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Olwen Fouéré: ‘I didn’t feel Irish. There’s a great advantage to being an outsider’

The distinctive actor and performer, currently on television in The Tourist, resists convention in both her work and personal life

“It’s like some kind of little death,” says Olwen Fouéré of performing live on stage. “You just go on and you take a deep breath. And you jump. You hope to god there’s some water at the bottom of that cliff where [you] can swim.”

This “demands mental athleticism” as well as physical athleticism, and uses “a different muscle” from acting for TV and film. Screenwork dominated over Covid and it’s two years since Fouéré has been on stage. Now she’s getting “back into training, physically, mentally, to be ready for that high dive”.

That high dive is the Irish premiere of The President by Thomas Bernhard, a Gate Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company co-production; following three weeks in Sydney before Christmas, rehearsals have moved to Dublin. “I’ve wanted to do The President for years and years and years, and now I’m doing it, well, what was I thinking? It’s so difficult.

“They’ve compared actors going on stage to jumping out of a plane with a parachute, hoping it’ll open. Apparently our bodies go through similar things. It’s a kind of high state of fear. But it’s a sort of transformational fear. To me.” She makes this explosive “pfff” sound. “It’s almost like something else is working through you.”


She recalls the intensity of performing Beckett’s Not I in her early 20s, and needing quiet time to recover, after having gone “into some other zone. Something happens to you inside and then your mind expands and everything’s different. It’s a little similar to how people describe religious experiences.”

She’s one-of-a-kind, Olwen Fouéré. A shape-shifter, otherworldly, gutsy, ethereal, ageless, wise, with distinctive, flowing white hair and lithe physicality. She’s an outsider. Born in far west Connemara, Fouéré has Breton blood from her parents, but she’s said her bones were formed by Ireland. She doesn’t seem to age, but will be 70 in human years on March 2nd.

Her biog overflows with stunning performances and eclectic creation over nearly half a century; she has managed to straddle both mainstream theatre and screen roles, and creating more avant-garde work melding music and visual art, sometimes with collaborators.

She’s also warm, welcoming, funny. Life is busy. When we meet, she’s only just arrived home to Dublin from Madrid where she was filming The Head, a TV series with an international cast, before picking up rehearsals for The President again.

She’s currently on the telly, as Jamie Dornan’s maniacal mammy in The Tourist, filmed here last summer when she also worked on Ishana Shyamalan’s mystery horror The Watchers, based on AM Shine’s novel, which premieres on June 7th just after The President’s Sydney run. She’s also juggling dramaturgical collaboration with Christian O’Reilly on his play Unspeakable Conversations, about the disability rights activist Harriet McBryde Johnson’s debate with the philosopher Peter Singer at Princeton.

She opens her front door and brings us into her world. Since her late 20s she’s lived on and off in this Ranelagh house, which she inherited from family. We sit in a sunroom beside the kitchen. Her voice is rich, full, expressive. She’s in a chair in the corner, animated, gesticulating and forming patterns as she talks; by turns leaning back expansively, leaning forward intensely, throwing her legs over the side of the chair.

It’s lovely here: comfortable, simple, homely. Later, she stresses it’s a base, not a home. “My cats and my clothes” are what’s here. “I haven’t found my home yet.” She’s not uncomfortable, but “I’d prefer to be in an apartment. I always imagined a warehouse space, all one, no walls in between, everything in one biggish space where you can cycle from one side to another. I am not a house person.

“I think home is somewhere I’ll end up. But I don’t know where that’s going to be. They will say home is where the heart is. The closest would be the west of Ireland, but it’s getting less so now because it’s less remote than it was.” Her dream is “to end up in a little adobe house in the middle of a desert, with an ocean not too far away, thousands of miles from civilisation, with loads of animals. Who knows, I may not last long. But it’s a dream image.” While people are crucial, both on the page and collaborating in the room making work, she craves solitude.

