Back to Ballybeg with the Mundy sisters

Julie Sharkey stars in the Everyman’s production of Dancing at Lughnasa, writes Colette Sheridan

Back to Ballybeg with the Mundy sisters

JULIE Sharkey, who plays the eldest sister, Kate, in an upcoming production of Brian Friel’s play, Dancing at Lughnasa, knows all about the financial insecurity that blights an actor’s life. Poverty is a recurring theme in the play, directed by the Everyman’s artistic director, Julie Kelleher.

Set in the summer of 1936, the five unmarried Mundy sisters are primarily dependent on Kate’s income from her teaching job. But even that is under threat when the sisters’ brother Jack, a missionary, returns to the family homestead in the fictional town of Ballybeg. It seems he ‘went native’ while in Uganda and his heretical views, known to the Catholic Church, have tainted Kate by association.

Roscommon-born Sharkey recalls a time in Cork when there was a lull in theatre work. “I thought, ‘what am I doing? I’m never going to work again’.”

She reapplied for nursing which had been her original career choice after she left school. “But then I decided I couldn’t do it in the end. I wasn’t prepared to go absolutely the other way. But it was great to ask myself that. I realised I’m committed to acting.”

Now, Sharkey realises it’s vital to have ‘bread and butter work’ and to this end, she is pursuing teaching work in the arts and disability sector in Dublin — something she did for years in Cork prior to returning to the city where she started her career.

Sharkey, who is in her early forties, worked in Cork for 20 years and has a masters degree in theatre studies from UCC. “It felt like a time for change. I wanted to go back to Dublin to see what’s going on there. But since I moved away, I’ve been back working in Cork a lot. I’ve just finished Future Proof at the Everyman and I was also in The Secret Garden there.”

Sharkey spends a couple of days a week at the Roscommon Arts Centre where she is one of their artists-in-residence. She is being mentored by Mikel Murfi to develop a theatre piece and is focusing on the role of daughters in family businesses as her own family owns a haulage enterprise.

Dancing at Lughnasa is one of those rare plays that has a largely female cast. With the emergence of the #wakingthefeminists lobby in Irish theatre, drawing attention to the dearth of acting and directing roles for women, Sharkey believes the future is bright for women in theatre. “There’s lots of female writers being given more of a platform such as Noni Stapleton, Amy Conroy, Mags McAuliffe, Christiane O’Mahony and Stefanie Preissner.”

Friel’s classic memory play is narrated by old Michael (played by Jack Healy) who is recalling one summer in Ballybeg when he was a boy. The illegitimate son of the youngest of the Mundy sisters, Christina, Michael’s father is Gerry Evans, a charming but unreliable man. A travelling gramophone salesman, he rarely calls to the Mundy household. In the play, his visit brings the promise of romance. And not necessarily with the mother of his child.

“There’s a little spark between Gerry and Agnes,” says Sharkey. But beneath the occasionally joyous surface when the sisters dance enthusiastically to music played on an old radio set, their impecunious circumstances are regularly alluded to.

The play came about when Friel and the writer, Thomas Kilroy were walking along the London embankment. “They came across a number of homeless people. Friel mentioned that two of his aunts ended up on the streets of London. Kilroy said to Friel that he should write a play about them.”

Sharkey says there are many layers to the play. “It’s about suppressed emotions and feelings. My character (a devout Catholic), kind of runs the show. When she and her sisters perform the dance in what seems to be a dreamlike atmosphere, Kate is the first one to notice when the music stops.”

  • Dancing at Lughnasa is at the Everyman in Cork from August 2-26

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