Irish actress Sinead Cusack started her career at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and then moved to England where she worked in a number of West End productions. A veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, Cusack was Tony nominated for her work in Cyrano de Bergerac with Derek Jacobi in 1984. But her numerous stage, television and film credits have been topped recently with her success on both sides of the Atlantic in Sebastian Barry's Our Lady of Sligo. Cusack plays Mai, a complex woman who looks back on her life and reveals her tragic story in a compelling Irish Repertory production. Cusack -- who is married to actor Jeremy Irons and lives in England and Ireland with their sons, Max and Samuel -- spoke with Playbill On-Line on the same day that she learned of her Drama Desk Award nomination as Best Actress in a Play. This nomination follows several other nominations and awards in London for her role in Our Lady of Sligo, including an Olivier nomination for Best Actress, as well as best actress awards from the Evening Standard, the Critics Drama Award and the Theatre Managers Award.
Playbill On-Line: How did Our Lady of Sligo begin and how did the show come to New York?
Sinead Cusack: I was originally approached by [playwright] Sebastian Barry and [director] Stafford Clark to do the original Out of Joint production in London. Then we played at the National Theatre where we had a continuous run that included five weeks of touring and seven months in repertory with two other plays. Early on, there was talk about bringing it to New York, but for whatever reason it didn't come about then. It was enormously cheering that Irish Rep persevered so long to make the dates work for everyone.
PBOL: You've just received a Drama Desk nomination for your performance at the Irish Rep. Are you surprised at how well the play is being received?
SC: As to how Mai would be received in New York, I simply could not have imagined how it would be. I just didn't know whether she would be liked or whether she would be derided. There have been so many plays about drinking and tragedy and the loss and damage of the Irish, and you have to wonder if audiences have had enough of that. But, the reverse has held true and I'm glad that she has been well received.
PBOL: You must feel particularly close to the character, Mai?
SC: I love her. For people to understand her is great: She was Sebastian's grandmother and this is her little place in history, her validation. It's great for me to know that whatever I've done as far as being an interpreter has helped her pain and damage to be understood. That's fantastic.
PBOL: What drew you to Our Lady of Sligo?
SC: It's a huge role and it's the greatest challenge ever in my career. She's deeply complex and multifaceted. Mai is sad and light, ferocious and vicious. And she's feisty and funny and then, ultimately, tragic. But she's wonderful to play because she's so multi-layered and her character exists against a background of Irish history that both damaged and undermined her. PBOL: It seems so many Irish plays deal with difficult themes.
SC: Well, this is the history of a husband and wife and a relationship that's poisoned by alcohol. They were almost gilded when they were married...they were intelligent and educated. And the play is about the destruction of that relationship through drink. I think most of us know someone who has been damaged that way. It comes into our lives, one way or the other.
PBOL: It certainly makes for compelling theatre.
SC: You know, I believe that a great play tends to be about the subject of damage and darkness, and to my mind the great playwright is able to imbue that darkness with other colors -- of humor, heroism and courage. That's why I love this play and playing this woman.
PBOL: You described the role as challenging, but how so?
SC: It's a tough one. I think I've started every evening thinking, "I'm never gonna get through this," because it's a physical and emotional climb up that particular mountain and you can't help but thinking "it's so high, and it's so tough." But then, once I'm into it, the play gives me a sort of grace, and I hardly know it's going by. At the end, I'm always a little high and euphoric, like I've gotten to the clear air.
PBOL: Are there ever moments when you find that you are influenced by the character's despair?
SC: Even though she's a horror in certain regards, I'm able to get to the story and the character as they reveal themselves, layer by layer. As you peel that onion, so to speak, you discover where it all began and you see all those wonderful colors that are part of Mai's character. And you also see the tragedy, how she was damaged beyond repair. She was someone with shining potential who was tragically destroyed.
PBOL: Have you and original London co-star Andrea Irvine made any big adjustments to accommodate the New York production at Irish Rep?
SC: Andrea and I are very glad to be here. I think everyone at Irish Rep has professionalism and talent that is abundantly obvious. It's a new dynamic and that's always very exciting. It's inevitable that you learn new aspects of your own character through their perfections and there are things that these new actors bring to their roles and that you bring to your role, so it's very good, very healthy and energizing.
PBOL: Are there any people you haven't worked with that you might like to if you could?
SC: Oh my, that's almost impossible to answer. Well, Mike Nichols and Trevor Nunn as directors and as for actors, oh, I love any good actor. I want to work with Kevin Spacey, who is an old pal of mine. It's an impossible question though, because it's all contingent on what the play is. Every play demands different talent. If I was doing Anthony and Cleopatra I'd be looking for a great Anthony. But, if I was doing Snow White, I'd be looking for six other dwarfs -- and the right director for both.
PBOL: Was there ever anything on your resume that you did early on that you quickly removed once you had a few other things under your belt?
SC: Well, my Juliet was pretty... Let's just say that in Romeo and Juliet I sort of explored the very depths of where an actor can sink to. I might have dropped that one very early on. It was my first Shakespeare and I was about as uncrafted as an actor can be. I believed in those days that one had to be reverent about Shakespeare and it was a terrible mistake. I had this reverent tone and that's why I was so bad.
PBOL: In other words, forget reverence when approaching Shakespeare?
SC: The whole trick is to be irreverent. To scratch your head and laugh and generally throw his text in the air. Now, every single word and comma has to be observed, but not with a reverential tone. You can do that even with his great tragedies. You can do anything you like with him and it's wonderful because with any interpretation that you can imagine, he'll give you what you need in the play.
PBOL: You're here in New York until the first week in June—what's next?
SC: I've never been able to think that far ahead. There are a couple of projects being discussed for London theatre, and a film project in the making, but I really haven't decided yet. Until now, I just really wanted to see this one safely on her way. And now, I can start to think clearly.
-- By Murdoch McBride