By Joseph Hurley
Sinéad Cusack is finely made, slight of frame and quick of movement. The last time she appeared on a New York stage, in the 1984-1985 season, she was Beatrice, the clever, ironic, caustic heroine at the center of "Much Ado About Nothing," in a Royal Shakespeare Company production which was booked into the Gershwin Theater.
Now the celebrated Irish actress, the eldest daughter of the late Cyril Cusack, is back in town, scoring a personal triumph night after night at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Sebastian Barry’s rich, complicated, and frequently painful drama, "Our Lady of Sligo."
The intimacy of the Irish Rep’s home on West 22nd Street could be said to be presenting Cusack with problems diametrically opposed to those she faced playing Beatrice at the cavernous Gershwin.
On one hand, the actors are so close to the audience that presenting them with the kind of personal and intimate material in Barry’s candid play requires a measure of recalibration. On the other, there is the matter of the Rep’s bifurcated spectator areas, with 30 individuals seated at a right angle to the rest of the audience in a space known as the jury box.
"One of the first things I did when I got here," Cusack said recently, casting a glance at the space before her, "was to go on the stage and work with some of the longer speeches, because I needed to assess how much I would have to give and how complicated it would be, and how distracting it would be for me to give the jury box attention."
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Weighing the odds, the actress didn’t consider the challenge a major problem.
"The nature of this piece is that a lot of my stuff is actual direct address to the audience," she said. "They could be perceived as a sort of court, or jury, or whatever, but judges of my behavior. That’s what we ask them to do in the play. That’s what Sebastian asks them to do, in a manner of speaking."
The role of Mai O’Hara, based closely on the playwright’s maternal grandmother, contains long, convoluted monologues that many actresses might find terrifying. But not Cusack.
"All her address is to the audience, except when she’s involved in scenes from her past, and in the present of the hospital, and those are scenes with other actors," Cusack said. "The main bulk of the character is her address to the audience, so, in fact, I can use the people sitting to my right as well as I can use the audience sitting right out front."
When Cusack and the RSC cast arrived in New York in the fall of 1984, before the opening of "Much Ado About Nothing," the vast size of the Gershwin immediately became an issue. "The management said to the director, Terry Hands," she recalled, " ‘Mr. Hands, your actors will have to be miked,’ and he said, ‘Across my dead body.’ They said, ‘But it’s a two-and-a-half thousand seater. They simply won’t be able to reach it.’ Terry said, ‘Well, if they can’t reach it, they’re not my actors. They’re not my company.’ "
So "Much Ado" played unmiked. "And there wasn’t a single inaudibility complaint," Cusack added, with a light, musical laugh. "I hate the miking of actors. It’s an added distance, an added dimension between the play and the audience, and I don’t like it if it can possibly be avoided."
Miking, to put it mildly, isn’t a consideration at the Irish Rep.
Cusack can recall in detail the first time she came upon the name of the playwright, Sebastian Barry.
"I saw a play in the Peacock by a playwright I’d never heard of," she said, referring to the small, subterranean theater underneath the Abbey’s main stage. "It was called ‘Prayers of Sherkin,’ and it must have been 10 or 12 years ago. At the interval, I came out, and I was euphoric. I was badgering everybody in the bar, and I went over to a woman called Joan O’Hara, an Abbey Theatre actress and an old friend of mine. I said ‘Isn’t this the most magnificent new voice?’"
Actress O’Hara said, "Oh, you must tell him." Cusack asked, "Who?" and O’Hara answered, "The playwright. He’s my son."
"The play was flawed," Cusack recalled, "but I heard a voice I’d never heard before on the stage."
The year, as it happens, was 1990, and "Prayers of Sherkin," the title of which refers to a small island off the coast of West Cork, was nominated for a Bank of Ireland/Arts Show Award.
Cusack heard Barry’s voice with accuracy but never dreamed that voice would one day invade and illuminate her own career.
"He wrote this play and he offered it to me immediately," she said of "Our Lady of Sligo." "I was horribly intimidated by it, by the size and scope of it and of the character. I thought it was probably an impossible task to impose on an actor, and that it might not be possible to do it at all. But we worked on it."
At one point, the actress complained about the play, how difficult it was, to say nothing of the sheer volume of words assigned to the central character.
"He said to me, ‘My play will give you grace, Sinéad,’" she recalled. "And I think it has, because I love playing it. She’s a wonder. She’s an extraordinary woman, monstrous, damaging, and, at base, she’s feisty and tough and blisteringly intelligent. And funny, and tragic and damaged and hurt. It’s just a wonderful part. It’s the sort of part that every actress dreams of playing."
That’s no idle comment, coming as it does from an actress who, in her years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, played the great female roles ranging from Lady Macbeth and Portia to Isabella in "Measure For Measure," Lady Ann in "Richard III," and Celia in "As You Like It," to mention only a few of her RSC appearances in London and Stratford.
Most of the great London and Dublin productions eventually reach New York, but one that, regrettably, didn’t was a staging of Chekhov’s "The Three Sisters," in which the late Cyril Cusack was the elderly country doctor, Tchebutkyn, and his actress daughters, Sinéad, Sorcha and Niamh, played respectively, Masha, Olga an Irina, with settings provided by the Cork-born Bob Crowley, now among the most celebrated scenic designers in the world.
Cusack, who is the wife of actor Jeremy Irons and the mother of two sons, Max and Samuel, has thus far spent the bulk of her career in England, although she was educated and trained in Dublin.
"I never left Ireland until I was 21," she recalled. "I went to University College Dublin, where I read English, and then I joined the Abbey Theatre company for a couple of years until I was thrown out of there. Stephen Rea and I were thrown out at the same time. I was thrown out for not being audible past the first three rows of the stalls. I’ve devoted my entire life to righting that wrong, which is why I’m so proud of the Gershwin experience, because I longed to raise Earnest Blythe, the Abbey’s general manager at the time, from his grave, and say, ‘Now, look at that!’"
The Abbey’s loss was definitely London’s gain. "That’s when I crossed the water," she said, "and started working in England."
At a graceful, luminous 52, Sinéad Cusack is one year younger than Mai O’Hara, the complex character she plays in "Our Lady of Sligo," is in the drama’s present tense. After more than three decades as an actress, Cusack knows her audiences well, an awareness that proves useful in performing Barry’s demanding play.
The actress remembers those first audiences in Oxford, where she first performed the role in March of 1998.
"The audiences in Oxford were the toughest we ever had," she said, "because, being drawn almost exclusively from academia, they were extremely tough and judgmental. And we were still working on the play, of course, cutting, adding and restaging as we went."
Even now, after London, after Dublin, after the rest of the cities where "Our Lady of Sligo" has played, and after the awards Cusack has won for playing Mai, the audiences are still instructing the actress.
"The relationship between an audience and an actor is difficult to describe," she said, "but the minute you walk on stage, within the space of maybe two to five minutes, you know the quality of the audience you’re playing to. Playing Mai, if I sense that they’re interested or held by the stories I’m telling them, then it makes me tell them better, with sharper focus. You get better if you’ve got a good audience."
By now, Cusack is learning once again just how good New York audiences can be, if given a play and a performance as fine as "Our Lady of Sligo."