56 – Appreciating The Costumed Sluts

“D’ye hear me, you costumed slut?” Michael demands of his wife Lorna in Cock A Doodle Dandy. Aoife Duffin took part in a reading of the O’Casey play in the Abbey some years ago. She repeats the phrase with relish during our conversation, “You costumed slut!”

Shelah Richards was meant to be Jessie Taite, in O’Casey’s original plans for the Abbey production of The Silver Tassie. Or, rather “Sara Taite”, as she was known in his early drafts. Shelah was also meant to play Rosie Redmond, but everyone knows what happened there. For Aideen and for Aoife Duffin, being cast was a combination of timing and luck and good legs.

When the Silver Tassie opened in 1935, HOUSE FULL signs hung outside the theatre from early in the day. A long list of notables were invited to the opening night. The black and gold hallway, where portraits of the theatre’s stars had hung in semi-darkness, had been replaced by a bright, spacious lobby designed by Michael Scott. In the auditorium, there were new cushioned seats and the orchestra, under the direction of Dr Larchet, was warming up to play. As permission had finally been granted, many of the audience would take advantage of the novelty of smoking throughout the performance.

After her first scene, Aideen had plenty of time to sit in the Green Room with Arthur Shields, debating the reactions of the audience and the mental machinations of the critics. [I’ve decided the Director did not watch the performance from the stalls. I have acquired a dramatic license.] She returned to the stage for the final act, and was there when the curtain came down. It was quickly known that the production was an absolute failure; it would be declared an “epileptic fit of cleverness” and be closed by the end of the week.

Aoife Duffin & Druid had more success. After the initial performances in Galway (with no critics allowed) the production moved to Oxford and Manchester, where it opened to huge acclaim. None the less, when the production arrived in the Siamsa Tíre in Tralee, where some of her family would see her perform for the first time, she played it down to those eager to see her perform. ‘You know family,’ she laughed. They’ve no interest in the play, she explained – they only want to see you on the stage. Aoife played down her role, reminding them she was only in a few scenes. Her brother came none the less; the first time he has ever seen her on stage.

Once the national tour was over, the production transferred to New York. Despite the pull of the Big Apple, Aoife opted out. The ‘whirlwind’ had exhausted her, maybe, but she had also been offered a part in Rough Magic’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Apart from their youth, there is little in common between Wilde’s Gwendolen and Jessie Taite. The offer to play Gwendolen proved she was being noticed beyond her type and also gave her a chance to work with another of Ireland’s foremost female directors, Lynne Parker. So, Aoife handed Jessie over to Charlie Murphy and went back to Dublin.

Aoife Duffin in Rough Magic's Importance of Being Earnest
Aoife Duffin in Rough Magic’s Importance of Being Earnest

Aideen is good at settling down anywhere, Arthur announced to a friend once and Aoife operates much the same way. Her childhood was peripatetic and now she operates on a ‘three months’ system. Knowing where she’ll be or what she’ll do beyond that, is impossible and would probably bore her to death. “It suits my personality,” she told me. She’s been enjoying radio work (recording The Snapper for BBC) and great film roles, like What Richard Did. It’s hard to imagine her ever giving up the stage, yet much of what’s going on at the moment leaves her unenthused.

She points out just how much of Ireland’s miserable history is currently being played out on Ireland’s stages, like one hideous purging of all the evil in our past. “It’s all being channelled through us,” Aoife said, using her hands to demonstrate the actual physical flow of energy being forced through the bodies of Irish actresses. “And there’s only so much you can take!”

I didn’t prompt Aoife to say this, honest. It came up in conversation naturally, but it is heartening that my earlier musings on the future of Ireland’s comely maidens are not too far from the thoughts of someone working at the coalface.

Sometimes, Aoife pointed out, an actress wants to take a role simply so that she can be on stage in a pretty dress. There’s more than just an interest in fashion in this observation. As one academic (also an Aoife) has eloquently pointed out: “costume can reconfigure what the actor is made of … it can redraw the boundaries of the self.” Or as a seven-year-old friend of mine said to me this weekend: “I have my clothes for school but at the weekend, I like to wear my fashion.” This seven-year-old expresses herself, or her potential, or both, in the outfits she carefully puts together on a Saturday morning. She likes to be pretty, or edgy, or eccentric, and for the world to accept the self she presents. Today’s actresses want to explore the many facets of Irish womanhood, but many of the parts being offered are locked in the drab garments of the past. (This is being written by somebody in their nightdress, whatever that says about me.)

Aoife Duffin is moving to London in January. I don’t know whether to beg her to stay, or to beg others to start writing parts where she can be smart, and emotional and funny and wear pretty dresses at the same time … Ireland’s “costumed sluts” are needed here – How can we persuade more of them to stay?

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