Eleanor Methven: A sorcerer of the stage

For Methven, who stars as Prospero in Rough Magic’s The Tempest, the rehearsal room is the beating heart of a theatre production

It is late on a Friday afternoon, and Eleanor Methven is sitting in the production offices of Rough Magic Theatre Company in Dublin city centre, running her lines. It is the end of the first week of rehearsals for director Lynne Parker’s new production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which Methven takes the lead role of Prospero, the sorcerer hero now recast as a woman. It is a massive role, involving “pages and pages of these amazing speeches”, and with a highlighter pen Methven marks out the dense body of text she must learn.

Methven has been practising at home for weeks, “just sitting in my house, acting away, using what Prospero would tell me to — my imagination — to din it in. The neighbours must think I am mad.” So she is delighted and exhilarated to be finally in the rehearsal room. “Really what [an actor needs] is to learn their lines on the floor,” she says, “because the lines tend to be attached to your muscle memory. The more you repeat it, the more it goes in, the more natural it becomes. At the end of the day, you’re an actor, and what you are trying to do is create human beings [on the stage].”

For Methven, the rehearsal room is the beating heart of a theatre production. When other actors of her vintage — she has been acting professionally for 45 years — are asked about their dream roles, they have a list of great parts they would love to play. Methven doesn’t. She wants to know “whose production are you talking about? Who else is in it? You can have the role you want, but what about the other parts? It could be a complete failure if you don’t have everyone you need around you. Theatre is about a total ensemble and that begins in the rehearsal room.”

Methven has been thinking a lot about this in relation to The Tempest. “A lot of the play is about how you order society and how you lead; what the character of your leadership is? The way Lynne runs an ensemble is very democratic; very much a case of ‘I have chosen these people because I think they are the best people to help me to do the play’. It is obvious of course that she is in charge. She works out all the production aspects with lighting, set designers, and it is up to her to keep a hold on all the skeins of silk she has and weave them together. But it is very much up to each individual to bring what they can to the rehearsal room every day, because that is your job, that is why she cast you.”


The actor and director have a long relationship, dating back to the 1980s, when Parker directed several productions for Charabanc, the theatre company that Methven set up in Belfast in 1983 with a group of like-minded female theatre artists. As she explains, the venture was born out of “unemployment, but not just unemployment. There weren’t many roles for [female actors] and when there were, they were ‘someone’s wife’ or ‘someone’s mother’, ‘someone’s daughter.’ We thought ‘we would like to be the someones for a change”.

Charabanc’s first production was an historical drama about the 1911 Belfast linen mill strike. “We found very little was written about it; because it was women’s strike, because the people who owned the mills owned the newspapers, so we had to do a lot of primary source research, interviews with people who were around then or their relatives.” While the ensemble thought they “would never go beyond the first production”, Lay Up Your Ends was a huge success, and the use of oral testimony from working-class women of Northern Ireland became a part of Charabanc’s modus operandi for the next 12 years.

The fact that the company and the material it drew on was nonsectarian was critical to its success, Methven says. Because of the political situation at the time, “people were interested in the North,” she explains. “But especially in a new voice from the North and this was a female voice in a highly paramilitarised, macho society.” Although the work was “being made in a small corner of Ireland”, Charabanc saw themselves as an all-island entity. “There was so much more touring then,” she remembers. “We toured extensively in the North and the Republic. We took it for granted that we would come down through Donegal, Sligo, Galway, Kerry, into Cork and so on. It was true what they say: there is no border in the arts. There was a lot of cross-pollination.” Charabanc toured internationally too, across Europe and to the US several times. They were the first Irish company to perform in the Soviet Republic.

When Parker came on board to direct her first show for Charabanc, Methven knew immediately that “she was the kind of person I could work with. It was about co-operation. Charabanc wasn’t a director’s theatre, it was a co-operation of people coming together to find a prism and tell us a story”. When Charabanc began to wind down in the mid-90s, Parker — who had established Rough Magic in the 1980s with classmates from Trinity College — invited Methven to Dublin to perform in Stewart Parker’s probing parlour play Pentecost at the Dublin Theatre Festival. “She pounced on me and that was that!” Methven has been a regular fixture in the Rough Magic ensemble ever since.

By 2000, Methven was commuting to Dublin so much for work that she decided to relocate, and is a regular on the major Irish stages as well as on screen. She was awarded the Special Tribute Award for 2017 at the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards. It has been a satisfying career, she reflects pragmatically. “By the end of [Charabanc] I was spending my days sitting in an office, producing, organising accommodation for other actors, and I really didn’t want that. I wanted to act.”

Methven describes her involvement in The Tempest as another act of Parker “pouncing on me”. In 2019, the pair met for a walk in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham and Parker said she wanted to do a production of The Tempest as part of a three-year outdoor Shakespeare project in collaboration with Kilkenny Arts Festival. “I thought, ‘well, she wouldn’t be saying that if she didn’t want me to be in it’. So I said ‘Oh, you know I’ve always wanted to play Caliban’. And she said ‘No, I want you to play Prospero, Eleanor. I’m offering you the lead’.”

Methven is unfazed that Prospero is written as a male role, although it will be her first time crossing gender boundaries as an actor. As she sees it, Prospero being a woman brings a lot to a reading of the play. Prospero “is the mother of a daughter. Miranda has been brought up by a woman rather than a man. A woman who has taught her the geology of the island, but she has not been socialised to be feminine in the way that Ferdinand [Miranda’s suitor] would be used to.”

Still, Methven wouldn’t mind playing Caliban in the future, although she and Parker disagree as to whether a female actor could play the role as plausibly as the gender swap for Prospero. It has been a bone of contention since they worked together on Edna O’Brien’s Our Father at London’s Almedia Theatre in 1999, when they first discussed the play in a cafe next door to the theatre, with Methven proclaiming that “I’d even shave my head for the role”. Would she do that now? “Well….”, she pauses. “I might.”

For Prospero, however, Methven’s dramatic silver-streaked hair will suffice, as the extraordinary production images from Ros Kavanagh, which can be seen on billboards and in newspapers around the country, makes clear.

The Tempest, presented by Rough Magic and Kilkenny Arts Festival in association with OPW, August 3rd-13th at Kilkenny Castle Parklands, kilkennyarts.ie

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer