PATRICK Bergin is thinking his way inside the head of a murderer. Maybe he’s gotten too big for his boots and feels he has a bit more power than a human being should have, thinks he can control the universe. Because essentially that’s what happens, if you think you can commit murder and get away with it.
The veteran screen actor is playing the role of notorious Dripsey poisoner Dr Philip Cross in a musical stage adaptation of Michael Sheridan’s 2010 true crime book, Murder at Shandy Hall.
A beautiful young governess, a brilliant forensic analyst, a callous and controlling doctor who uses his medical expertise to dispose of his interfering wife, and the dogged persistence of a detective bent on uncovering the truth: for all the ingredients of a true Victorian bodice-ripper, you need look no further than the events that scandalised Dripsey and Coachford in the late 1880s, and Bergin says that the claustrophobic morality of the era further adds to the drama.
“It’s intriguing to see how the morals of that time and the morals of today compare in some ways, especially in the context of what is essentially a love story,” he says. “I think he genuinely did love Evelyn, and his relationship with his wife had broken down.”
Dr Philip Cross of Shandy Hall, outside Dripsey, a retired army surgeon, murdered his wife Laura in 1887 using arsenic, after an affair with Evelyn Skinner, the pretty governess to the Crosses’ six children. An investigation by Ballincollig RIC District Inspector Henry Tyacke led to a trial and speedy execution that received international media coverage.
Famed for his chillingly convincing role as the controlling, abusive husband opposite Julia Roberts in Sleeping With The Enemy, how does Bergin feel about playing another violent villain? How sympathetic a character does Philip Cross need to be to an audience?
“Yes, I’ve been thinking about that a lot,” he says. “It’s a very interesting role. He does have a lot of power in the control of his household, and he has a lot of power as a doctor. Of course poisoning is a form of violence, but not physical violence.”
Cross personally attended his wife for two weeks, only allowing another physician to see her once, and Mary Laura Cross’s exhumed remains revealed that she essentially vomited and voided herself to death under the influence of the arsenic her husband was administering.
A gruesome tale, then, and one with a lot of local resonance; the play will open in Macroom, just 25 kilometres away from Shandy Hall, in The Riverside Hotel, temporary home to local theatre the Briery Gap, which was damaged by fire last May.
“I’m sure that a lot of locals will come to see it,” Bergin says. “I think it’s going to be very good, and I hope that people in the area will enjoy it.”
With music by local composer Alan Kiely and a cast comprised of local actors, Murder at Shandy Hall is being hailed as “Ireland’s first musical murder mystery.”
Bergin, who still plays regularly with his band, The Spirit Merchants, and has a recording studio in his UK home, is particularly enjoying the challenge of working on a musical and combining his dual passions of acting and singing.
“Music has been a fundamental part of my life from an early age; I’ve toured the world busking and I write a lot of music,” he says.
“But mostly I sing ballads, folk and blues, whereas this is a little more formal. It’s not an Italian opera, but it’s a big challenge for me. So I’m taking voice lessons, which is a challenge and a joy.”
Bergin has family connections to Cork: his sister lives in Clonakilty and he has “nieces and nephews all over the area,” and he’s very enthusiastic about his fellow Shandy Hall cast members, who are all locals.
Having starred opposite many of Hollywood’s leading ladies, he says he’s fortunate to be working with London-based but Cork-born Geraldine Barry Murphy, who plays the part of Philip Cross’s lover, Evelyn Skinner.
“She’s a delight,” he says. “I’ve been very fortunate to get such a wonderful leading lady, but all the cast are great. They’re well experienced and very agile in their acting and their dancing, and their singing in particular. The great thing about the word amateur is that they love doing, it so it’s a joy to share the stage with them.”
He also has nothing but praise for Michael Sheridan, who wrote both the book and the stage adaptation, and is directing the play. Bergin and Sheridan met on the set of When The Sky Falls, the film of Sheridan’s Veronica Guerin inspired book, in which Bergin played a leading role.
“Mick’s a wonderful guy and a great director. He’s always, always searching for truth and that’s what we should all be doing. I respect his work. I listen to him and he listens to me too; I always like a director who listens to me,” Bergin laughs heartily.
For Sheridan, who is a former journalist and theatre director as well as the author of several Irish true crime books, delving back into the past for Shandy Hall was a departure from his usual work, which is closer to home; he knew Veronica Guerin and was working on a semi-fictionalised account of her story when she was murdered.
But his extensive research into the case of Dr Philip Cross unearthed a multi-faceted, gripping tale that he knew from the outset had plenty of dramatic elements, he says.
“You had a very canny murder detective, who was from Cornwall and based in Ballincollig, and then you had an absolutely brilliant young forensic scientist in Dr Charles Pearson, who was based in what’s now UCC but what was Queen’s university then.
“An investigation, a sexual betrayal, a poisoning, an exhumation: if you pitched it as fiction people wouldn’t believe it.”
Casting Bergin in the role of Cross lends plausibility to one aspect of the tale that audiences may have a tough time swallowing; that a beautiful young woman would be attracted to a man 41 years her senior. Cross was 62 when he was executed, and Bergin is 65.
“Patrick has that dynamism and charisma,” Sheridan says. “We had to cast someone of the right age, but I think audiences will understand how Evelyn could have fallen in love with Dr Cross when they see Patrick in the role.”
To which Bergin responds with another of his booming laughs. “It’s very a flattering thing to be considered for a role that’s still attractive to females at my age, but then of course, I am extremely attractive,” he jokes.
- Murder at Shandy Hall runs in The Riverside Park Hotel, Macroom, from October the 13th- 19th. It also runs at Cork’s Opera House for one night only on Thursday, October the 27th.