Blood, sweat and breasts: Derbhle Crotty’s bold approach to acting
From her irreverent early work to ‘volunteering her breasts’ for DruidShakespeare and on to her fresh take on O’Casey’s Juno, Crotty has never been one for convention
Derbhle Crotty in Juno and the Paycock at the Gate Theatre. Photograph: Patrick Redmond
Crotty as the eponymous heroine in Katie Roche, by Teresa Deevy, in the Peacock Theatre, April 1994
Crotty, Justine Mitchell and Emily Taaffe in Brian Friel’s version of Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters at the Abbey Theatre in 2008. Photograph: Patrick Redmond
Many actors can tell you about the history of their characters, the backstories assembled from clues in the text, educated guesses or creative leaps of the imagination. But the actor Derbhle Crotty tends to speak more about their futures.
In her conversation, which can be vivid with description and evocative imagery (“I’m a terrible woman for making metaphor,” she mock-apologises at one point) she will trace the arc of her characters far beyond a play’s final scene, watching them recede into the distance like a parting friend.
For instance, she sees the Three Sisters clinging desperately to hopes of a better life, where Chekhov leaves them, then imagines their fates through the course of the looming revolution, “the real Russian drama”. Right now, as she prepares for the Gate’s new production of Juno and the Paycock, she projects a longer path for Juno, Sean O’Casey’s Dublin tenement mother who is both scold and stoic, through the approaching decades of a fledgling Free State and a rough course for women struggling to assert their own independence. “Always, with these people, you imagine their future life,” she says, on a lunch break from rehearsals. “Or at least I do.”
Crotty is certainly alive to the big picture – the expanse of a lifetime, the wider march of history – but as one of the most distinctive and celebrated actors in the country, her performances live moment to moment. “It’s that classic actor thing: that you don’t know, until the minute it happens, that it’s going to happen,” she says.
Boldly distinctive approach
Crotty is originally from Cavan and studied law in UCD in the late 1980s before gravitating towards Trinity College Dublin’s drama society, Players. She later pursued that university’s original performance course at the Samuel Beckett Centre and emerged with a boldly distinctive approach, allied with the rigour of training, in a thankfully hospitable time. In an industry that has never been roundly celebrated for strong female roles, she has rarely seemed passive.
Among her earliest jobs at the Abbey Theatre was a role in Marina Carr’s breakthrough play The Mai, in 1994, and later the lead in Carr’s legendary Portia Coughlan for director Garry Hynes. Playing the title role in Teresa Deevy’s long- neglected play from the 1930s, Katie Roche, directed by Judy Friel, was formative.
“It was extraordinary,” she says of that time. “It was a wonderful thing to bring a modern sensibility to something like that. What I felt I could do with that, at that age – I think I was 26 – was to put everything to the test that I had learned at Samuel Beckett. It was like irrigation, you know? I could be utterly irreverent and play very strongly and very purposefully. And the play really held up under that. You didn’t need to give it a meat-and-two-veg approach, a sturdy-shoes approach. You could throw every modern idea at it.”
Crotty can sometimes make this sound like the prerogative of youth: she hoots with affinity over Genevieve Hulme-Beaman’s recent performance in the Abbey’s You Never Can Tell. “I just felt thrilled: ‘Oh my God, look at her, she’s throwing everything at it, she’s finding out how it works, she’s loving being out there. She’s unbridled.’ ” She remembers her experience with Katie Roche as something similar. “I didn’t give a damn whose toes I stood on. And I did get under people’s skin.”
If risk-taking and spontaneity are the preserve of the young, those qualities have hardly diminished over Crotty’s 20-year career.
Her current nomination at the upcoming The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards (she has been nominated several times, and won in 2008 for The Three Sisters) is for her riveting interpretation of Henry IV in DruidShakespeare, a daring performance that seized all the possibilities of its gender-blind casting. Crotty began the four-play cycle as a strutting Bolingbroke, the usurper whose reign will never be at ease, and through his story of defence and decline a blood-red rash gradually crept from her neck to engulf her entire body, which became more and more exposed. It was a subversive feminising of the throne, born partly from Crotty’s research and partly as a dare.
“Well I brought that to the table, the idea of his degeneration,” she says. “I knew that [the plays] would be highly edited, and that, over 6½ hours, if you can create an image you can tell a huge amount of story.” Crotty was struck by descriptions of the king’s “apoplexy”, which she traced back to historical accounts of leprosy suffered by the stigmatised king. The idea was “to posit that the guilt had started to invade the skin. And also the enormous stresses and strains of kingship. It seemed to me to make a good logic. And then the death doesn’t come completely out of nowhere.”
At the same time, during early costume talks with the designer Francis O’Connor, Crotty made a suggestion. “Okay,” she told him, “if you’re interested in breasts, I’ll volunteer mine.” It wasn’t a solid idea, she recalls, but she was curious to see how far the company wanted to take the cross-gender concept, and it fitted with the creative collaboration of Druid’s undertaking: nothing ventured, nothing gained. “We found a place for it. And it reassured the audience that we were not in any way attempting to convince them that we are men.” It was a bold manoeuvre and it met with some scandal and competing interpretations. “So maybe I have retained some of that youthful spirit,” she says happily.
The cross-casting in Druid’s production was not just at the service of a concept, however; it was more of a gauntlet thrown down to the industry. Crotty is a little disappointed that, so far, no upcoming classical revivals in the country have been inclined to pick it up. “There was an excitement at the time – and this was only last summer – that this might be a game-changer,” she says. “The gates have been breached. You can do this.”
The game-changer with more immediate impact, one hopes, has been the speedy rise and consolidation of Waking the Feminists, the movement for gender equality and parity in Irish theatre. Crotty contributed at its public meeting last November. She described herself as “a counter of women”, totting up female representation in stories, in panels, in society, and feeling routinely disheartened by low figures. Her own career, marked by fruitful collaborations with strong female artists, had been inspiring. “And I want more, much more of this, for myself, for my fellow actors, particularly the bright and hungry young, and for our ready audience.”
Juno and the Paycock, a story of broken promises, cruel debts and ultimately brave resistance in a time of tumultuous change, is proving a fascinating journey for Crotty, who traces within it “tiny little thoughts that are actually seismic”. Director Mark O’Rowe’s production, as she describes it, may be an attempt to bring the familiar melodrama of the play back down to earth. “Frequently the style in which O’Casey is approached, or certainly rendered, is hugely romantic, the big gestures. Right from the start here, there was a sense of trying to burrow under.”
Her frequent comparison, though, is to music, and her eyes crinkle as she smiles through another metaphor. “To take the heat out of things, you don’t go for the top note, you explore the middle and lower notes. Today was the first time in the run that I really became aware of all of the other instruments and started to become deeply aware of how my own instrument played in the orchestra of it.” She draws her arm back and forth in long, liquid strokes. It seems like a bowed instrument.
“Yeah, I think so,” she laughs. “When I was able to hit the lower notes, I felt I could inhabit it. The whole emotional fact of it. This Juno is, maybe . . . a cello.”