Straight from the heart
Catherine Walsh is a passionate performer, but for one so certain onstage,she's curiously the opposite off it, writes Peter Crawley
'Is this okay?" Catherine Walsh asks, her slight hand pointing towards the minidisc recorder, which whirs noncommittally. And then, after the previous 20 minutes of polite, hesitant discussion about the job of an actor, a dam suddenly bursts and a torrent of concerns gushes out.
"It's terrible really," she confesses, "because I'm afraid of coming across as pretentious, which is my greatest fear. And then, also, if you talk too much about acting, or tell too much about it, then the magic of it goes . . ." She snatches a breath. "Does that sound pretentious?"
A passionate performer now frequently described as one of the nation's finest actors, you wonder what Walsh has to worry about. Such uncertainty, however, seems to be her most compelling trait both on and off the stage.
We are in the rehearsal space of Druid Theatre, shortly before the Galway company will present director Garry Hynes' latest exploration of John B. Keane. With the director attending to business elsewhere, choreographer David Bolger leads the cast through the final moments of Sharon's Grave. Although the glacially slow, geometrically-informed movements may change several times before opening night, the artists seem to be etching out a stage lyricism to echo the other-worldly reality of Keane's second play.
Is it a new way of working for Walsh? "It is, really," she ventures. "But I know this is going to be okay, because it feels right. Otherwise, as an actor you'll feel like a big clunk of metal. If it feels safe, you know you can trust it. It's interesting too, because my perception of John B. is that he's really very earthy and domestic and understandable, whereas he's very poetic as well and very dark. The forces of good and evil are really at play with this."
In Sharon's Grave Walsh plays Trassie Conlee, a woman nursing a dying father and protecting her defenceless brother from her cousin, Dinzee Conlee, a hostile grotesque. Walsh describes Trassie as the "spine" of the play, struggling against competing forces "but with a backbone - I do have power". Set on the southwest coast of Ireland in the 1930s, the play is rooted in reality while reaching far above it, propelled by sexuality and violence, naturalism and myth.
It doesn't benefit Walsh to consider the tone of the production, however. "I'm a cog in the machine," she explains, "so I'm just doing what my job is. It doesn't serve me to look outside the play or else I'll play the mood of it, which would be the wrong thing. I've got to be real in it all the time."
A few days later when this is relayed to Garry Hynes by telephone, the director approves. "That's an extraordinarily intelligent perception, I think, because that's absolutely true. When you act, you don't analyse."
This is the first time Walsh has worked for Hynes. "She is great," says Walsh of her director. "She's tough. She wants the best as well, but that's exciting. It's nice to work with people who are really passionate about what they do."
Renowned for her intensity and artistic rigour, Hynes approaches casting with similar criteria, seeking not only talent but also "an ability to respond and connect and to go further - to take risks. Acting is a personal thing," she says, "you're using yourself."
To listen to Walsh, her approach to acting seems more about self-effacement: losing herself, rather than using herself, to assume her characters. Colleagues variously describe her as private and modest. She doesn't read her reviews. When taxi drivers ask her what she does, she wants to tell them nursing - "so you don't constantly have to justify yourself", she explains.
In Keane's play of familial uncertainty and provincial distrust, the most frequent stage direction issued by the author is "doubtfully". Is it a quality that chimes with Walsh's persona? "No, not at all," responds her director. "Doubtful is not the word I would use. Another word that might be more appropriate is vulnerable. Vulnerability is a quality that you need in order to act. To be sensitive to yourself and your own feelings and to other people: both the actors and the characters. But I think there is an extraordinary confidence in her acting and in her work in the rehearsal room."
The rehearsal room seems a constant source of assurance for Walsh. Frequently she throws her glance over its stage and appears to draw energy from the space. "I go around here in awe sometimes," she says, "because it's Druid."
Although she speaks unfettered from the perspective of her character, she readily admits to being at her most uncomfortable when talking about Catherine Walsh.
Born and raised in Cork city, Walsh attended South Presentation Convent, an all-girl school, where her interest in drama necessarily involved self-erosion. Ger Canning, teacher and sports commentator for RTÉ, staged British farces for the school in which the best parts were invariably male. "It was fabulous," Walsh recalls of her cross-cast début. Spurred on by a fascination with television dramas, Walsh auditioned for the National Youth Theatre, later performing in Arthur Miller's The Crucible under Ben Barnes' direction. Barnes suggested that she pursue Trinity College Dublin's then Diploma in Acting studies, something Walsh had already been encouraged to consider by another theatre luminary.
"I wrote to Judi Dench in 1986 and she wrote back," says Walsh. "I saw her on the telly and I knew she was a fabulous theatre actor. I asked her, how do you become an actor? She wrote back this lovely letter."
Performing in London with the Abbey Theatre's production of Eden last year, Walsh finally got to see the great Dame on the stage. "And I knew she'd be brilliant," Walsh glows with the memory. Did you hang around to congratulate her? "Oh God no," she says, horrified at the notion. "I'd go mute."
Speaking about her training, Walsh discusses it in the same terms she uses to describe her rehearsal room. "I found it a great place to just be with other people who had the same passion for something as I did. That, to me, was amazing - people who just thought that this was the most important thing ever. It's two years where you have room to fail without being judged. That's what's tough about people who are starting out. They're possibly failing and getting bad reviews or having a tough time for it, whereas there you have two years to fail and it isn't perceived as the end of the world.
"I love the way that Garry works. She's not afraid to come across a problem and tackle it. That's a little bit like having that room in Trinity - you get into the problem and find your way out of it."
Although she had been quietly eking out a stage career for years before, it was Eugene O'Brien's 2001 play Eden that really caused audiences to sit up and take notice of Walsh's emotive prowess. The apotheosis of Irish monologue plays, Eden was a soar-away success, moving upstairs from the Peacock to the Abbey's main stage and later transferring to London's West End. Walsh's heart-breaking portrayal of Breda won her The Irish Times/ESB Best Actress award for 2002.
She still seems awed by its success. "It's definitely been something extraordinary that happened in my life. We've put it on so many times and I get the most amazing feedback." Letters and gifts streamed into the theatre for both her and her co-performer, Don Wycherley. Her eyes widen at memories of strangers stopping her on the street to talk about it.
"When you think about the monologue, you think of being alone," she reasons, "but it never felt like that. I felt very supported by the audience. You really engage with the audience, more so than with regular plays. Between you, you create this other magic somewhere else."
For Sharon's Grave though, Walsh divines the magic from its austere stage. "When you step out you feel really powerful, because there's nothing else taking away from you. The focus is going to be on you," sheclaps her hands purposefully.
It appears strange that Walsh should find such focus both desirable and repellent, shirking attention in private while her profession necessarily commands it.
"The focus in a play is so rich and you are serving something," she explains. "You are telling a story. You are part of a colourful world. Focus any other way doesn't make any sense. It doesn't seem like a positive thing."
You mean focus on Catherine Walsh? "Yes," she gasps with the happy relief of a breakthrough. "That's not a positive thing. But to focus on anything to do with the characters or the play or working with a group of people - that's great."
Brought into proper focus, Walsh's vulnerability dissipates and she concludes with conviction. "What I always wanted was to work with good directors on good plays," she says. "That's not that easy a thing to do. But that is what I love. I can't tell you what it means to me to be down here in Druid. I'm very confident in here."
Druid Theatre's Sharon's Grave opens in Galway on Tuesday. It will be at the Gaiety for the Dublin Theatre Festival from September 29th