She stole the show in ‘Derry Girls’ as Sister Michael. Now Siobhán McSweeney returns to her native Cork to reprise her role as May in Kevin Barry’s dark comedy ‘Autumn Royal’ at the Everyman Theatre, writes Aileen Lee.
Last year was a big year for Siobhán McSweeney — the Cork woman kicked off 2017 playing the female role, May, in Autumn Royal, the debut play by award-winning writer Kevin Barry. She then got a part in the Channel 4 comedy, Derry Girls, playing Sr Michael, the principal of the main characters’ secondary school. Once that wrapped up, she was straight into rehearsal for Katie Roche, which saw her take her first spin on the Abbey Theatre stage.
Happily, history seems to be repeating itself in 2018. Next week, McSweeney will reprise her role in Autumn Royal, as it embarks on a national tour, and fans of Derry Girls will know that it has been commissioned for a second series. Given that McSweeney’s character gathered her own large following of fans, we can presume that she will be another funny force to be reckoned with in season two. Not that McSweeney is giving anything away, she has been sworn to secrecy.
McSweeney knew the writer of Derry Girls, Lisa McGee, through the show London Irish (Channel 4), which McGee wrote and which McSweeney also appeared in. It featured Peter Campion as one of the leads. He and McSweeney both worked together on Derry Girls — he played the girls’ crush, Fr Peter — and in a lovely twist of fate, he will play the character of Timothy, May’s brother, in Autumn Royal for its second run.
McSweeney says of McGee: “She’d always been thinking about this other sitcom that she wanted to write about growing up in Derry in the ’90s, and she said, ‘there might be something in it for you’. I naturally thought it would be one of the girls, because I don’t see myself as anything beyond being a 16-year-old. No matter how much older I get, I am still at heart 16 years of age in the 1990s.”
Viewers loved McSweeney’s depiction of Sr Michael — she has impeccable comic timing in the show. Interestingly, for all the flashbacks to convent school days professed by female viewers of Derry Girls, it was an experience that McSweeney had not lived herself: “I’m probably the only person in the cast that had no interactions with nuns at all. I didn’t have that idea of her as a nun necessarily, that was secondary to her attitude. I think she’s a nun because perhaps she wants more authority or perhaps it’s a way to get away from people.”
Lack of vocation aside, one can only imagine that it was a lot of fun shooting the series, which McSweeney confirms: “It was the best fun that I’ve had on a job in a long time. It’s such a cliché but we all got on very well. There was a great buzz on set. There was fierce naughtiness and trying not to laugh and trying not to corpse and trying not to make other people corpse [break character].”
Despite the feeling that they were working on something special with Derry Girls, McSweeney said that everyone hoped more that viewers would feel the same rather than expecting it to be the case. As luck would have it, the show received a rapturous reception when it aired on our screens early this year. McSweeney says: “Timing is really important, what’s happening out in the real world at the time; what the mood is; what people want to see; what time of the year it is — all of these variables — so it was a perfect storm with Lisa’s script.”
We may have wait a while to see Sr Michael on our screens again, but in the meantime, McSweeney looks forward to her return to the stage next week with Autumn Royal. She says: “It was great having Shane [Casey] in the first incarnation of it. I’m really looking forward to doing it again. Peter is bringing something different, as any actor would to the role, so the play is changing. It’s a great chance to make it a bit richer and investigate the characters and their world a bit more. So many things in this world are confined by budget and to have the luxury to be able to go back to something a second time is very rare.”
She recalls her experience of its first run: “I was very excited for the opportunity to work in Cork, I’ve been working for over a decade now and very few, if no, opportunities have arisen for me to return to Ireland, let alone Cork, unfortunately. It’s also nerve-wracking, because you do feel this pressure, ‘oh, she’s been away for 10 years, what can she do?’ and with a new piece of work, even though it’s somebody as amazing as Kevin Barry, you can never tell what the reception is going to be like. I’m back in Cork for family at least once a month, so I don’t feel a huge distance from Cork necessarily but it’s different when you’re working there.”
Autumn Royal peeks inside the lives of May (McSweeney) and Timothy (Campion) who are looking after their father, a man who has long since taken to the bed. A dark comedy, set on the northside of Cork city, it looks at how their role as carers has resulted in their lives being severely curtailed.
McSweeney loves her character in the play: “Primarily what I love about May is that I haven’t seen her — she isn’t a heroine, she isn’t noble, she isn’t a girlfriend, she isn’t a wife, she isn’t a mother, she is experiencing a situation which we can all relate to. Kevin has placed this in a heightened circumstance but the reality of caring for our parents is a very real one.
“Not only is it a prime area to explore within theatre itself, but I think that as a society we need to look at how we are at caring for our old people and how are we caring for our carers. It’s not a political piece, but by even playing a woman who isn’t heard of or seen in society, that’s what I love most about her.”
McSweeney recalls how audience members approached her after the show’s run last year, because May’s experience resonated with their own experiences as carers. She says: “I don’t think it exists as much now, or I certainly hope it doesn’t exist as much now, but there is a tradition of the daughter going home to mind the mammy and daddy. Carers don’t have a choice quite often, either financially or emotionally, and especially as a woman, those choices are even fewer, so I think it’s a powerful play for many reasons. May, she’s of our time. It’s not some far away ye olde worlde, this is something that is a lot of people’s reality”.
McSweeney has also appeared on our screens in The Fall (BBC Two/ RTÉ One), Collateral (BBC Two) and No Offence (Channel 4), and her theatre credits include The Alchemist in the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as many appearances at the Royal Court in London, and other venues in the UK. Having worked both on stage and before the camera over the years, does she prefer one over the other? She says: “The aim of any actor, I think, is to have a healthy dose of both. Derry Girls was the biggest part that I ever had in front of a camera, so I was able to properly learn, and I grew to love the craft and the art of camera work, but my heart still lies in theatre.”
McSweeney loves the sense of community that she feels when working in the theatre: “That feeling of comradery is second-to-none, and the live aspect, the feeling of the audience differing every night, the energy that comes from them. The theatre is perhaps one of the few places of communication left open to us. It’s no accident that it’s a place where we have to turn off our phones, turn off the superficiality of social media and of other ways of communicating, and that it is actually the true way to communicate with each other’s humanity.”
- Autumn Royal by Kevin Barry, which was recently shortlisted for the Stewart Park Award, will run at the Everyman Theatre in Cork from May 1 to May 5. It then tours to Dublin, Longford, Newbridge, Bray, Limerick, Cavan and Roscommon. For more details, see www.everymantheatre.com.