The actress returns to The Mai two decades after an early role in the play, writes.
Irish actress Derbhle Crotty’s career has come full circle.
Having played the teenage Millie in the premiere of Marina Carr’s The Mai 24 years ago at the Peacock in Dublin, Crotty is now playing the title role in the play.
Produced by Decadent Theatre Company, the play, set in the midlands, is the heartrending story of four generations of Irish women. The focus is on The Mai, a 40-year-old woman who is determined to save her marriage. The family is spanned by The Mai’s grandmother, a devious centenarian and The Mai’s disillusioned daughter, Millie.
Crotty, fresh from the success of Mark O’Rowe’s The Approach at the Edinburgh Festival, is relishing the role of The Mai. “She’s a strong and very capable character. She’s artistic and romantic — and is very principled. A mother-of-four, she is the principal of the local school. The fact that she is referred to as The Mai throughout the play gives a hint about her stature. She has natural authority.”
Grandma Fraochlan “is the ultimate matriarch, the big mamma. Then there’s a complicated relationship between The Mai and her mother. The play explores the struggles of the women and their absent men, absent because of death or abandonment.”
The play opens with Mai’s philandering husband returning after five years, having walked out on her. The Mai has built a dream home for this unworthy man. Presiding over the action is Grandma Fraochlan reminding everyone that the past is looming over the present.
With its cast of seven actresses and one actor, The Mai is the kind of play that no doubt gives solace to the theatre practitioners involved in #WakingTheFeminists. Has there been a power shift in Irish theatre as a result of the movement which calls for gender equality on stage and behind the scenes?
“I’m starting to wonder how to define that,” says Crotty, who gave a passionate speech at the Abbey in 2015 calling for more plays by women to be staged. “We are as humans at any time, required to stay alive and to occupy several roles in our everyday lives. How we manage that is the measure of how strong we are. There’s an interesting line in the play where The Mai says: ‘Everyone is deranged. Some manage to hide it better. That’s all.’”
As for the commitment from ten of the country’s leading theatres, theatre companies and festivals to gender parity by the early 2020s, Crotty admits she doesn’t quite know how that is going to work. “But there are substantial changes and a substantial shift in the thinking. But when you consider gender in film and TV, it’s extremely problematic. The sets on TV programmes tend to be populated by men.”
Crotty has experienced the ultimate gender-blind theatrical experience, playing Henry IV in DruidShakespeare’s production of the play in 2015. Winning a best actress award for the role in the Irish Theatre Awards, Crotty says: “It was a unique experience, very exciting and it really shook things up. After the first ten minutes or so, audiences settled into it and involved themselves in the relationships and power play. They didn’t concern themselves with gender.” (Ruth Negga will be hoping for a similar response when she plays Hamlet the Gate this month.)
Brought up in Cavan, Crotty studied law at UCD. Realising it wasn’t for her, she became involved in Dramsoc at the university and went on to complete a diploma in performance at Trinity. An associate artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company and of Druid, Crotty was based in London until recently. She returned to Ireland because “I missed the music, the voices, the shorthand and the sense of humour.”
Future work includes a possible production of The Approach in New York. With a cast solely made up of women, it’s another play that’s in tune with the changing face of Irish theatre.