Derbhle Crotty: ‘Waking The Feminists is having lasting consequence’

Actor on her electric pandemic projects and returning to Portia Coughlan after 25 years

There's something – apposite, probably; surreal, definitely – about Derbhle Crotty in February 2022, more than 25 years later, playing her own mother. One of the most distinctive and emotionally connecting actors of her generation, Crotty played the gut-wrenching title role in Portia Coughlan at the national theatre premiere of Marina Carr's play in 1996. Now, just more than one-quarter of a century later, as Ireland emerges blinking from two bruising years, she's in a new Abbey production of the same play, this time playing Marianne Scully, Portia's mother.

The perspective changes, at decades’ remove. “How I thought it was going to be is very different from how it is. When I was offered Marianne, I did pause. I think it had something to do with coming out of the Black Mirror time we’ve just been in, and it felt to me radical enough to revisit the past,” she laughs sardonically. “The ghosts of the production very much walk with me.”

The play is set on Coughlan’s 30th birthday, also the anniversary of the death of her twin brother Gabriel, who drowned 15 years previously, and explores attempts to escape the past. Portia Coughlan is “a sealed world, a very particular imagined world. And it has a really gothic element. As we know, the doings in the countryside and the cities of Ireland continue to have a gothic flavour. The messiness of life and the thwarted desire. The feeling of being trapped. None of that is unique to Ireland. But it is given such a distinctly Irish flavour in this play. 2022, and still the gothic pervades life. The play stands up absolutely,” says Crotty.

Crotty has clear recall of that intense first production aged 28, and its deep friendships. “In my memory everybody is perfect. When we played it, it was an explosion of energy. The intense nature of the world we’re existing in, and the intense nature of 11 people on that tiny Peacock stage in a very small auditorium. Speaking such highly wrought, highly poetic, extremely funny, dark, demanding language.” Audiences too “were captive in this, as Portia describes it, dungeon of the fallen world”.

Crotty is emotional about the memory: “If I’d written the script of my life, I wouldn’t have chosen anything different, or anyone different.”

‘New perspective’

We're chatting after rehearsal for the new production on the Abbey stage, directed by Caroline Byrne and with Denise Gough as Portia. Crotty wears a glamorous red dress, her glorious hair flowing. She's just had her photo taken, and even in the clinical dressingroom light her spirit is strong. We're video-chatting; protecting cast and crew is critical (recent Abbey productions Faith Healer and The Long Christmas Dinner had to cancel shows because of Covid).

She’s evocative about revisiting Portia. “It’s feeling a bit like a letting go of the past and gaining a new perspective.” The previous production is “etched so strongly”, and “day by day that’s fading, and a different picture is coming into focus. New voices are replacing the old voices. It’s a surrender of the old memories, becoming replaced by the new. There’s something bittersweet about that, bittersweet but necessary. To be in the room and witness something forged anew, to be part of that. It feels sometimes a bit dreamlike.” She describes this process as overpainting, with “this wonderful image on a canvas, and then other artists come along and start to make their mark, and bit by bit the under-image recedes, and the new version takes form”.

It’s also “the nuts and bolts. Now I see everything from the perspective of Marianne. Her worries are my worries. I see Portia now through her eyes. Marianne, in her own very stumbling and inadequate way, is trying to help Portia to move forward with her life, to be in this world, move on from the trauma of the loss of her twin, the other half of her soul.”

She abruptly changes tone. “I could have not done it. I could have stayed away. And it would have been a fascinating night to come in and to watch it reborn. Every time you go into a project, especially something as emotionally demanding as this . . .” An aside: “I mean, most of it’s emotionally demanding – I love a light comedy but they don’t come around that often or I’m not first on the list, but I do love it!”

Pandemic projects

All the same, Crotty's had some great projects over the pandemic, from an electric live broadcast of Mark O'Rowe's The Approach with Cathy Belton and Aisling O'Sullivan, to Emmet Kirwan's comic caper Straight to Video for live audiences. In December 2020, she shot horror film Mandrake in Belfast, streets emptied by Covid. Filming Marina Carr's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse for last year' s Cork Midsummer Festival was "a really beautiful experience. [Director] Annabelle [Comyn] was so careful to capture something live, to not exclude the live. We were intensely proud of it. Something in its form and how we approached it was artistic first and foremost and that lifeblood sustained me for the longest time. Some of the hybrid experiments yielded fascinating fruit." (To The Lighthouse is streaming again next month.)

Livestreaming is “a real black run. There’s no time to think and you’re coming down that run at a rate of knots. That was white knuckle.” She laughs: “One woman, so many metaphors.”

Speaking on another major development in Irish theatre in recent years, she says that the Waking The Feminists campaign for gender equality in the sector was “one of the great events of my life. It’s having lasting consequence. It can’t be unseen, it is entirely justified. It’s for the enrichment of the profession, and where the opportunity has been taken there are real dividends.” But also, “all of us have seen that because things changed, more things will change. There’s a belief in the possibility of change.”

Post-pandemic is “a watershed time”, she says. She’s reminded of a Beckett quote: “To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.” She says that “you don’t just want to resume the position afterwards. I’m looking for a second act or third act. I would love to diversify.” She mentions more film and TV, and working in opera. “I think I’d really like to direct,” she says, although cautions: “My God, there are these fantastic directors, the world doesn’t need another director. So it feels like a terrible arrogance to say that.” She wants to work more collaboratively, “certainly with music and musicians. And dancers”, recalling “the special joy” of Heart of a Dog with The Everyman last September.

In the meantime, we’re trapped in remote mode, but she shows me about the dressingroom. Your red mug matches your dress, I observe idly. She turns the cup to face me. “You know what it is – a British bulldog! How did that get in here? Maybe the lads left it.” She laughs at the previous directors’ calling card.

Portia Coughlan is at the Abbey, February 11th-March 16th. abbeytheatre.ie

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