70 – Bosom Buddies: Irish Actresses and Shakespeare’s Kings

There’s a moment in Druid Theatre’s cross-gender production of Henry V, in the shadows of the English camp at Agincourt, when the cloaked Henry V says to Erpingham, ‘I and my bosom must debate awhile.’ Despite Henry’s soft tone, the line is like a gunshot in the dark. There’s a glint in Aisling O’Sullivan’s eye and a twist in her lips that suggests she hears the line exactly as we do: in this instance Henry V really can spend time with his bosom, because she has one. It’s not a comic moment, but a powerful, telling line. O’Sullivan relishes it. In much the same way, the costume choices for Henry IV openly declare the king’s femininity and her confidence with it. Crotty is truly majestic: as a King and as a woman simultaneously. Director Garry Hynes is not gender-blind, even if this is what the production purports to be. It’s much more knowing and astute than that. It’s not playful, for this is not something to ‘play’ with. It is, in Hal’s own use of the word, wicked. These are wicked Irish actresses, playing kings, as well as playing men in the ensemble. Wicked actresses — defying gravity and theatre history.

Matthew Thompson Photo from Druid.ie http://druid.ie/druidshakespeare/about#fndtn-photos
Photo by Matthew Thompson from Druid.ie

I often go to the theatre with Aideen O’Connor on one side and Ria Mooney on the other. Often, they don’t get involved and interject only occasionally. This time, I could sense them rolling up their sleeves and digging their heels into the peat to watch the stunning Derbhle Crotty (as Henry IV) and O’Sullivan (as Henry V), not to mention Marty Rea in a spell-binding performance of Richard II. Ria Mooney, of course, would be particularly interested in Crotty’s performance given her familiarity with Katie Roche. To my mind, Katie is one of the most nonsensical of Irish heroines, but both Crotty and Mooney starred in the play by Teresa Deevy and Mooney also directed it.

Possible Shakespearean Kings? (L to R) May Craig, Aideen O'Connor, Frolie Mulhern.
Possible Shakespearean Kings? (L to R) May Craig, Aideen O’Connor, Frolie Mulhern.

In the front row, my girls got sprayed with blood and other bodily excretions, wet with rain and showered with dirt. Aideen was uncertain at first, but Ria was in from the start. It’s not so much that they couldn’t have dreamt of playing Shakespeare’s kings, but they rarely got to play Shakespeare at all. When I’d recovered from my massive theatre hangover (only comes with the very best of performances), I checked my database to see if they’d had any encounters with the bard. Three times the name comes up, in nearly 400 notes.

There was a production of Macbeth on the stage of the Abbey Theatre in October 1934, directed by the English director Blandon Peake. Peake only stayed a year, and he worked on that production with the Abbey’s ‘Second Company’, as Aideen, Frolie, Ria et al were off in New York, performing The Far Off Hills endlessly.

In January 1936, the ‘First Company’ did get a chance to work with verse. Hugh Hunt, the young and dapper director, staged Coriolanus. This tragedy, set in Rome, focuses on a military hero and his attempt to enter politics. Hunt used Elizabethan costumes, and rousing music, including much ‘cymbal-clashing’.[1] Although the critics hailed it as dynamic and radical, its gender politics were not.

With the men off fighting wars and making important decisions, there is little for the women to do. The stately mother-of-five and ‘lady of all ages’ May Craig played Volumnia, the mother of the protagonist.[2] Shelah Richards was the long-suffering wife, Virgilia. The Irish Press reviewer openly said that Richards was “filling a background part” but deserved mention.[3] Josephine Fitzgerald (who, you may remember, also fell foul of F.R. Higgins) was included on the programme as ‘citizens/soldiers/watchmen’. She was the extent of the cross-gender casting. Aideen O’Connor had the role of Valeria. She had one major scene, and appears in some of the final crowd scenes. On being introduced by the servant in Marcius’ house, she greets her friend Virgilia:


How do you both? You are manifest house-keepers.

What are you sewing here?

A fine spot, in good faith. How does your little son? [4]

It’s hard to imagine the twenty-three-year-old Aideen, forthright party-girl as she was, showing real concern. Or even being bothered by this brief appearance. Her own housewifery skills didn’t ever come to much. Valeria does move on to show her true self, coaxing Virgilia away from her responsibilities. I can see Aideen, at her most flirtatious and wily, saying ‘Come, lay aside your stitchery; I must have you play the idle housewife with me this afternoon.’[5]

It’s no surprise that after Coriolanus, Aideen didn’t bother with Shakespeare any more. Or, he didn’t bother with the Abbey actresses. By the end of 1936, Aideen was on stage in London’s West End in a new play by Michael Egan.

