‘The response to Derry Girls has been voracious because we have not seen young girls being the heroes in their own lives’
Fresh from stealing the show in Channel 4’s Derry Girls as the cynical nun Sister Michael, Siobhan McSweeney is about to take to the stage in Kevin Barry’s Autumn Royal. The actress tells Maggie Armstrong why she’s drawn to playing ordinary women with complex inner lives.
When Siobhan McSweeney was growing up, a nun came to her school to put on a Trocaire video. “I remember going home and telling mammy ‘I want to be a nun’. Now, I realise that what I actually wanted was to be on the telly.”
Her fate sealed, she got to do both at once, playing the flinty Sister Michael in the hit TV series Derry Girls, written and directed by Lisa McGee. The Channel 4 series — reportedly the most watched ever in Northern Ireland — centres around a group of bold schoolgirls during the 1990s, but it is their unsparing headmistress, Sister Michael, who steals the show, a creation whose iconic potential lies somewhere between Miss Trunchbull and Mrs Doyle.
In the bar of the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar in Dublin, out of nun’s armour, McSweeney is decades younger and not so terrifying at all. We are meeting to talk about Kevin Barry’s play Autumn Royal, for which the playwright and novelist was this week awarded the Stewart Parker Trust Award. It goes on tour next month.
The fiction writer’s first play is a two-hander, about an emotionally-stunted brother and sister caring for their ailing father. McSweeney plays the sister, May, a young woman described in the script as all of “dark”, “dowdy” and “sparkly”. Peter Campion (also fresh from Derry Girls) plays the brother, Timmy.
“It’s a dark, black comedy,” says McSweeney, explaining that originally it was a monologue written for May alone.
“May is hardened by life and lack of opportunities,” she says. “It’s really heartbreaking, I think. It’s what I love about comedy. In that Beckettian way, you’re laughing at the abyss.”
The play revolves around duty, in particular the duty expected of an Irish daughter towards her parents.
“It’s a very uncool thing to say, isn’t it? But it’s there in us. Duty. It’s associated with potatoes, and staring out the window crying, and the turf fires. There are rooms all over the country with women staring out the window. Lost lives, lost potential, lost opportunities. Which is also f***ing hilarious.”
Care-giving has crept up lately in the roles McSweeney has played on stage. In Caroline Byrne’s revival of Katie Roche by Teresa Deevy in the Abbey in Dublin, McSweeney was a tremendous spinster sister to Katie Roche’s intended. During one tense emotional scene, McSweeney entered the stage with a mound of scones on a plate, announcing, “I made some scones.” It was very funny.
“That broke people’s hearts. People roared with laughter, but you’d hear some women laughing, of a certain age. Maybe laughing for a different reason. The joy of escape, or recognition. A bitter laugh.
“Isn’t there a fear that we’ll all have to go home and mind somebody?” she wonders. “And isn’t there a great joy in being able to go home and mind somebody?”
Cynicism is a “habit” learnt through “dark life experiences”, she says. “I think with Sr Michael, her darkness comes from the experience of teaching girls. Nobody starts off like that.”
Her own start was “very, very average, happy and wonderful”, growing up in Aherla, Co Cork. Literature was big in her family — her grandfather was the Irish language poet An Suibhneach Meann — but she was an “odd fish” because she wanted to act. She studied science at UCC. “I was an awful scholar,” she says.
She held herself back from acting partly due to a sense you had to be “special” to act.
“I never thought I would be allowed to do it,” she says curiously. “I didn’t think acting was for people like me and I don’t even know what I mean by that. I suppose I mean I thought that you’d have to be more glamorous. I thought you’d to be special.
“I started realising that this bug wasn’t going to go away unless I exorcised it somehow. I couldn’t get rid of it, and it was distracting me.”
She got a place in the top drama school, the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. The year she graduated, her mother fell ill and she returned home to be with her. Soon after that her mother died. “I spent the start of my career mourning. Not being 100% natural. I don’t think you ever get over the death of your mother. Work helped.”
She has lived in London for the past 13 years, “blind stubbornness” having kept her going in a “precarious” lifestyle that has brought her to the Royal Court, National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as TV dramas including The Fall and films Darkest Hour and Alice Through the Looking Glass. “I think there’s a great difference between the art and the lifestyle,” she says. “I still find incredibly difficult the instability of it. The unfairness of it. The highs, the lows. The financial insecurity. The inability to plan.”
This “unfairness” is felt in representation, a lack of diversity which “comes down to gender”. But this is something that is beginning to change, she believes. “That is the one thing about the play Autumn Royal. It’s placing women at the centre of the story. And I think that the success of Derry Girls is for some of the same reasons. People were longing for those stories.
“The response has been voracious, there is such an appetite, because we haven’t seen young girls being the heroes in their own lives. That’s new. It sounds like banging a drum that’s very much in vogue at the moment, but it’s true.”
She has worked on many female-led scripts of late, including with Caitriona McLaughlin on Autumn Royal, who she would “follow into battle”, Caroline Byrne on Katie Roche and SJ Clarkson on Collateral for the BBC. This has been good for her. “I’ve recently realised that there’s a correlation between female directors and my voice being heard. There is a shorthand. There is a focus on who’s not being listened to in the room? And historically that has been a woman, of a certain age and class.”
Repealing Ireland’s abortion laws lands with a thud in our interview. “That’s another relic coming up,” says McSweeney, whose vote will be a yes. “My politics come from that utter confusion, that something as arbitrary as gender could stop you from doing anything. And from fairness and kindness and compassion and all these things that we were taught. How can you grow up with these things then be told we don’t value your life more than a clump of cells?”
She is drawn to playing women who are unseen, considered plain — “very ordinary women with complex internal lives. I want to make them visible”.
“What I love is to show our very ordinariness. I hope when you look at me, and my very ordinariness, you identify in a different way than perhaps we have been used to. One part I always wanted to play was Sonya in Uncle Vanya. I had a great idea of how Chekhov wanted Sonya to be played. There were always these beautiful pale wan English actresses, solitary tear down the chiselled face. I was like, no! She is a survivor. She is running the estate. She’s a grand, lovely big normal girl.
“Poetry comes in many different shapes and sizes. There’s a received idea that it can only be in one kind of casing. So I’m delighted I got to stretch out and play her the way I wanted her to be played.
“People have an over-respect for tragedians,” says the nation’s newest comedic treasure with a sparkle. “There’s nothing more rewarding than hearing people laugh. Because if you can make them laugh, you can make them cry.”
Autumn Royal runs at Cork’s Everyman Theatre from May 1-5 before touring to various venues around the Republic.