There may be a book of Irish Gothic Short Stories languishing on the ledge of a window in the Gate Theatre’s Green Room, but there are only good vibrations floating around. We are here to chat with actors/singers Camille O’Sullivan and Zara Devlin, who play, respectively, the older and younger versions of renowned French chanson performer, Édith Piaf, in the theatre’s production of Pam Gems’s dramatic musical, PIAF.
O’Sullivan and Devlin had never met each other before rehearsals, which started in mid-October, but you’d never know that from the mutual buzz and familiarity between the two. O’Sullivan is naturally warm towards her younger co-star, while Devlin isn’t backwards in coming forwards with her praise for the performative singer.
It is possible, suggests O’Sullivan (whose garlanded performing career stretches back to the late ‘90s), that PIAF director Des Kennedy had a hand in choosing the two performers, hoping for what now seems obvious: a symbiotic relationship. You don’t always get that in a work environment, she hints, “but this has proven to be so because we are very similar in our vulnerabilities, our sense of humour.”
“I knew from the first day I met Camille that we would connect,” says Devlin, whose career to date has included numerous notable stage appearances (including The Gate’s The Glass Menagerie, Rough Magic’s Hecuba, and, cut abruptly due to Covid, the Broadway adaptation of John Carney’s Sing Street). “We are similar in terms of energy, style of music ...”
“... And how we approach things, too,” continues O’Sullivan in a typical conversational segue. “We’re very instinctive. I know some people might think it’s very theatre-like when I say we love each other, but as a cast, we truly love each other. That’s a very unusual thing and is an absolute gift.”
Devlin adds, “How amazing is it to be in a room where you get to have conversations that are meaningful and vulnerable? I can’t think of any other job where that could happen.” O’Sullivan admits to being “a bit eccentric, and I think you might be, too”, she adds as she looks over to Devlin (who doesn’t disagree).
Both women’s creative pursuits veer towards the alternative, the nitty-gritty, so it’s little surprise the life story of Piaf appeals. You might presume that O’Sullivan was a shoo-in for the role because of her half-French background, but she admits to not having performed many of Piaf’s songs previously.
“I had done about two and that was years ago.” Her grasp of the language is such that she has had to learn the lyrics phonetically. “Now, I love my mother,” she states loyally, “but I don’t want to get told off by her so I’m trying to get every line perfect. She says to me [affecting a French accent] ‘I cannot see theeese show if you are makiiing a deesasteur of it’, so I have to make sure I get it right.” Devlin, too, has to grapple with phonetics. “I never went to French class at school.”
“When people think about Piaf, they think of the songs,” outlines O’Sullivan. “I would look at images of her and see quite an alluring figure, but her backstory is incredible – she was a defiant, tough woman who succeeded against all the odds. Another thing I didn’t fully realise is that she had such a command of her songwriting; she co-wrote so many of her songs, which was virtually unique for the era.
“She was way ahead of her time; she came out of nowhere, strong-willed, and what she did on stage involved no artifice. You might think it’s a sentimental story, but she came from the streets. It seemed that her heart was kind, although I’d imagine she probably gave a good argument or two!”
A natural feminist aspect of Piaf’s character comes from her acceptance of the passing of years, notes O’Sullivan. “She was quite beautiful and then she wasn’t. She just didn’t care, and that’s wonderful. People always think that you want to be glamourised, and yes, as a girl it’s always good to look nice, but some people hang on to that for dear life.” It is a subject they have touched upon in rehearsals, says Devlin, “as a woman what’s expected of you to wear. It’s liberating to realise Piaf didn’t bother about that.”
An additional element to Piaf’s character is how little she knew of her brilliance, remarks Devlin. “At the start, she was rough and raw and didn’t know what to do with herself – she just knew she had to be heard. Then she got discovered, met certain people who cleaned her up a bit and improved her performance levels. Obviously, I’m focusing on Piaf before she became well-known, and in that, I’m very inspired by watching Camille.”
Her more experienced co-star is equally admiring. Devlin, says O’Sullivan, portrays “an innocence that is quite beautiful, inhabits a place that is totally believable and captures a feral presence. What we’re aiming for during run-throughs and in the show is that our two characters collide. It’s all very emotional and tough, and sometimes the two of us are in tears!”
Unusually for a production at the Gate at this time of year, there is an advisory note (‘this production contains adult themes, strong language, drug use and scenes of a sexual nature’), so anyone expecting avuncular, post-Covid, pun-driven Christmas themes should steer clear. PIAF is serious, sweaty, sweary stuff, with the bonus of classic chansons and exceptional performances. Aside from all of this, says Devlin, you inevitably learn from such an experience.
“Every time I do something like this, I change because of the people I meet. You learn a lot about yourself because I try to find myself in every character. The parts I tend to play are quite reserved, but with PIAF it has been liberating to work on letting loose a bit. Meeting Camille, I’ve learned that I don’t have to hold back, I can speak when I want to.”
“I always believe that whether you’re older or younger,” O’Sullivan concludes before she and Devlin are called away for rehearsals, “when doing something like this you are learning something. I certainly lost a lot of confidence by not working during Covid. A part of me was really glad to be with my daughter, yet another part of me was thinking I’d never be able to step up on stage again. But then the opportunity with PIAF came along out of the blue, and you think, God, there I was thinking everything was over. Yet you’re a horse in the stables, ready to go out there again!”
Édith Piaf – a life
Édith Gassion was born on December 19th, 1915. Her father, Louis, was a street acrobat, and her mother, Annetta, was a singer and circus performer. Abandoned by her mother shortly after her birth when her father enlisted in the French army in 1916, Édith was taken to her paternal grandmother, Léontine Gassion Descamps, who operated a brothel in Normandy.
From the age of 14, she joined her father in his street performances and began to sing in public. By the age of 17, her life began to change considerably: she had a daughter and had embarked on a working life as a street singer in Pigalle and other Parisian areas.
A year later, Gassion started performing at Café Juan-les-Pins and then, at the age of 19, she took up a months-long residency at Le Gerny nightclub. It was here that her career began – and at which point she was nicknamed Piaf: the little sparrow – and quickly moved from smaller venues to larger performance halls and theatres.
By the mid-1940s, Piaf was in huge demand as a charismatic, emotionally intense performer in Paris; by the end of the decade and into the 50s she became known internationally after tours across Europe, the US and South America. Creatively, Piaf couldn’t be limited – wrote/co-wrote many of her songs, which added a frisson of authenticity to her performances – but her personal life and health issues (debilitated by addiction to alcohol and morphine) rolled from one disruptive episode to the next.
She died on October 10th, 1963, from liver failure. She left behind many songs that have become classics of chanson réaliste, including Non, je ne regrette rien, La Vie en rose, and Hymne à l’amour.
PIAF at The Gate Theatre: Previews until Tuesday, December 6th. Opening night is Wednesday, December 7th. Runs until Saturday, January 28th, Monday to Friday, 7.30pm; Saturday matinees, 2.30pm. Recommended for ages 14-plus. For further information, visit gatetheatre.ie