FOR Barbara Brennan it’s a case of déjà vu all over again. The Dublin thespian, one of the nation’s finest actresses, is currently playing Lady Catherine de Bourgh in tThe Gate’s lavish adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
It’s not the first time she’s tackled the part. Brennan first appeared as Lady Catherine — the formidable nemesis of heroine Elizabeth Bennet — in the Gate’s original version back in 1995. When it was revived in 2002 she resumed the role. And now, she’s dusting it down once more for the play’s newest incarnation, again directed by Alan Stanford.
“It is the same production and I think I’m the only actor that’s been in all three,” says Brennan. “Obviously, the Bennet girls always change because they have to be young. I have ‘the advantage’ of being the old lady. When I did it originally I think I was probably a bit too young but I’m growing into it, as they say.”
Lady Catherine is one of Austen’s most memorable creations. A forceful aristocrat, she is challenged by the zest and the independence of lowly upstart Elizabeth Bennet. It’s a fun role to play, says Brennan, who gets to storm the stage at a couple of intervals, one of which leads to a blazing showdown with the novel’s young protagonist, played by Lorna Quinn. “She wants to thwart Elizabeth from marrying her nephew Mr Darcy, so she’s very much the baddie,” says Brennan. “And I think people love a baddie.”
Of course, the confrontation between the two women was also Austen’s way of staging the tension, in her own era, between traditional values and an encroaching spirit of female independence.
“It’s a meeting between two very strong-minded women,” says Brennan, “one of them very old-fashioned, and another who, at the time, was ‘the new woman’. And even still today, I think Elizabeth Bennett is the new woman. She stands up for herself and says, ‘I have a right to do what I choose without any reference to you or to your values’.”
As an old truism about the theatre goes, good parts start to dry up once an actress departs her 30s, yet Brennan continues to find herself in high demand. This year she has been centre-stage in two big Abbey shows, Elaine Murphy’s Shush and Frank McGuinness’s The Hanging Gardens.
“It’s been a good year,” says Brennan. “Definitely, when you’re the age I am, it’s a good year to do three in a row.”
The shortage of roles for women of a certain age can be frustrating. “But it’s ever been thus,” she says, philosophically. “Women have always been fighting against stereotypes and to get decent roles.”
Notably, Pride and Prejudice finds Brennan treading the boards again with her brother Stephen, another lauded veteran of the Irish stage. The Brennans are, in fact, something of an Irish theatre dynasty. Their father was the renowned actor Dennis Brennan, a stalwart of the Gate in the days of Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir. Meanwhile, their mother Daphne Carroll — now a hearty 90 years old — was a member of Radio Éireann Players. Barbara’s other siblings, Jane, Catherine, and Paul, are also actors, as is her daughter Eva Bartley, with whom she appeared onstage in Shush earlier this year.
Presumably, there is an additional frisson when appearing in a show with a family member? “Funnily enough, they’re just another actor,” says Brennan. “I suppose you do have the shorthand of knowing the person extremely well, but really it’s just actors acting. When I worked with Eva, people would say that they could see similarities between us physically in the things we did onstage but we’re not as aware of that as people looking on from the outside.”
The fact that she and her family work in the same profession does have its charms, though.
“It is nice. And we can have a good old gossip because we all know what we’re talking about and who we’re talking about. Acting is very much a common ground for us and we’re a very close family. That’s down to my mother, who is very much at the centre of everything. But it is nice. If there is any problem or any difficulty then you’re talking to people who understand it and who can empathise with you.”
She and Stephen have appeared together in a number of productions over the years, including the Abbey’s 2000 production of Hugh Leonard’s A Life, when they were brought almost too close for comfort.
“We were married in that,” she laughs. “But there were no shenanigans. That married couple were well past doing anything romantic, if you know what I mean. So it didn’t make any difference. We couldn’t, and we wouldn’t, be cast as anybody who had romantic leanings toward each other.”
Barbara and her siblings all gradually cut their teeth on radio plays with their mother. Barbara’s first gig was playing a little boy in a Russian play. “I was so small that they had to stand me on a little orange box beside a microphone. They just asked my mum did she have anyone at home who could read. It wasn’t even ‘Can they act?’. It was just ‘Can they read?’.”
Well, thank goodness she knew her letters, then. Irish theatre never knew its luck.
* Pride and Prejudice runs at the Gate, Dublin, until Jan 18
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