Belfast actress Laura Donnelly on starring in play inspired by uncle's IRA murder
'I never really talked to mum about my uncle before we did the play... there was a sort of vague silence in the family about his death'
Belfast-born actress Laura Donnelly won an Olivier award this year for her role in The Ferryman, a play inspired by the story of her uncle, who was shot and secretly buried by the IRA. As she takes to the stage in Donegal at the Brian Friel Festival, she talks to Laurence White about how her family coped with the tragedy and why she was inspired to pursue a career in acting.
When Belfast-born actress Laura Donnelly stepped forward to collect a prestigious Olivier award for best actress earlier this year, it was the ultimate triumph of joy over tragedy.
For the play which was the platform for her success was inspired by a very personal trauma for her family.
Before she was born, her maternal uncle, 26-year-old father-of-three Eugene Simons, was snatched by the IRA on New Year's Day 1981 from his home near Castlewellan in Co Down, taken away, shot and secretly buried. He was one of the Disappeared.
The award-winning play, The Ferryman, which has run to great acclaim in London and is to open in New York in October, was inspired by Eugene's story and written by Laura's partner, playwright Jez Butterworth.
Laura is delighted with the play's success - Jez (for best new play) and Sam Mendes (for best director) collected awards and there were also five nominations for best supporting actor, best supporting actress (twice), best actor and best set design:
"It is great for the play to get the recognition it did. It was an astonishing achievement by Jez. It was a tremendous achievement to get three top awards. It is still sinking in. I never dared dream that I would get an Olivier Award. I always hoped that I would make a living as an actor and anything else coming after that would be a bonus," Laura says.
"It is wonderful to be recognised by your peers in such a public way. Awards are not the be all and end all, and not why we do this job, but it is a lovely pat on the back."
But the recognition she really wanted came from her mother, Angela.
"We kept her up to date with the development of the play the whole way through. But there was something which only occurred to me when I was going into rehearsals for the play - I had never had an open and honest discussion with her about Eugene's death."
Although she was not born at the time, Laura was later shielded from the truth. Initially, she was told her uncle had died in a car crash. In fact, he had been buried in a bog near Dundalk, and his body was only discovered by accident by a dog walker in 1984.
Laura remembers: "I gleaned some information from mum over the years but, typically of families in Ireland, and particularly Northern Ireland, we never sat down and talked about things in depth. There was a sort of vague silence about his death which existed in my family for so long.
"When Jez had the idea of writing the play, we had some in-depth discussions with my mum about how she felt at the time her brother disappeared and what it means to her. In lots of ways that was very cathartic for her.
"I don't know if mum was even aware of how she coped. She agrees that at time of great trauma, people don't realise how they got through it. In this case it was not knowing what had happened to Eugene which stretched out the time. That means that the nature of coping or just carrying on changes all the time changes all the time, yet stays the same because nothing is being solved.
"It is the same for the family in the play - they muddle their way through and find a new version of their lives."
But while the family may have shielded Laura from the full truth of her uncle's death as she grew up, his killers were engaged in disinformation. "People were sent to his home saying that he had been seen some place or other or had been involved in a fight with someone. The purpose of that was simply to keep the wound alive, but obviously the family learned the truth when his body was found."
The death of her brother led Angela to volunteer with trauma group WAVE. "Her way of helping herself was to help other people going through the same thing as she had. She knew she could be of help because of her own experience," Laura says.
She met Jez when she turned up for an audition of his play The River, which opened at the Royal Court Theatre in 2012. Two years later, Laura went with it to Broadway, where she won rave reviews playing opposite Hugh Jackman.
The couple went to upstate New York to go fly fishing, and it was Laura's proud boast that she was the first one to land a fish. It was also, she said, a great way to get in the zone for the play.
It was in New York that she had one of her greatest experiences - being photographed along with her co-stars Jackman and Cush Jumbo by Annie Leibovitz for the front cover of Vogue. She thought that the shoot would be complicated but found it was one of the easiest she ever took part in. She says Leibovitz has a way of making people feel at ease in front of the camera.
Turning back to her relationship, she doesn't exactly say that her and Jez's eyes met over the footlights, but they have been together ever since and have a young daughter.
Their partnership as well as Jez's heritage - he comes from Irish parentage - have given him an affinity with Ireland. He is also a great admirer of this part of the world. "There is no country in the world which, for its size, has so many incredible playwrights and brilliant plays, and that is something Jez can relate to," she says.