I often think there’s a greater advantage to being an outsider, though it’s difficult. I spent the first 20 years of my life trying to assimilate. I didn’t feel Irish. Wanted to be

Her string of awards includes an Irish Times Special Tribute Award for outstanding achievement and contribution to Irish theatre. Highlights she picks out herself are “connected to form”, rather than story-based or character-based. Oscar Wilde’s Salome: “It’s beautiful. But it doesn’t feel like it could necessarily be a performance text. When Steven Berkoff did it [at the Gate in 1988] it was utterly magical. The slowing-down of everything, so you’re basically expanding time. We receive the language like fruit.”

Or Beckett’s Lessness: “It’s just a repetition of images.” She gestures at lines framed on her wall as the day’s light fades. “‘Ruins true refuge long last towards which so many false time out of mind. All sides endlessness earth sky as one, no sound, no stir ...’ and it goes on like that. It’s like a meditative incantation into this space that is created completely by the person who is receiving those words.”

Her earliest interest was non-verbal theatre, while “the main body of my work has been all words. Well, what is that? I have no idea.” She laughs at the irony.

Born in Galway to Yann Fouéré and Marie-Magdeleine Mauger, Breton nationalists who’d settled in Ireland, Olwen grew up on Aughrusbeg peninsula, surrounded by the Atlantic in Connemara. Her two brothers and one of her sisters settled nearby (the other sister in the Canaries); a couple of days after this interview, John, “my big brother, and my godfather”, died after an illness.

“I often think there’s a greater advantage to being an outsider, though it’s difficult. I spent the first 20 years of my life trying to assimilate. I didn’t feel Irish. Wanted to be. At home, I stopped speaking French – I would only answer in English, because I wanted to be one of the fishermen, with the lads.”

Not speaking Irish is “a great regret. There wasn’t Irish around there any more. I think it started dying out around the 1930s. I did school Irish. But I think it was the way it was taught at the time. And it was associated with kind of straight conservative, and you resisted it. Now of course, it’s the cool language.” Funnily, she doesn’t even recall doing Peig. “I must have just ignored it.” Recently she researched “poor, maligned Peig” when she posed for photographer Emily Quinn’s Art of Strength exhibition. “My Peig was very smart, designer scarf and all that,” she recalls. “She was quite a saucy woman, wild. She was much more rebellious. In photographs there’s the glint in her eye.”

Curiosity is what drives her. Performing is on the edge. “When you find your place on the margin, that’s actually a good place to be. I can look in and see what’s happening ... As an outsider, you discover or accept how identity is not a fixed thing. It’s moving all the time, it’s something fluid. It’s very liberating.”

Managing coexisting strands of work “was harder earlier on. I used to feel I had to choose” between mainstream performance and “making that way-out-there work. I work a lot with musicians, and visual artists. I make my own stuff as well, theatre or performance or even film. And then there’s the plays, and the relationship with playwrights like Marina [Carr]. And now a lot of film and television, which kicked off in a big way for me during the pandemic.”

She’s also an outsider in her unconventional personal life. Some years after marrying her husband she fell in love with another actor too, and their unusual way of living over several decades has been forged with love, openness and respect, and without deceit.

Though she has two relationships, these days “because of life and travel, I feel a bit like I’m solo now”.

Early on “it was not easy, and was painful for all of us. But it’s definitely a part of my life, of going, why should you make a choice between two things that are really important to you? Why not try and balance all of these things, so nobody gets hurt, and you take care of each other, in the middle of it, and all the way through it.

“Honesty, for me, is really important. It’s not something I was looking for. It’s just something that happens. So, what do you do? Do you walk away from it, or do you embrace the fact you are being given a gift?

“They’re part of the tribe of my life, the tribe of people we work with or share a vision with, and who we love, and who we communicate with. Your found family.”

She resists absolutism in relationships, that “this is the way it should be, and you have to make up your mind which it is. It’s a bit like my work. Doing all of these different things is all part of one big work. Just like all of these other choices or ways I live are all part of one big life.”

