‘Tom was very good at expressing his emotions, so I always felt his love. He didn’t bottle that up’

A year after his death, playwright Tom Murphy is being celebrated by actors keen to share their experience of working on his plays. His widow, actor Jane Brennan, talks about life with – and without – Murphy

Jane Brennan: ‘I feel him here in a very benign way. He is still around’

Jane Brennan: ‘I feel him here in a very benign way. He is still around’

 

‘I’m surrounded by Tom here,” says Jane Brennan. “His presence is everywhere. It’s very strong.” We’re sitting in their sitting room in Rathgar. The pile of Greek plays Tom Murphy was researching for a version of The Oresteia is still on a side table; all his plays are in a glass-fronted bookcase that was once Siobhán McKenna’s; outside is the garden he nurtured (“I need to get someone to keep order on it,” says Brennan).

That presence cushions: “I feel him here in a very benign way.” Since his death on May 15th, 2018, “he is still around. I felt straight away he was at peace. That’s what he was looking for all his life. He had lived and lived well and lived fully, and so I think I can accept he’s gone without . . . while still longing for his presence.”

Brennan, serene and powerful on stage, is, likewise in person both strong and emotional. Passionate and articulate and wise and vibrant.

This is no Miss Havisham-esque world. She’s not wallowing but living her life where they lived theirs together for 33 years. And this most accomplished actor is honouring the legacy of her late husband, an actor’s playwright, in the most imaginative way, by sharing, along with colleagues, the experience of working on a Murphy script with a new generation of actors.

Days later, the Lir Academy in Dublin: the plan hatched to give flesh to Tom Murphy’s enduring work is coming to fruition. Six “senior” actors (Marie Mullen, Stephen Brennan, Frank McCusker, Catherine Walsh, David Herlihy and Brennan herself) who worked with him in rehearsal are sharing the unique acting voice, style and musicality of playing Tom Murphy with 12 younger actors in an intensive workshop week. With daily guests (Garry Hynes, Annabelle Comyn, Patrick Mason, Nicholas Grene, Catriona Crowe), it came together with Lir director Loughlin Deegan, producer Una Carmody, director Conall Morrison and Arts Council support to, as McCusker put it, “ensure a new generation of Irish actors will know the score when called to play it”.

In director Garry Hynes’s session, talking about the pressures and pleasures of rehearsing with Murphy on his very precise scripts gives rise to the question: who will next do a big Murphy production? The project refills a well and plants the acorn for future productions (an apt analogy for Murphy: gardener, carpenter, playwright).

At week’s end the actors perform scenes for an invited audience. The intensity of these truncated excerpts, the precision of the language and the breadth of characters, is overwhelming.

Tradition is sometimes regarded as a stultifying word, but actually, passing on tradition, it’s really important

Conversations on a Playwright was McCusker’s idea. Murphy and Brennan’s friend, he was staying at theirs when Murphy died suddenly. The young cast he was working with asked about his plays, unfamiliar, because, as Brennan comments, “the big plays aren’t really being done, and is there a danger of this being lost? Tradition is sometimes regarded as a stultifying word, but actually, passing on tradition, it’s really important. Looking back to where you’ve come from, it informs everything and inspires you.”

It was a perfect idea. “Tom would have loved it. He was never happier than in a rehearsal room with young actors. They inspired him and energised him, so it works both ways.”

Murphy worked with actors and director at the start of rehearsals. “Then he would go away for a while . . . because his presence – he was aware sometimes he could intimidate people.” He’d “let people off, but as he used to say: ‘No freedom without structure.’” The quote is from Bailegangaire, meaning “you have to know what you’re doing within the structure of it”. That structure is the text, “the dynamics of the punctuation, and how that informed character. The way he wrote, sound was character. He used to say he wrote to try and recreate the feeling of life, much in the way music does. He always tapped his foot when he was reading his work back, like poetry or music. He knew exactly the sound he wanted to hear. He was always quoting – all art aspires to the condition of music.

“He would try and write the inarticulacy of characters, and the way he writes that is very specifically punctuated. Every single word and detail is intentional in the text. Nothing’s thrown in by accident, everything is there to be discovered.”

Transfixed McCusker

recalls a The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant rehearsal, watching Murphy as Marie Mullen gave her final speech, transfixed, “his mouth noiselessly articulating every breath, beat and cadence of his text. Marie was indeed obeying the form. She had, along with Tom, worked and reworked it. Tom was marvelling at the ease she had reached in playing. The freedom of expression she had achieved through adherence to structure.”

Says Brennan: “Tom has given actors he worked with a real understanding of the way his texts work. Not that there’s only one way to do them, but there are certain things you need to observe. Tom would point out a semicolon, or - there’s a dash there and would you observe it please. He would like you to try and test the theory as he wrote it. And if you come up with something better, fine, but if you can’t, please observe the theory.”

That level of involvement requires a strong director. “Garry [Hynes] banned him from the rehearsals,” Brennan laughs. “I think it was Bailegangaire, because she just wanted to get on with it. And he would go, sometimes not too happy about it! But at the same time you know you get pure gold from him. We all know that.” She corrects, “we all knew that.”

Tom Murphy and Jane Brennan at the opening of A Whistle in the Dark at the Abbey Theatre in October 2001. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
Tom Murphy and Jane Brennan at the opening of A Whistle in the Dark at the Abbey Theatre in October 2001. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
I think if you’d said to me then, you’re going to be together for 33 years, I would have thought: insane

If he didn’t like something, “he was completely, brutally honest. He’ll say something, always in the nicest possible way, but you would have no illusions. He was my biggest critic. But then, if he felt something was good, well, I thought, it must be good.”