While her family endured a horrific experience, for Laura growing up in Belfast during the Troubles - she was born in August 1982 - was quite a pleasant time. "I lived in north Belfast with my father, Martin, my mum and three siblings (two older sisters and a younger brother). My father had a medical practice in that area of the city," she says.
"I did not have any really negative experience of the Troubles in the way that some of my friends had. When I look back, I wasn't aware of the effect the violence and security would have in the longer term. That was true of anyone growing up in Northern Ireland at that time. You could not help but be affected by the searches going into town, the security force patrols or the helicopters buzzing overhead with their searchlights probing the ground. Yet I feel blessed from being protected from the worst of the Troubles."
Originally educated at Dominican College in north Belfast, she later switched to Rathmore Grammar School in the south of the city. It was there that she fell in love with the work of Brian Friel.
"I studied Dancing at Lughnasa as part of my A-level course at Rathmore, and adored the play. I went on to perform in it at the Lyric, I think around 2008. I am certainly a long-term fan of Mr Friel," she says.
Laura will be appearing in Friel's four-act monologue Faith Healer in Donegal on August 17, 18 and 19. The action takes place in three village halls, with the audience travelling between them by bus. There will be an interval barbecue on Portnoo Pier and the final act will take place in the ballroom of the Highland Hotel in Glenties, the place where the playwright went on holidays as a child and where he is now buried.
It might seem a long way from the glitter of the West End and an Olivier Awards ceremony to appearing in village halls in Donegal next month, but Laura certainly does not see it that way.
"I couldn't wait to take part when I read the email about this staging of the play. I thought it was the best way to do it and thought it seemed like a magical idea. It is better than staging it in some grand theatre with 1,000 people sitting all around," she says.
"I spent many summers in Donegal when I was growing up and I cannot wait to get back".
Laura confesses to being the black sheep of her family, but only in a joking manner. What she means is that she is the only one to enter the notoriously insecure world of acting.
"There was an element of amateur dramatics in our family, and the extended family is very musical.
"But acting or singing were only hobbies. No one, apart from me, has gone into either professionally. Why did I do it? My answer to that changes regularly but my desire to perform started very early.
"I was inspired by Patricia Mulholland, my Irish dancing teacher, who brought her version of Irish ballet to Northern Ireland and beyond. It was essentially performances of Irish myths and legends through the medium of dance.
"I was involved with her from about the age of six, and that made me realise how much I loved being in the theatre. Miss Mulholland taught us festival Irish dancing, which was a very relaxed version of the traditional feis Irish dancing. Her type of dancing later evolved into Riverdance."
After school Laura enrolled in the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and made her television debut in Sugar Rush, a semi-autobiographical comedy drama based on a book of the same name by Julie Burchill.
Other roles included Barbara Best, sister of George, in Best: His Mother's Son, and parts in Casualty, The Bill, and The Fall, where she was one of the women murdered by the serial killer played by Jamie Dornan.
She broke into American TV with a part in Missing, which was critically acclaimed but less popular with audiences. She later won a role in time travel fantasy Outlander.
Some years ago, when interviewed for the Belfast Telegraph, she expressed the desire to play one of the great female roles from Shakespeare such as Lady Macbeth. She hasn't played that part but did get to star as Juliet in a performance in Regent Park.
"It was an incredible experience, magical, because of the surroundings. I adored that experience, but how do I feel now about doing Shakespeare? I did that and now I do almost entirely new writing when it comes to the theatre."
And there is no doubt in her mind that the stage is her favourite acting medium. "Don't get me wrong, I love doing television and I love the opportunity to chop and change from one to the other, but it is without question that my favourite is the theatre.
"I love the connection with the audience. Everyone is in a joint experience at that particular moment in their lives and everyone is required to be present. You don't get that feeling from filming. It can feel sterile by comparison at times. There is just something about the soul in the theatre.
"The audience's experience of a television drama is a very separate one from the actors; they are having their experiences at different times and there is no connection between the filming and the audience."
Is there anywhere she would really love to work? "For me I will go wherever the work is especially if it is a great play which I was dying to do."
One place where she wants to spend more time is Belfast. "I have aunts and cousins there and I want to be able to go home and spend some proper time with them. Living and working in London, and even in New York on occasion, means that I only get to spend fleeting periods in my home city."
Tickets to see Laura in Faith Healer at the 3rd Lughnasa FrielFest Brian Friel Festival can be booked at www.artsoverborders.com
The Ferryman will run at the Bernard B Jacobs Theatre, NYC, from October