It all seems as one, the multiplicity in her work and in her personal life reflecting each other, welcoming all that life offers, and embracing its complexity.

Part of the tapestry of Fouéré's life is the death of her two babies. In 1985 her little girl Morgane was born 10 weeks premature (“Which now is like, nothing”) and healthy, but died when she was two days old. “She was caught between technology and nature, I think. A midwife said to me if she had been born in a cottage, we’ve have just wrapped her up and put her in a shoebox by the fire and she probably would have been all right. They put her on a ventilator and it burst her lung.” She went into labour on the train to Sligo, where her husband, the actor David Heap, was performing. “They get very lonely. She was crying in the incubator, crying so much she started having difficulty breathing.” Fouéré longed to hold her close. “I’m sure they would have done that now, more enlightened,” she says.

I remember feeling that it’s such a gift to be there when somebody’s dying. Every kind of tragedy, you can gain something from it as well. It’s not all negative.

“The little boy was 1991. Jo-Jo. He died in the womb at 25 or 26 weeks. There’s no evidence as to why he died. I carried him for two weeks” after they discovered his heartbeat had stopped. Rather than be induced, she chose to wait till her body went into labour. “I was rehearsing a play at the time, and went into labour on the weekend. I gave birth to him on the floor there.” She gestures to the adjacent room. “David and I decided we’d do it at home. The midwife came then.”

It’s a lot to carry. “It’s massive grief. But at the same time, I think with every situation like that, there’s also a gift. They existed, and they had an impact on a physical, deep, emotional, spiritual level. And it’s an experience. People say, would you rather not have had the experience? Absolutely not, I’d rather have the experience than not have had it.”

It puts her in mind of “being there when my father died. I remember feeling afterwards that it’s such a gift to be there when somebody’s dying. Every kind of tragedy, you can gain something from it as well. It’s not all negative. Everything is an experience which will give you insight, whatever it might be, compassion. I even think, well, I wouldn’t have been able to live the life I’m living now if I’d had children. It’s not cold. It’s just the reality. I’m a very all-or-nothing person. I probably would have stopped working for years while I had children.”

That equanimity seems painfully won. “It’s very hard to see past grief when you’re in it. Any kind of loss gets mixed up with everything else in your life. It’s a morass of confusion. Grief is a strange thing. You just have to try and let it go through you and embrace it. If you’re sinking, you have to get low enough to hit the bottom and you’ll come back up again.” We laugh at her analogy. “Like a ball.”

She talks about societal conditioning, “right down to nuclear families. You’ve a partner, you’ve kids, all that. In a way, the death of those children made me realise I was falling into this pattern of belief, of this is how you have to live your life. I’ve learned that from the loss of them as well.”

Fouéré has worked a lot in Sydney over the past decade, since first touring there with Catherine Walker and Declan Conlon in Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus, when Cate Blanchett and her husband, the playwright Andrew Upton, ran Sydney Theatre Company. They invited her back with Riverrun, her extraordinary adaptation of the voice of the river in Finnegans Wake.

Sydney is “like a second home”. There she met the producer Colm O’Callaghan, who has since moved back as executive director of the Gate. She told him about The President, which she had wanted to do for years, saying, “I have to make you sit in my apartment for two days, while we read it together,” which they did, “so he would know how difficult it was, but also how fundamentally fascinating it is.”

Bernhard’s 1975 play is set in “a small, unnamed country” where there have been assassinations, some missing their intended targets, the President and the First Lady, and where revolution brews. She rages, he is vainglorious, in a play dealing with abuse of power, paranoid privilege, and prophesising surveillance, corruption, terrorism.

O’Callaghan suggested Hugo Weaving (who played Agent Smith in The Matrix, and Elrond in The Lord of the Rings trilogy) as President. “Hugo read it and loved it and got obsessed with Thomas Bernhard. Then it was Hugo and me and Colm” developing the project, which eventually became a Gate/Sydney co-production, with Tom Creed directing, and rehearsals and runs in both cities. This month The Stage named it as one of its global shows to look out for this year.