Eva Le Gallienne, Ria Mooney’s mentor, learnt to speak Shakespearean verse as a child but rarely got the chance to use it. She despaired of the parts for women written by Shakespeare, and, according to her biographer Helen Sheehy, always wanted to play his male leads, including Hamlet. (Sheehy 196)

Eva Le Gallienne & Jo Hutchinson
Eva Le Gallienne & Jo Hutchinson

In January 1930, Le Gallienne was happy, much in love (with Josephine Hutchinson) and at the height of her powers. She decided to play Juliet on the stage of her own theatre on Thirteenth Street, and selected the ‘less exciting but solid’ actor Donald Cameron as her Romeo. [6] For all her exquisite ‘strangeness’, and her brazen stubbornness, Le Gallienne chose one of Shakespeare’s most iconic females to play. She said after that it was the part she ‘enjoyed most of all and worked the hardest at.’ (Le Gallienne 225) Sheehy described Le Gallienne’s joy performing Juliet: ‘The music & sweep of the thing carrying you away on musical wings.’ (Sheehy 196) Ria Mooney wasn’t so easily carried away.

Ria was appointed Assistant Director to Eva Le Gallienne on this production. (It’s unclear why she wasn’t acting with the Civic Repertory any more. I’ve come up with many theories, but none can be proven.) Her first assignment was to work out the crowd scenes using the apprentice actors. Le Gallienne never gave her official credit for her work, but Mooney distinctly remembers how the chorus were instructed to obey “Miss Mooney” as if she was the Director herself.[7]

Eva's Notebook - Designs and casting for Romeo & Juliet
Eva’s Notebook – Designs and casting for Romeo & Juliet (from New York Public Library for Performing Arts)

Over ten weeks of rehearsal, Ria worked to capture Le Gallienne’s vision of the Italian setting: ‘Colourful, violent, and above all SWIFT.’ (Le Gallienne 225) The prologue was eliminated and the play opened with the pounding of drums and a savage street brawl. Many of the apprentices appeared as dancers and a number of the Company were in silent chorus roles.

Using the costume colours, Mooney grouped her crowds to circle and highlight the main players. She let the actors move freely and instinctively, with the imperative that they were on the required spot when the cue came. Intent on capturing the fluid, mercurial sense the Director demanded, Ria began to develop her own directorial technique.

Would she rather have been on stage performing? It’s hard to know. Ria was, by my reckoning, just out of the grip of a horrendous bout of paralysing anxiety about her talent. Fostering her young charges, first in her own production of The Playboy of the Western World and then in Romeo & Juliet, brought her slowly back to herself, and to her confidence on the stage. I do know that Ria would love the Aran knits and leather jackets of Druid’s design – Who wouldn’t? – and that Aideen (who started the Company fashion of wearing ‘slacks’) would have been very happy to recite Shakespeare in leggings and boots.

I’ve been struggling for the last few weeks with ‘gender theory’, or rather, with the notion that what I’m doing is ‘women’s history’. I’m uncomfortable with this. I’m certain that what I’m doing is simply theatre history, but heretofore women have been written out of it. Can I simply rebalance this ‘history’ of Irish theatre in the 1930s? Or can we re-configure our whole understanding of this period, with vivid detail, imagination and passion? Let Shakespeare’s bosom mean something else?

In the audience at the Mick Lally theatre last week were two women who appeared in Shakespeare, directed by Garry Hynes, some decades ago. (A friend chatted to them.) Druid were doing the Bard “double gender-blind” back then. Irish women were always capable of it; the lucky ones are now getting a proper chance. And making the previous generations proud.

I’m going to bring Aideen and Ria to Kilkenny to see it again. On condition they agree to bringing a change of shoes…

**I feel compelled to declare my interests upfront. Thomas Conway, the dramaturg on the epic DruidShakespeare, is my husband. He brought me to the opening performance as his plus-one (and recited much of it under his breath). I then bought two tickets (with my own cash) to see it again, because I wanted more time with it. I’ve now decided to buy one more ticket, so that each king gets due attention. I’ve tried to write this without ‘spoilers’ but that’s difficult — I haven’t revealed anything that the press hasn’t already recorded.

[1] ‘Coriolanus at the Abbey.’ Irish Independent 14.01.1936, page 3

[2] San Francisco News April 2, 1935

[3] Coriolanus. Irish Press 1931-1995, 14.01.1936, page 3

[4] Act I. Scene III.

[5] Act I. Scene III.

[6] Sheehy. 195

[7] Mooney. Players and Painted Stage, Part 1. 92

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