Actress for all seasons


Pauline Flanagan, age 77 and playing Mommo in Tom Murphy's Bailegangáire,  is the greatest living argument against ageism, writes Patsy McGarry

It is doubtful whether Humpty Dunphy would have approved, but there he was, one of Ireland's leading playwrights, sitting up in bed on set the other day, wearing a green, white and gold leprechaun hat. Truly, the World Cup has gone, quite literally, to Tom Murphy's head. He is directing a revived Bailegangáire, which he wrote, and which arrived back at Dublin's Peacock Theatre trailing glory, following a hugely successful run during the Murphy Season at the Abbey Theatre last autumn, winning the Judges' Special Award at The Irish Times/ESB Irish Theatre Awards for 2001. It was at rehearsals this week that he ended up propped up in the bed which is Bailegangáire's central prop.

The play is a powerful piece of work and one of Murphy's finest. Set in the rural west of Ireland, it explores the lives of two sisters and their grandmother, the senile Mommo. This is a huge part; the actress playing Mommo is on stage throughout the production.

It was Siobhán McKenna's last great role - she starred in the first production of the play by Druid. In this production, Jane Brennan and Olwen Fouéré play the sisters, with the extraordinary Pauline Flanagan as Mommo. Flanagan may be the greatest living argument against ageism. At 77, she performed the part with great aplomb in Dublin last autumn and is doing so again for the next six weeks. A remarkable feat at any age.

"It is the most demanding role I have ever done. I feel I'm about to climb Mount Everest at the beginning of each night's performance. You are out there on a limb and have to engage the audience and it's up to me to make them listen. The writing is so particular and so brilliant. I have to get every word he wrote, and the words behind the words, and the life behind the words.

"Last autumn, there was too much of me translating me into Mommo. I have decided to distance myself from the storyteller who is Mommo, and only become subjective when I [as Mommo\] refer to myself. She never formulates the story until the end of the play. It is too powerful. She cannot talk about it. She diverts from it by saying 'what time is it?' The importance of that night in Bochtán is something she can't yet face."

Flanagan delved into her west of Ireland background to help her to imagine the character of Mommo. She remembered Emma Fay, a woman who lived across the street from her in Sligo, and how the laughter would ricochet off the walls when she came into the house. And she has discovered that in the scene where Mommo wakes up laughing, as the two girls are laughing, that the laughter of the girls had entered her subconscious and "what you have got there is her laughing at this terrible life she has had".

Her own life has very full and happy. She comes of doughty west of Ireland, old republican stock. Her father, P.J., was mayor of Sligo in 1939. Her mother, Elizabeth, was the first woman Mayor of Sligo in 1945. Her uncle Tom was mayor of Sligo in 1905. You could say it was a political household. Fianna Fáil? "O my God, were they ever!"

The family was originally from Fermanagh, but had been driven out during pogroms against Catholics there. During the War of Independence her father spent a lot of time on the run or in jail, while her mother ran the family retail business.

She knew the actress Joan O'Hara when both attended the Ursuline convent school in Sligo, and it was there she and her friend, Aileen Harte, began to have notions about acting as a career. Not quite the done thing, especially where her grandmother was concerned. Granny McLynn was a formidable businesswoman in the town who would warn about actors: "Don't have anything to do with them trick-of-the-loop people!"

It was at Feis Sligigh that Flanagan and Harte took their hopes in their hands and asked Gabriel Fallon what must they do to become actors. He advised them to put an ad in the paper - the done thing in those days. He helped them to draw it up: "Two young ladies, with exceptional amateur dramatic experience, wish to join exclusive repertory company for summer season".

They placed it in the Irish Press. They got a lot of replies. One was from a company then performing in Ballindine, Co Mayo. Not too far away. They went to see the company's performance. It was "unbelievably bad", and took place under a corrugated roof with the rain thundering down overhead. "We didn't hear anything." They left.

Then Garryowen Players offered them jobs for the summer of 1949 in Bundoran, at £4 a week each. They were performing at Blacklion in Cavan at the time and Aileen went ahead. A few days later, Pauline followed to find her friend - referred to for years afterwards as "the Voice" because of her deep tones - already in "daahling" mode, sporting a cigarette holder and wearing slacks. Very risqué. Both were cast in the Players' production of Peg O' My Heart, in which she was Mrs Chichester, her first professional role.

Her happiest memories after that seem to be of the three years with the Anew McMaster company - "the best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited".

"We did everything," she recalls. And by "everything" she means everything. Among her many jobs was looking after the costumes; which meant ironing almost everyday, especially when they were doing big Shakespearean works.

She also played everything - "Portia, Lady Macbeth, Rosalind, Gertrude to McMaster's Hamlet". McMaster played all the lead male roles. There was Wilde of course, and some "cross-channel smut plays" to pay the piper and keep the groundlings coming. And plays such as Ten Little Niggers, now translated as Ten Little Indians. There was Greek tragedy - "I was Jocasta to his Oedipus"- and "Mrs Mac was brilliant at teaching us how to hold ourselves, how to flick a train [from a dress\]".

There were about 10 or 11 in the company at any one time and they would spend a week at each venue. Mondays were spent looking for places to stay, wherever they were. "It was wonderful. We had a ball." They worked hard. Nine performances in Navan one week. And no one knew what play they were performing at a venue until they saw the playbill. Sometimes they didn't know "until that night".

Harold Pinter was with the company for about two years at that time, and later wrote about his experiences travelling the roads of Ireland with Anew McMaster. Then one of her sisters came home from the US for a visit and she decided to return with her to New York, intending to stay "two or three months".

While there, she was offered a job as an understudy in a production of Graham Greene's The Living Room at $125 a week. "Grab it," was the advice. She did, and ended up spending decades as an actor in the US.

One night when Flanagan was playing Juno in Juno and the Paycock at the Arena in Washington, a young man named George Vogel, who had done a thesis on O'Casey, was in the audience. They married in 1958 and have been together since. He, too, is an actor. Their home is in New Jersey, and they have two adult daughters and a grandchild.

Flanagan began acting in Ireland again about 10 years ago. Recent appearances at the Abbey and Peacock theatres include playing Rima in Dolly West's Kitchen by Frank McGuinness, a portrayal which won her the Samuel Beckett Award and the Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actress following its run at the Old Vic Theatre, London; then there was Marina Carr's By The Bog of Cats, for which she was nominated for an Irish Times/ESB Best Supporting Actress Award, Carr's Portia Coughlan; and Tarry Flynn, which also had a highly successful run in London. Other recent theatre work includes The Desert Lullaby at the Lyric in Belfast, for which she received the TMA Barclay Award; the Gate Theatre's production of Beckett's Endgame at the Gate, at the MelbourneFestival and at the Barbican Centre, London; and A Life by Hugh Leonard at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York. She received the Outer Circle Award for her performance in Granchild of Kings with the Irish Repertory Theatre there, too. And there's more. So much more. And time passed. So it was probably no wonder Tom Murphy took to the bed in a leprechaun hat.

Bailegangáire is at the Peacock Theatre until July 25th. Tel: 01-8787222