55 – Painted Slugs: Pretty Creatures with a Tough Skin

‘It’s not an easy life,’ Aoife Duffin told me, sitting by the fire in the Library bar. ‘It’s … eh, tricky.’


It’s a characteristic understatement from this actress, who had been adamant that she’d nothing interesting to share on Jessie Taite and the life of an Irish actress. I somehow talked her round (there was cake) and she had lots to share. So much, in fact, that we agreed early on to switch off the recorder and talk in hushed tones. There was also more than enough for two blogposts – so watch this space. Aoife hated Dublin when she arrived from Kerry in the late 1990s, with a prized place to studying acting in Trinity. Now she loves it, but she also knows the city well enough to check over her shoulder at regular intervals in case there’s somebody eavesdropping as we discuss O’Casey’s painted slug: Jessie Taite.

Aoife Duffin in serious mode
Aoife Duffin in serious mode

I have to admit this here: Aoife Duffin is my first choice for any future portrayals of Aideen on stage or screen. She has the same fragile, youthful beauty and beneath it, a core of steel, which I’m rapidly realizing is the key feature of all Irish actresses. She looks like a beautiful china doll, but has all the practical common sense of a Kerry woman. She has played school girls, but can also do an uncanny take on her brother — so that you’re convinced all six foot of this Kerry man is sitting right across the table from you. Press her, and she’ll explain the complex negotiations of playing ‘to your type’ while simultaneously getting noticed for parts beyond it. She’ll demonstrate, with fluid hands and fingers, the many, complex factors involved in choosing parts and finding work that will pay the bills, while keeping one eye fixed firmly on the advancement of your career. She’ll also drink tea and chat about wanting to wear nice dresses on stage for a change. Aideen would approve and admire Aoife, I have no doubt. Aideen always had problems keeping her tongue from becoming “unstuck”, as she said herself. She didn’t suffer fools (or anyone else) gladly and it didn’t always work to her advantage. If she’d had Aoife’s diplomacy, or perhaps, it’s simply better manners, things may have worked out differently in the Abbey.

I’m struck by the thought that there are female Chief Executives in this country that know less about strategy, negotiation and survival than Aoife Duffin and other Irish actresses. These women also do it all with charm and smiles and a listening ear. [In fact, Irish actresses should be running the country. Herein ends my political broadcast for today.]

There’s a great slideshow of pictures from the Druid production here, hang on until you see the picture of Jessie and Harry.

At the same time as they’re balancing all these personal, social and career priorities, these performers somehow retain the ability to lose themselves in the romance and drama of the on-stage world. It’s a whirlwind, Aoife says more than once, although the world she describes sounds closer to a tornado at times. She seems more than happy to get caught up in that whirlwind over and over, despite knowing that a harsh crash landing into reality inevitably awaits after the curtain falls.

While we laughed about the notion that some parts carry the ghosts of the women that created them, it’s becoming less and less of a crazy theory. Much like Aideen’s experience, being cast in Druid’s production of The Silver Tassie sent Aoife’s personal life into a tailspin that she had to simply ride out. Having been working steadily with Pan Pan and other avant garde theatre companies, the invite to do O’Casey came as a surprise. And then, just like buses, along came two more offers: one to play another O’Casey character, another to play Ophelia. After some head bashing, she turned down Jessie for Ophelia. Jessie appears in two scenes, there are hours of waiting between acts. But something changed. The part pulled on her heartstrings and she wanted a change. A couple of anguished phone calls followed. Ophelia was off and Aoife was on to her way to Galway. There was more drama to come.

In the summer of 2011, Druid Theatre brought a cast of eighteen actors, along with a musical director and a gang of musicians, to Galway. Aoife described it as a very happy bubble. They lived together, rehearsed together and socialised together. It was like one huge extended family and that brought all the attendant squabbles, love affairs, rows, new friendships and broken hearts. Life off stage started to seep into the production and the twisted romances of the play inflamed passions off stage. Aoife has a clear memory of watching the cast turn on Jessie in the final act (as penned by O’Casey) and having to remind herself that these people actually were her friends.

In the summer of 1935, the Abbey Theatre closed for renovations. Arthur Shields was busy, however, casting eighteen parts and then finding spaces large enough to rehearse the four acts of O’Casey’s new play. For the central female, he needed somebody young and pretty, but capable of holding her ground and strutting her stuff. He cast Aideen O’Connor. Rosie Redmond was straightforward in comparison: a tart with a heart. Jessie Taite is different. She’s just a young girl, a tomboy in fact. But she’s got good work during the war in the ammunitions factory, and has been squirreling away every penny in her savings book to secure her independence.  My favourite quote from O’Casey’s description:

responsive to all the animal impulses of life. Ever dancing around, in and between the world, the flesh and the devil.

When Jessie’s childhood sweetheart Harry comes back from the trenches paralysed, she takes up with his best friend Barney. In O’Casey’s indictment of the violence of the war, the men struggle and are irreparably damaged. All of the women cope better, finding new purpose and meaning in their work during the war. And why shouldn’t they have?

“I’m doing that actor-thing of defending the character, but…” Aoife warns, before she launches into a carefully considered and highly persuasive take on why Jessie throws Harry over for Barney in the final act of the play. Jessie has been earning her own money. There was no commitment to Harry; they weren’t married. She takes her chances and grabs some happiness for herself. She tries to be conciliatory to Harry, but he’s having none of it. What was Jessie’s alternative – become some kind of war widow in her twenties? The painted slug insult is thrown at Jessie in the final act of the play. Aoife and I share a similar love for the phrase!

[In fact, O’Casey uses this slur in another of his plays, as Aoife pointed out to me. Theatre nerds: prize for identifying the play.]

Both Aideen and Aoife spent long hot summer days in the theatre, learning the dance steps of the time and hanging around while the men perfected the lengthy, expressionistic scenes set in the trenches. Garry Hynes’ vision in 2011 had some fundamental differences from Shields’: Along with the pretty dance frock of Act 4, Aoife did get to march around in a soldier’s uniform and they formed part of the chorus for the musical scenes. For both, the music pulled together the disparate acts to give some kind of coherency. After the long (sometimes tortuous) rehearsal process, the Abbey was ready to reopen and show off its new interior, and Druid were ready to take the Town Hall Theatre by storm. During a sultry August, the doors of the theatres were flung open to welcome the crowds.

Curtain up on what happens next, during the week.

As we left the Central Hotel, Aoife showed me the screen of her mobile phone. “My own fault,” she said, confessing to another ‘actor moment’. An infuriating conversation with her agent. She hung up and flung it across the room, smashing the screen to bits. She’s embarrassed, but I walk away towards the Christmas lights of Grafton Street laughing to myself: if Aideen was around in the technology age, I’ve no doubt she’d be going through mobile phones at quite a rate…


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