed this week by the tributes of friends and colleagues, her words could have easily served as a self-portrait. A gifted comic actress who also savoured the challenge of tragedy, FitzGerald was defined by a generosity of spirit and a warm wit, traits that marked her approach to the stage.

Acting, FitzGerald had decided at the age of 10, was the only career she would ever pursue. As a graduate from Trinity College in the early 1970s, she began an association with the Gate Theatre that would last over four decades and secured a place in the theatre through phenomenal comic instincts, exquisite timing and a melodious voice that she could lower to a cut-glass trill or raise to a howl.

“How does one know one is in love?” her character was asked in The Constant Wife. FitzGerald paused to consider, then answered with authority, “Could you use his toothbrush?” On stage, her effect could be as light as gossamer, but she worked painstakingly to understand her roles.

She was born in Leicester in 1949, the eldest of six children. Her father, William FitzGerald, was a doctor who had moved to England with his wife, Emily Irwin, to start a GP practice. In 1966, the family returned to Kinsale, but she completed her education in Evington Hall school in Leicester.

Her family has strong connections to the arts. She was the niece of the Hollywood star and Broadway actress Geraldine FitzGerald (who had begun her own career at the Gate in the 1930s), and a cousin to novelist Jennifer Johnston and actor Tara FitzGerald.

In 1968, FitzGerald attended Trinity to study English, philosophy and history, and gravitated to the drama society, Players. There she stood out as a gifted performer whose peers included Jeananne Crowley, Sorcha Cusack, Paul McGuinness and Michael Colgan. She married the latter while at college.

Colgan would become the second artistic director in the Gate’s history, but FitzGerald’s association began with its original directors, Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards, for whom she performed in Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1973. In those formative years, she acquired a meticulous approach to constructing a performance from Edwards. Director Alan Stanford, who worked with her for 40 years, considered her a master technician. “She was relentless,” he recalled. “Like someone building up a wall, she meticulously built her character, layer by layer.”

FitzGerald’s association with the costume comedies of Wilde, Coward and Ayckbourn, or adaptations of Dickens and Austen, was firm but not indelible. For the Gate she found particular relish in the challenge of performing the work of Friel and Beckett. At the Abbey she worked on the plays of Pirandello (by way of Thomas Kilroy’s adaptation) and Ibsen.

Adventurous choices
A sign of her mettle as a performer came with the adventurous choices made later in her career, performing in new works and sharp revivals by new independent companies. Her performance in Shooting Gallery, a 1916 Rising satire by Arthur Riordan and Des Bishop in 2005, earned her a Best Actress nomination at the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards.

She created the jagged comic role of the high-maintenance Foxrock mother, Fionnuala, in Paul Howard’s Ross O’Carroll Kelly plays, The Last Days of the Celtic Tiger and Between Foxrock and a Hard Place.

The last of these marked her final stage appearance, a difficult time that coincided with her divorce from Colgan in 2010, with whom she remained on good terms, and, it later emerged, complications from the cancer first diagnosed in 2005. She fought cancer with the same determination with which she attacked her roles and, when, towards the end of her battle, she insisted on being discharged from hospital, it was so that she could see John Hurt in Krapp’s Last Tape.

Her lengthy screen career began with an uncredited appearance in John Boorman’s cult movie, Zardoz, and includes roles in the films Angela’s Ashes, The Serpent’s Kiss and most recently Happy Ever Afters, together with television roles in The Irish RM, Rebel Heart, Bachelor’s Walk and Fair City.

Yet she found most pleasure in the theatre. “You’re not alone on stage,” she told The Irish Times. “You work in tandem. You feel the audience’s heartbeat, and you know they’re there, they’re laughing, and they’re shocked, and they’re doing all the different things that audiences do. You are so connected.”

On Monday evening, theatres across Ireland resounded with applause and standing ovations in honour of her passing. Renowned for her generosity both on and off the stage, she took most pride in her children. She is survived by her three children, Sarah, Sophie and Richard, and her five siblings.