Passionate actor whose work conveyed ‘total belief’

Gabrielle Reidy: July 23rd, 1960 - October 13th, 2014

 

There was a certain appropriateness to the Irish career of Gabrielle Reidy, the noted stage, screen and television actor, who has died aged 54 at her home in London, in that it was rounded out with performances at the Abbey Theatre.

Reidy’s first stage appearance was as a child character in the Abbey’s 1971 version of Sean O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman, and her last, in 2012, in the same author’s The Plough and the Stars, also at the Abbey, as the Protestant tenement dweller Bessie Burgess, who loses her life to a stray bullet in the last scene.

In between was a formidable career which encompassed 23 films, 31 film or series appearances on television and at least 25 professional stage roles.

These included Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did (2012), Joel Shumacher’s Veronica Guerin (2003), Peter Webber’s The Girl with a Pearl Earring, (2003) and Alan Pakula’s The Devil’s Own (1997) on the theme of paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland. Other directors with whom she worked included Peter Greenaway, Richard Eyre, Barry Devlin and Thaddeus O’Sullivan.

Auschwitz inmate

One of her most effective and memorable film roles was in Ronan O’Leary’s Fragments of Isabella from 1989, in which she gave a vivid portrayal in monologue form of former Auschwitz inmate Isabella Leitner, who, with her sisters, escapes from a train bound for Bergen-Belsen.

On television, Reidy’s equally varied work included stints on Holby City, The Inspector Lynley Mysteries (BBC), Scott and Bailey (ITV), The Bill (Thames TV) and The Chief for Anglia.

In Ireland, she featured in The Clinic, Nighthawks (directed by an old friend of hers, John Comiskey), and Leave it to Mrs O’Brien (all RTÉ, the latter also with Channel 4).

Throughout her career on screen, Reidy maintained her interest in the stage, and it is arguable that she made her most memorable impact there in roles which were noted for their intensity and emotional force.

This had started early, when, while still a student of modern languages at Trinity College, Dublin (there was no professional training for actors in Trinity or any other Irish university at the time) she had performed memorably in Samuel Beckett’s Footfalls and in the Greek tragedy Hippolytus by Euripedes, in which she played Phaedra. She was noticed immediately, and her first professional role followed in Graham Reid’s savage portrayal of sectarian violence, The Death of Humpty Dumpty (Abbey, 1979), opposite a young Liam Neeson.

Later, after her move to the UK in 1989, came plays like Julian Garner’s The Awakening at the Hampstead Theatre in 1990, on a theme of child abuse, Geraldine Aron’s Same Old Moon at the Globe (now the Gielgud) and Women of Troy at the National (now the Royal National) in 1995.

Searing

She also featured in The House of Bernarda Alba, Lorca’s searing portrait of repression in pre-civil war Spain and Eugene O’Neill’s Desire under the Elms, both directed by Polly Teale for Shared Experience, both works in which fierce female sexuality is in play, explicitly or implicitly.

Such drama suited her style, described by her agent, and long-time friend, Lorraine Brennan as one of “total belief” in what she was doing.

This often brought her into conflict with directors who she felt were not interpreting the character correctly. Those strong enough to take her medicine – in Lorraine Brennan’s words “you couldn’t be beige about Gabrielle” – were admitted to the warmest of friendships, however.

Gabrielle Reidy grew up in Malahide, Co Dublin, the youngest of three daughters of Robert (Bob) Reidy, an Aer Lingus pilot who had served in the RAF, and his wife, Patricia, and was just 17 on entering TCD.

She gained much of her early interest in acting from her mother, a keen theatregoer, who brought her as a girl to see Siobhán McKenna as Bessie Burgess in The Plough and the Stars at the Abbey. She was enthralled and determined then to become an actor.

After her move to London, she met Limerick-born actor Gary Lilburn. He and their son, Finn, and her two sisters, Melanie and Joan, survive her.