She did a lot of his plays. “Conversations – obviously. Grocer’s Assistant. The Wake. The House. Bailegangaire. Alice Trilogy. On the Outside and On the Inside. He never wrote specifically for me, apart from the Reverend Mother in Bridget. I was so flattered. Not! I think he was having me on. He always said I should do more comedy.”

Conversations on a Homecoming was “obviously” because it was where they first got together, in Druid’s 1985 production, rehearsing in London, where the cast were in Druid’s Playboy of the Western World. (“Those were the days – back-to-back shows and everyone doing stuff all the time.”)

“We were just thrown together by fate. I think if you’d said to me then, you’re going to be together for 33 years, I would have thought: insane. I was in awe of him. I was quite shy; perhaps that was the attraction. I was hugely impressed by him as a writer.”

In Conversations, “I don’t know how it happened. When I look back at my young self I think, God you were a bit of a risk-taker! I’m quite impressed with myself really. I was a bit infatuated, unquestionably. He was such a handsome man, and talented, and he was a bit mad as well, a bit wild. Great company. He was a very complex person, a mass of contradictions.

“A lot of that is in his plays. Think of Tom and Michael in Conversations, and Harry and Michael in Whistle in the Dark. James and Edmund in Morning after Optimism. They’re all like two sides of the same coin, of him. He says in Conversations, of Tom and Michael, the two of you together might make up one decent man. And I think he’s the decent man. All that is irresistible to a young, impressionable actress.”

She was 25. “It happened quickly. And took both of us enormously by surprise. It was an inexorable pull towards someone I had no . . . I didn’t set my cap at him or anything like that. It just took off, in a very, you know, passionate way, I suppose. He was as surprised as I was that it continued after the initial white heat. It was unlikely. And yet, when I look back on it I see lots of things we shared.”

I knew fairly quickly this was it, this was the love of my life. And if it didn’t work out, it didn’t work out

Classical music was a big connection. “We listened to lots of Schubert – he was writing Bailegangaire and he was mad about Notturno. Then he’d have Gigli blaring, or Caruso, or opera. I absolutely loved all of that.” She didn’t know many her own age with her musical taste. “My friends would go on about The Who, and I’m going The Who? I didn’t know anything about contemporary music, really. I was square.”

Initially “it was complicated. He was just leaving his marriage and it was very soon to be straight into something else. It’s emotional. It took a while for things to calm down.” But then, “I knew fairly quickly this was it, this was the love of my life. And if it didn’t work out, it didn’t work out.

“Tom was very good at expressing his emotions, so I always felt his love. He didn’t bottle that up or anything.”

The 25-year age difference bothered him a lot more than it bothered her. “Eventually that doesn’t matter. It wasn’t an issue really at all. I was always aware I would lose him at a younger age. It makes you appreciate what you have. You seize the day and make the most of what you have. And I count myself very lucky I had it at all. I’ll miss him for a long time, though.”

Revisiting the scripts “has kind of brought him back to me as he was, in a really lovely way. Because there is so much. He is the plays. The plays are him.”

But “it’s very hard. I miss him all the time. When he’d finish something he’d sometimes say ‘this is my last will and testament’, like he was bequeathing the play. I think his greatest hope was they would continue to be done.”

This applies to others’ work too, she observes. “No Irish theatre has marked the passing of Brian Friel. In London the National did Translations, the Donmar did Aristocrats. Something should happen here for Brian as well.”

In latter years, “the hardest thing was the tremor, which prevented him from writing. Physically he was falling asunder by the end, and the heart condition. But he was always mentally himself. He wouldn’t have minded the condition he was in, if he could write. He still had it all in his head.”

The day-to-day domestic things

She feels a responsibility to the work. “And to making sure it’s brought to audiences. I feel like I’m boasting if I talk about him as being incredible, but . . .” The emotion is close to the surface. “I don’t think there’s anyone to touch him actually, as a playwright. When you live with somebody you get caught up in the day-to-day domestic things, and you forget that. Then, I remember sitting through DruidMurphy and going, oh my God, these plays are incredible.”

Brennan’s sublimated passion and pain, punctuated by laughter, comes across as a fragility buoyed by comfort. “It’s funny, sometimes grief brings you to a place, it can give you a deeper experience of life. You feel things more keenly and understand in a way you didn’t before, and perhaps you’re a little more empathetic as well. If there’s any positive way of looking at grief, I think that’s probably it.”

It makes her “appreciate what I had with him and my life with him. That was very rich, in this I was very, very lucky and that’s what’s kind of getting me through. I can’t imagine letting go of him, that’s the only thing.” But “he’s always there. because he is very much there in the plays.

Through his life “he was always a bit persecuted by demons. I think it was part of his nature. There was a bit of a wrestling match within. I think in his later years he was almost content. When he became ill that was another thing to deal with.

I wouldn’t say he was a depressive. I think it was more – moods overtook him and he’d allow himself go into them

“The happiest day of our lives was the day we got married [in 2012]. Neither of us ever particularly felt it important to be married. It was kind of for practical reasons, but we ended up being very surprised at the effect it had on both of us.

“I wouldn’t say he was a depressive. I think it was more – moods overtook him and he’d allow himself go into them. He used them, because he could observe himself in a mood.” His descriptions of the Irish Man in The Gigli Concert crying: “He’d have been listening to himself if he had been going through it. The artist’s third eye, observing himself.

“Because he pulled the work out of the core of his being, people respected that. He had gone to hell and back to write the play and you were going to go to hell and back to perform it! So many actors have done their best work in Tom’s plays, because they stretch you – technically, emotionally, psychologically, intellectually. And actors have to step up to match the work.”

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