A challenging work, it’s been in what Fouéré calls “my little emergency room, projects that are kept under live support” since she first read it in the 1980s. What’s the attraction? “It’s a very European kind of text. We work so little with the European canon. It’s always the same ones, and we look beyond that to Chekhov and to Russia. But Bernhard is a major European writer, of great relevance to our world now, and we’ve never known him. Very few of his plays are translated into English. It’s a little bit like a cross between Beckett and Kafka. It’s not a play-play. These mad monologue rants that go on for pages and pages. It’s a tough learn, because of the structure and the repetition. And there’s no causal links most of the time. It’s all that chat-chat-chat, or rant-rant rant. There’s so much text. It also suggests a really rattling pace, from my character anyway.”

We joke about how she’s really selling it. “I can think of a few places where I’ll hear the audience seats go boing-boing-boing, leaving! As they did apparently on the first production. But the trick is, they’ll all be waiting for Hugo in the second half.”

Theatre is a really archaic art form, but it it’s survived. But what bothers me about theatre now is the lack of access. It’s just so expensive

It premiered on May 21st, 1975, timed to coincide with the start of the Baader-Meinhof trial. The far-left militant group was “targeting wealthy business people. In a way the timing of that production was an attack on conservatism and the far right. And Germany’s past.” She talks about the political and philosophical context of the play, and how Bernhard, who lived through the Nazi era, is now not performed much in Germany, possibly because his work is seen as an attack on contemporary society and the capitalist value system. “But also, he’s got this incredible insight on the mechanisms of power. He doesn’t attack it head-on, it’s more like, he gives airspace to these people, where they just go on and on and on, ranting, without any opposition. That’s kind of his point, that there’s no opposition. It gets darker and darker and more and more contradictory.”

Fouéré says the play is also very funny. “They have a son who is probably one of the anarchists. She’s having an affair with the butcher, and possibly the chaplain. It’s quite an absurdist drama. It’s hilarious, but in a not-overt way. It’s just absurd funny, dark funny. Which is my favourite kind of funny.” Julie Forsyth plays the First Lady’s maid, and Kate Gilmore the President’s lover.

They see this production as set somewhere European-ish - “could be Ireland” – and “in the present or soon, somewhere. It could be here, or it could be here next year. I think there’s an awful lot we can recognise, in what certain power relationships can be, within the lives we live.”

Fouéré feels there’s “a bit of a conflict between theatre and film right now. Theatre is a really archaic art form, but it survived. But what bothers me about theatre now is the lack of access. It’s just so expensive. And in Ireland, it’s a lot less expensive than in many other countries. I know the funding reasons. I just think there must be some radical way of addressing that, on a top level down, to create more accessibility, because we are going to end up just speaking to one class of people. With film, at least, whoever you are, you can be watching it on your phone, even if you don’t have a bean.”

With screen, “The difference is that reach. That you can communicate across the world to millions. It’s a kind of conceptual conflict. Theatre is very special, transformational. It’s like a form of magic, but it’s becoming more and more exclusive.”

For the future, “I’d also love to work more with music, maybe make an album.” She cofounded the experimental Operating Theatre with the composer Roger Doyle in 1981, and they still work together. She has friends in Lankum. “I still think music is probably the highest art form. I did a video for the band ØXN, Cruel Mother. Music, it’s the universal language. Visual art does that as well, and film. But there’s something about music. I write songs and I like to use my voice but I’m not really a singer, but I’d quite like to make an album, maybe collaborate with musicians. My next life, I want to be a musician.”

Olwen Fouéré stars with Hugo Weaving in the Irish premiere of The President by Thomas Bernhard from February 2nd to March 24th at the Gate Theatre, followed by a run in Sydney in April.