Catherine: 'I can lack confidence, but I have a huge ego'
Catherine Cusack famously played a babysitter from hell in Coronation Street in the Nineties. Now she takes to the stage at The Lyric with a starring role in one of the most acclaimed and loved of Irish plays. She talks to Donal Lynch.
Though a gifted actress with a string of notable screen and stage credits behind her, it would be understandable, perhaps, if Catherine Cusack felt somewhat daunted at the prospect of playing Agnes in Dancing at Lughnasa.
The play, a glittering cornerstone of Irish drama, is also steeped in her family's history. Her half-sisters Niamh and Sorcha have each starred in productions of Brian Friel's masterpiece, and one of Catherine's abiding memories of her late father, the legendary Cyril Cusack, was him taking her to see the marvellous Belfast actress Brid Brennan perform what might have been the definitive version of the role of Agnes at the Abbey a quarter of a century ago, a night Catherine remembers as "one of the really special moments with dad, something I'll always remember."
The new production, which begins at the Lyric Theatre on Wednesday running until September 27, marks the 25th anniversary of the play's premiere in Dublin and will be directed by award-winning Annabelle Comyn. Catherine says she has a strong identification with the character of Agnes, a homemaker in 1920s Donegal who takes a back seat to the more dominant characters of her sisters, but who is moved, nonetheless, by hidden passions. "I get Agnes, in that for whatever reason I can suffer from a lack of self-confidence," she says. "That can also be matched by a huge ego. There's a kind of contrast. You sort of move between thinking 'I'm nothing' and then 'actually, I'm everything!' I understand her as a person who shrinks away from the centre ground - growing up I was always a bit lost, a bit hiding, a bit wondering."
That wondering took many forms, she explains. She wondered where her place in the world would be and how she would earn a living. She also wondered at the unspoken mysteries of her family life in which "things were never really spelled out, you just sort of had to infer things."
Catherine has more than made her mark on the world of drama both on screen and stage; she acted her way into soap history for the dark TV role as obsessive nanny Carmel Finnan in Coronation Street where she became infatuated with Gail Platt's husband, Martin and caused havoc in their marriage.
And when it comes to treading the boards at the Lyric she played another important role in 2009 when the stunning new £18.1m theatre opened with Arthur Miller's The Crucible in which she starred as Elizabeth Proctor.
Hailing from acting royalty, Catherine's father was 58 when she was born, by which time he already had five other children by his marriage to Maureen Kiely. Catherine had been born in England but had been brought to Rome by her Australian mother, Mary Rose, who headed up a textile factory in the eternal city, while Cyril carved out his place in the acting pantheon.
The couple had met through a former actor, Dan Cunningham, who had been Mary Rose's first husband and who had gone on to represent Cyril. Mary Rose stayed behind in Rome and managed her mini business empire and Catherine spoke Italian and had a "nonna" ('nanny') with whom she was besotted. "I have clear memories of the balconies of the house and the sunshine and the warm colours, I remember really wanting to stay in Rome. But then we moved back to the dankness and greyness of London. It did seem quite depressing. This was 1972, you have to remember, it was nothing at all like it is today."
Cyril kept his relationship with Catherine's mother completely separate until his first wife, Maureen Kiely, died, at which point he married Mary Rose. By that stage it was 1977 and Catherine was nine-years-old. Catherine would not meet any of her siblings until she was 10 and her father, perhaps showing his sense of humour, took her to see a showing of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind at Swiss Cottage in London, where she was introduced to her half-sister Niamh for the first time. "As you get older you understand that certain things get in your way as an adult and you can't necessarily always help those things," Catherine tells me. "He was caught up in Catholicism in a way that messed him up and he in turn ended up messing everyone else around him as well.
"He was a man of his time," Catherine says. "Of course, I really think his decisions were wrong but there's no point going there in a way. He desperately wanted to be someone who got things right and so he clung onto this identity of a good Catholic man. He was almost a Victorian in some ways."
The "exotic" excitement of visiting her father on tour helped inspire her own desire to become an actress. "I remember he was doing You Never Can Tell in Dublin and the whole crew just sort of adopted me, people like Ingrid Craigie. It was like getting an instant family, without the boring, hard bits. Of course it's a mirage but you only learn that later." She would go on to win recurring roles - Dr Who (in which her husband-to-be, Alex Palmer would first see her) and Ballykissangel as well as smaller parts in the movies Finding Neverland and The Lonely Passion Of Judith Hearne, and of course, Coronation Street. To every role she brought a memorable intensity. She is articulate, thoughtful and sometimes tremulous, appearing close to tears when we discuss her mother, and, most particularly, her father.
Even after the Swiss Cottage introduction, she says that her relationship with Cyril's family in Ireland was "a bit strange and, naturally, a bit strained. There were occasions when we'd be together for his birthday or whatever but it didn't just come together as he might have hoped. Perfectly understandable. When he died, however, that really fell away and we could get to know each other properly." Today, she enjoys a warm relationship with all her half-sisters and brothers, and is especially close to Niamh.
Perhaps because of the separateness of the two families Catherine says that her mother and her were "like a little unit" and she speculates that her father, at times, felt a little shut out. "I thought all along that my love was there with her. Sometimes you do have to lose someone before you go, 'Oh, I really loved that person.''
She was at the West Yorkshire Playhouse with her half-brother Padraig in 1993 when he broke the news to her that Cyril had died, after a long and painful battle with motor neurone disease. "[Padraig] tells me that I screamed. I have no memory of doing that. And he really looked after me then." She was glad her father's suffering was over, she adds, even if the grief at his loss was overwhelming.
Sinead Cusack also extended a sisterly shoulder to Catherine during the period when Mary Rose was very sick. The two half-siblings were acting together in Sebastian Barry's play Our Lady Of Sligo. In the play, Catherine's character's mother, played by Sinead, was dying of cancer. Thematically, it was all too close to home, and one day, observing Catherine's deep suffering, Sinead told her, 'You know, the show doesn't always have to go on.'
"She had lost her own mother by then, so she possibly had a better perspective than me of priorities in life," Catherine says. Mary Rose was deathly ill with ovarian cancer by that point. She had it the first time after Cyril's death and when it came back again she decided she would have no more treatment. "That was very tough," Catherine recalls. The grief of losing your mother lasts a lifetime, she says. "It fades slightly and then it comes back again. It's still there, really."
Nowadays, Catherine lives in London with her husband Alex Palmer, an English actor whom she met when she played his wife on stage in 2001. "We didn't fancy each other at all to begin with," she explains. "He was coming out of a relationship and it's never a great idea to get together like that. But it just crept up on us. We're very alike. We're both very open, optimistic people."
Alex is a climbing enthusiast and together they run a shop selling climbing equipment in London, the steadiness of which, she says, provides a welcome contrast with the more precarious nature of acting for a living. And the security and stability of her home life makes nice company for the ghosts of the past. They live together in the home she grew up in West London. "We've changed it a lot," she explains, brightly. "It was very much their house and full of their stuff. So without absolutely ripping them out of the picture we've tried to make our own mark on things." She pauses for a beat. "A bit like life, really."
- Dancing at Lughnasa is produced by the Lyric Theatre in association with the International Friel Festival, and will be performed at The Lyric Theatre, Belfast, from August 26-September 27