Till death us do part

Mark O’Regan tells Colette Sheridan how he relishes playing a philandering husband in Marina Carr’s acclaimed play, Woman and Scarecrow

ACCORDING to actor Mark O’Regan, Woman and Scarecrow is possibly Marina Carr’s best work. O’Regan plays the husband (called Him) of a dying woman (known as Woman) in the play, which opens at Cork’s Everyman Theatre next Monday. Directed by Geoff Gould of Blood in the Alley Theatre Company, Woman And Scarecrow is a sometimes bitter study of impending death that inevitably leads to reflections on the life that is drawing to a close. Woman (played by Joan Sheehy) is in a bed throughout.

“The subject matter, on paper, would make you wonder how it could work,” says O’Regan. “This is about a woman in the final stages of a debilitating illness, raging against the dying light. But Marina brilliantly introduces an alter ego (Scarecrow, played by Noelle Brown) who is not unlike Gar Private in Philadelphia Here I Come. Scarecrow chastises and criticises Woman, who hasn’t fulfilled her potential.”

Woman, the mother of eight children, is only about 50. She is learned in her references, extremely complicated and at times enraged. She could be said to have failed to live her life courageously. Her mordant humour gives her an edge. But for the most part, Woman is an extremely disappointed person.

In his role as the philandering husband, O’Regan says when audiences first meet this character, “they think he is a dreadful individual. He doesn’t look after his family; he has a mistress and it looks like he is wishing his wife’s death would be speeded up. But when I approached the character, I felt I couldn’t play him as completely one-dimensional because there’s no scope in that. Yes, he has all sorts of major faults, but in a relationship, there are two sides to every story. Through the prism of this character, you realise the relationship with the wife is complex.”

Even in her final hours, Woman is “very formidable and has a take-no-prisoners kind of attitude. She is full of regrets. She wonders about her choice of husband, she wonders if she was prevented from doing the things she wanted to do. The presence of the alter ego opens the play up. It analyses the complexities of marriage.”

But mostly, Woman and Scarecrow deals with the universal theme of facing death. Because of her relative youth, Woman’s plight is tragic. Her large family is unseen but it’s understood they are in the house.

Woman, whose mother died when she was young, was raised by Auntie Ah, a stern unfeeling woman, played by Geraldine Plunkett. The fourth ‘character’ in the play is a wardrobe. Death waits in this piece of furniture, occasionally knocking against its door. The wardrobe could also be said to represent the threshold between life and death.

O’Regan says it’s important to point out that “while the subject matter is serious, there’s tremendous humour in the play as well”.

The Cork-born actor has just finished touring west Cork as part of the West Cork Fit-Up, performing shows in small venues, directed by Gould. O’Regan is thankful to be in constant work in the current climate. He starred in Alice in Funderland at the Abbey in the spring and after Woman and Scarecrow, he will play the character of Johnny Pateen Mike in Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, directed by Ben Barnes, at the Theatre Royal in Waterford.

Last year, O’Regan was appointed to the Arts Council. “There has been a tradition over the years to have an actor on the council. I’m one of its 12 people representing the different artistic sectors.”

Arts Council cuts are “affecting people’s livelihoods. But what we’re trying to do is look at things as imaginatively as possible and use the funds we have prudently and creatively. In 2008, Arts Council funding was €81 million. It has dropped to €67 million and there will be further cuts in the next year or two. It has never been a more difficult time. Everyone is feeling a little bit fearful about the future.”

O’Regan, who reviews films for the Marian Finucane radio show, has “written bits and pieces of my own over the years. I wouldn’t have the audacity to say I spend a long time writing but certainly, I’ve had reason to put pen to paper. But it’s not ready for public consumption.”

Committed to theatre, O’Regan says “in this climate, I’m happy enough to be tootling along and doing a bit of theatre. These are challenging times all round.”

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