MAGGIE POLPIN, the central character of John B Keane’s Big Maggie, is one of the author’s most memorable creations and Druid’s new production of the play sees one of Ireland’s finest actresses, Aisling O’Sullivan, take on the role.
Familiar to audiences from her leading roles in the TV series The Clinic and Raw, O’Sullivan has also excelled in a range of both classic and contemporary plays with the likes of the Abbey, the Gate, and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
On her last appearance with Druid she was a superb Widow Quin in The Playboy Of The Western World. Given the range of work she has done it comes as a surprise to learn that Big Maggie is her first time to appear in a play by John B Keane, all the more so as she hails from Keane’s native Kerry.
“It is my first John B play, to my shame,” she admits when she meets up to talk about the play after a day’s rehearsals. “I never paid much attention to him before despite coming from his neck of the woods. I’m amazed now I never did.
“I saw The Field last year and I couldn’t believe it, I was seeing the power of the language and the set up and the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. Beyond the play there was a profoundness around it when it all came together.”
O’Sullivan reveals that the seeds of her passion for theatre were sown in the rural Kerry primary school where her father was principal.
“When I moved into my father’s class in fifth year he used to have this practice of, at the end of the week, breaking us up into groups of five and get us to put on a mini play to show what we had learned during the week. They were tremendous fun so I think my interest in theatre started there,” she says.
On leaving school O’Sullivan initially studied marketing and was selling insurance in England before fate intervened to steer her back toward theatre.
“Something in me knew a road was being carved out for me if I didn’t take a big chance,” she recalls. “So I called up the Gaiety School of Acting and I went to audition for them. Initially I was rejected but I kept ringing them when I got back to England and, after two weeks, someone dropped out of the course and they gave me their place.”
After graduating from the Gaiety course, O’Sullivan began to look for acting work and Garry Hynes played a vital role in her breakthrough.
“Garry was artistic director of the Abbey at the time and Maureen Hughes was her casting director,” O’Sullivan explains. “Maureen’s a brilliant casting director and always takes a huge interest in new talent coming through.
“I got called in to audition for Paul Mercier, Maureen was there as well and she subsequently recommended me to Garry. I was offered a part in The Power of Darkness and after that they gave me a year’s contract which was a major thing for me because I felt I was facing a void when I came out of the school and was wondering what I was going to do. So Garry has been an enormously significant presence in my career.”
Big Maggie sees O’Sullivan reunited with Hynes for the first time since the 2004 staging of Synge’s Playboy. She shares her thoughts on the character of Maggie Polpin, observing that Maggie’s formidable toughness has been dearly acquired.
“For me she is a woman who, for 25 years, has probably been beaten senseless a couple times a month by her late husband who sounds like he was a roaring alcoholic,” she says. “As a woman at that time she would have had no recourse like we have now with helplines and so on.
“Something has happened inside her spirit that has taught her a very hard lesson about life. We live in a touchy feely world where we expect people to love us and mind us but there are times in life that people don’t do that and Maggie has learned that lesson a little too well, that the world can be a savage place and if you don’t mind yourself and your own sense of who you are you’ll be eaten alive.”
If the world of the play can be harsh there is also a rich seam of trademark Keane humour running through it.
“This is the challenge,” O’Sullivan declares. “Any actress who plays Maggie has a great challenge to manage that tightrope walk between millions of things. There is so much going on beneath this buoyant language. It’s a muscular part. And we have a fantastic cast working on the play. We’re trying to find the right spirit of it and we’ll try to play it from that place.”
Big Maggie runs at the Town Hall from Friday November 11 to Saturday 19 and then embarks on a national tour. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie