Covid-19 has forced the curtain to drop on live theatre. Actor KATHY ROSE O’BRIEN keeps the thrill of theatregoing alive in our minds …
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve spontaneously burst into tears in a theatre. Maybe you’ll think that’s a surprisingly low number for an actor, with all those emotions knocking about inside her. The truth is that going to a play can sometimes be a bit like going on a blind date: it takes effort to rev yourself up and there’s a chance you’ll be heading home deflated (you so wanted to love it) after too many hours were lost to polite listening. Then there are the times you take your seat and there’s a frisson. Mere minutes after the curtain has gone up your heart is racing. A silent bond is forged with the stranger beside you, breaths held, as a devastating look is shot your way by the lead actor and the lights snap to black. Afterwards, your energy is boundless. I don’t have enough fingers or hands to tot up those times. But unexpected tears, that bubble up from the core of you, that’s rare.
While training to be an actor in London, I watched a stellar company of Irish performers at The Royal Court Theatre in Conor McPherson’s “Shining City” and sobbed my eyes out in a bathroom stall moments after the standing ovation; a few years later, despite sitting way up in the gods of a West End theatre, the incantations of Mark Rylance as he hammered on a huge drum in “Jerusalem” seemed to penetrate my very corpuscles. In an instant I knew something about this man, about humanity, and myself. I was a wreck. When I stood at the interval of “Asking For It” at The Abbey in 2018, my jelly legs betrayed my attempt to hide the feelings exploding in my chest.
It’s wild to observe emotion pulled out of you like magician’s handkerchiefs (“who put them there?!”) and a privilege to stumble out into the cold night of Abbey Street or Shaftesbury Avenue or Times Square free of the minutiae that had filled your head before you sat in the company of strangers, experiencing a story told by another company of strangers. To be taken over by a person’s story and to somehow also know more about yourself in the process, is surely alchemy.
The idea that theatre can offer “catharsis” originated in 335BC, when philosopher Aristotle defined the word as a “release through drama”. The dictionary attributes it with “providing relief from strong or repressed emotions”. I don’t believe that having a cry is the mark of a good night at the theatre but, circa now, considering we’ve had six months “in this together” without actually, physically, being able to be any place together, relief and release is necessary. Theatre tickets should be given out as prescriptions.
Kathy Rose O’Brien photographed by @MatthieuFilms
I have seen plays in London, New York and Paris – acting and writing that has been so sharp it’s made my eyes water and so fantastical in its stage-trickery that my jaw has dropped. Irish theatre however resonates on a frequency all of its own. There’s a madness in Irish theatre that Irish people are completely open to because that madness is in our DNA. Our greatest playwrights haven’t been afraid of it, instead they trust it to speak to something deep within us, something a little offbeat, a little messy, a little uncool. This island’s actors tell those stories in a way that can unsettle even the most cynical. Theatre shows us our peculiar Irish selves: our swells of sentimentality after a feed of drink, our deep-seated fears, our infuriating blindspots. And in embracing the surreal in a way that other media just can’t get away with, theatre reminds us of something we easily forget as we get on with our lives: it’s all surreal.
I recently caught up with an immensely talented, award-winning actor who has performed at home and internationally. He holds such sway over an auditorium that he only has to raise an eyebrow and it erupts in laughter. He told me of his plan to return to college and start a new career. I was taken aback. The idea didn’t seem pandemic-initiated, more like pandemic-cemented. I felt a sick dread that our country will lose its most unique performers, not simply because they aren’t protected but, fundamentally, because this live, communal expression of Irish humanity isn’t protected.
In the darkness, it is the sparks of magic and madness that make life worth it. Their value is unquantifiable. It’s easy to dismiss the coloured beams of light as whimsy. Then you realise you’re on your feet applauding and for some reason there are tears running down your cheeks.
Main featured image: Ros Kavanagh
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