Mary Wakefield meets Niamh Cusack and finds an actress full of contradictions
It’s oddly exciting, upstairs at the Old Vic: there are actresses rushing to rehearsal; the burble of PR ladies schmoozing the press; the sense of a curtain about to rise. A bright new play. I smile, look around hopefully for my interviewee-to-be, the actress Niamh Cusack, but instead a handsome bearded chap appears in front of me. ‘Oh, hi there, I’m Finbar Lynch [Niamh’s husband and co-star in Dancing at Lughnasa]. I’ll come back and take proper care of you in a second.’ What’s he talking about? Take care of me, how? I have no idea. I later find out that he thought I was an understudy, but though confused I feel also warm and included — a co-dancer at Lughnasa.
A few minutes later, Niamh appears — slight, blonde, friendly — and we sit on school-style wooden chairs as she gently dismantles my preconceptions. She’s daughter number three in the great clan of acting Cusacks: there’s father Cyril; three actress sisters, Sorcha, Sinead (the one married to Jeremy Irons) and Catherine; plus two brothers (Paul and Pádraig). I’d imagined a childhood full of family productions, Cyril directing, the girls competing for parts.
But: ‘It wasn’t quite like that,’ says Niamh. ‘We were like two families actually, because the older three are ten, 11 and 12 years older than me. My mother lived with us but she had a very bad heart so she was in bed quite a lot of the time. Pádraig and myself were alone together and dependent on each other.’
Wasn’t Cyril around? ‘By the time I was really compos mentis he had left home,’ says Niamh. Oh, I say. But was he a decent father? ‘He was very, very forceful!’ says Niamh, smiling. But though Cyril seems to have behaved in an undeniably rattish way, abandoning Niamh’s bed-bound mother, Maureen, and starting another family (with Mary Cunningham, whom he eventually married), Niamh won’t be drawn into bitching. All she’ll say is, ‘Well, he wasn’t a daddy-daddy at all, he was much more like a granddad. And he was an eccentric. He would pick us up from our music lessons on a Friday in a horse and carriage which he’d have rented. I remember being at school when I was about seven and the teacher looking out of the window and saying, “There’s a tramp outside so don’t talk to him.” I knew it was Cyril. He was just one of those people.’
I look concerned, but Niamh hurries to reassure me. ‘Oh, but we had a lovely time, Pádraig and myself. We lived beside the sea and it was that time when little children were allowed to walk around on their own. The kids would all be given packed lunches and we’d go down to the seaside, down to White Rock which was a good mile away. It was quite safe because there would be loads of adults who would know who you were.’
Did your Irish childhood help you with the role of Maggie? ‘No, not really!’ Another preconception bites the dust. Niamh explains: ‘The sisters in the play live on a farm, they’re country folk. We weren’t. But there is one person who’s been very helpful and that’s Kitty, whom I call my god- mother. Kitty came to live with us after Pádraig was born because Mother was very, very ill indeed…’ Niamh looks away. ‘Anyway, Kitty is my real link with this world that Brian [Friel, the playwright] has described because she comes from a farming family, she lives on the land. Kitty used to take us down to her house and it was just like the play! There was one sister who always stayed at home; there was bread baked every day, milking to be done and the hens fed. And also just people sitting at a table letting nothing happen. That’s the world Brian has written about. There’s a beautiful musical motif running through the play, music from the Thirties. I asked Kitty about one of the songs, “The Isle of Capri”‚ and she immediately started to sing it!’
Is Kitty coming to see Dancing at Lughnasa? ‘I hope so, oh, I do hope so,’ says Niamh. ‘But she’s 82 now so it’s a matter of getting her on the plane. At the moment she is saying, “Weeell…it’s a bit of a journey.”’
Next, there’s a mystery to unravel. Niamh clearly loves acting, she’s been constantly on stage or on TV (remember Heatbeat, Fallen Angel?), so why did she start so late? Why did she first train as a flautist? Did Sinead and Sorcha steal the limelight?
‘Well, it sounds odd to say it, but the family didn’t really approve of acting,’ says Niamh. ‘My parents idealised other professions. If any of us had gone into law that would have been really exotic, whereas to choose to do acting was the most ordinary thing to do. Because Padraig and myself both shared a talent for music that was very much encouraged.’
Did you feel that you couldn’t become an actress while your mother was alive? Suddenly, Niamh’s eyes fill up. ‘Yes, you’re right! You’re absolutely right. I don’t think I would have done it at all, to be honest with you, if my mum had been alive. I wouldn’t have been able to disappoint her.’ And from this moment, until we part company, she looks so sad, so unguarded, that I have to struggle not to give her a hug. I hurry on.
And how did your famous sisters react to you joining their profession. ‘They were all gobsmacked, they couldn’t believe it. It was like the worm had turned. They were worried that I was not temperamentally suited.’ What about your father? ‘My father said nobody would hear me past the first couple of rows.’ That’s nice, Cyril. But Niamh springs to his defence: ‘No, he was great. It was actually when I started acting that I really got a link with him. I would ask his advice because as an actor he was so great and was actually very good about sharing stuff. That was him at his best, always as an actor, I thought. Though he could be competitive.’ Did you ever act with him? ‘Yes, we did Three Sisters by Chekhov. I played Irina, Sorcha and Sinead were the other sisters and Cyril played Chebutykin. There were times when it was very tricky because Cyril wanted to be top dog. He and I had one really big set-to which culminated in me leaving him on stage because he tried to make me do something I didn’t want to do. We didn’t speak for about a month and then we exchanged letters and we both apologised.’
Niamh Cusack’s a funny mixture, it seems to me, during this brief encounter: a little shy (though sister Sinead has said that acting is a shy person’s revenge on the world) but also determined, fiery and entirely without the usual thespian malice. As I’m saying goodbye I remember that I’ve entirely forgotten to ask about her celebrity co-star, the pop singer Andrea Corr, who plays the youngest sister (Chris) in Dancing at Lughnasa. It must be at least a tiny bit galling to share the stage with someone who’s never trained as an actress? ‘Andrea’s lovely, perfect for the part. She’s a beautiful girl.’ But can she act? ‘She’s doing really well. She’s very well cast,’ says Niamh. Then turns to smile at Finbar Lynch who has appeared again and is waiting by the door.
Dancing at Lughnasa is at the Old Vic until 9 May; tickets: 0870 060 6628