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Niamh Cusack

Published April 7, 2010

Niamh Cusack, a member of one of Ireland’s best known acting families, is currently delving into the personal affairs of another famous family, that of Charles Dickens. The Victorian novelist isn’t coming out smelling of roses, finds Caroline Bishop.

The last person I would have expected Charles Dickens to be compared to is Tiger Woods. I couldn’t imagine what a Victorian English novelist would have in common with an Obama-era American pro-golfer. But actress Niamh Cusack can.

The Irish actress is playing Dickens’s wife Catherine in a new play by Sebastian Barry which deals with a little known – and less palatable – side of the much-loved novelist and social campaigner which may well muddy his reputation in the eyes of those watching the play. After a 21-year marriage to Catherine in which she bore him 10 children, Dickens ejected his wife from the family home in 1858, never to see her again. “I think it really did topple the icon to some degree,” says Cusack of audience reactions to the play during its tour prior to opening at London’s Hampstead theatre this week. “It’s the Tiger Woods story in a way, it’s just simply illuminating the fact that great men have feet of clay and in fact are more interesting as a result.”

The play, Andersen’s English, is set in Dickens’s country home, Gad’s Hill Place, shortly before this episode, when Danish fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen came to stay. Andersen, with his limited English, is a bystander to the breakdown of the Dickens marriage, which forms the basis of Barry’s multi-layered play. “It’s also about the vulnerability of those two great writers. They both were very flawed human beings,” adds Cusack. “It’s also a kind of [picture] of English Victorian life through the eyes of an outsider, which Sebastian [Barry] is and which Hans Christian Andersen is. It’s about lots of things and I think that’s the thing that people are so surprised by, it’s not about one simple thing. But as with all of Sebastian’s writing, it’s about family.”

Cusack is driving through the snow-hit roads of north Wales as we talk – she assures me she is using her hands-free kit – on her way to Clwyd Theatr Cymru in Mold, where the play is visiting on tour. Despite the distraction of the road and more than one dip in mobile reception, Cusack talks fluently and expressively about the subject of Catherine Dickens and the situation that was forced upon her by her husband. “To me, I feel that Catherine was almost too real for Dickens. I think if you read his books – I am a great fan of his books – the women in his books are stereotypes generally. They are either incredibly good, fine people or monstrous women, but there’s rarely a sort of very multi-dimensional, complex woman in his books, I think. And I think that everything that Catherine brought to the table – she had 10 children, she did have post-natal depression, she knew him very well – perhaps that wasn’t what he wanted at that time of his life.”

“It’s also about the vulnerability of those two great writers. They both were very flawed human beings”

Little remains with which to research Catherine, as Dickens burnt all the letters she sent him, so although Cusack is playing a real person, she is being led by the depiction of her that Barry has created. “I’ve tried to certainly honour the spirit of Catherine and honour the play and I think what Sebastian has written is a woman who is actually trying to get herself back on track, who feels she wants to fight for her marriage and feels betrayed not only by her husband but by her sister.”

Not only was Catherine expelled from her home, but her younger sister Georgie, who had been living with the family, was retained by Dickens to look after their brood. “I find it incredibly upsetting, the notion of it,” says Cusack of the predicament Catherine was forced to bear. Regardless of how Barry’s interpretation of Mrs Dickens may inevitably differ from the real person, the facts remain heartbreakingly real. “At the end of the play all the women actually get a speech each to sort of tell what happened to them and Catherine speaks of her sons being all sent away – one to Australia, one died in India and being buried in India – and I find whenever I say that line, “He lies in some lonely graveyard in India”, it breaks my heart because I think there is a grave in India somewhere that belongs to Walter Dickens, and his mother never wanted him to go away. So those kind of things hit home, because that’s not pretend, that’s real.”

The production employs puppets to portray some of the 10 children in the Dickens household, “which was a sort of côup de théâtre but it was also something that was born out of necessity,” says Cusack, citing the budgetary constraints of touring theatre company Out Of Joint. The puppets help conjure the family atmosphere that Cusack says Barry has drawn in his writing. “I think there’s a real sense of children, and also you get a real sense of Dickens being the centre of everything. He had a huge amount of people who were dependent on him, not just family but friends. He was a do-gooder to a lot of people, and that aspect of him you do see. And that must have been a huge drain on him and strain on him,” says Cusack, treating the novelist with an admirably fair hand despite earlier saying “obviously you’re talking to Mrs Dickens now and I am pretty judgemental of Charles Dickens as I see him”.

“I think we’re quite a robust family in that respect and I do think we genuinely believe that our relationship to each other is actually more important”

Though Cusack herself is from a family of five children, she does not identify with the hubbub of family life as depicted in Andersen’s English. Her three older siblings –Sinéad, Sorcha and Paul – are considerably older than herself and her younger brother Pádraig, making a family of two halves. “And we were brought up more or less single-handedly by my mother. My father wasn’t living at home from when I was about eight or nine.”

Her father, Cyril Cusack, who died in 1993, was one of Ireland’s best known actors who worked on stage in the West End and on Broadway as well as enjoying a film career that included The Day Of The Jackal, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Homecoming and My Left Foot. “He was one of a handful of actors in those days who had an international career,” says his daughter. “Now there are far, far more Irish actors who are all over the place, in movies as well as theatre, but then it was much more of a rarity. And he had great pride in that, he was very proud of representing his country.”

Like most members of theatrical families – her mother Maureen had been an actress too and older sisters Sinéad and Sorcha are also in the business – Cusack was “dragged to see them all strut their stuff” and grew up with acting in her blood. “I think I’ve always had quite a strong imagination, I played at make believe a lot as a child. I think that made my mother suspect that maybe one day I would be an actress, though she never spoke of it because she didn’t want any of us to be actors, she felt it was a lousy profession to be in in terms of stability and security for your family and continuity for relationship, all of that, she thought it was a disaster.”

Her mother must have been pleased that her youngest daughter’s initial choice of career was a professional flautist. Cusack studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and worked in an orchestra for a year. But when the work dried up, she took a drama course as a gap filler, decided “this feels right to me” and subsequently applied to go to drama school full time.

The career that followed encompassed a period at the Royal Shakespeare Company – including playing Juliet to Sean Bean’s Romeo – appearances at the Donmar Warehouse, Old Vic and in her native Dublin, as well as numerous regional and touring productions. Screen work has been less constant, though taking the original female lead in Yorkshire drama Heartbeat boosted her prospects significantly, in fact she says “I think it’s one of the reasons that I’m still working.” She played Dr Kate Rowan for three years from 1992, leaving the popular programme on a tidal wave of viewer tears when her character was killed off. 

At the time, the programme made Niamh arguably more widely known than her older sisters Sorcha and Sinéad, but the trio rarely feel competitive. “I think there are times, obviously, when one of you is doing better than the other, getting more work than the other, when you can sometimes feel a twinge of envy, but I think we’re quite a robust family in that respect and I do think we genuinely believe that our relationship to each other is actually more important, and I think the older you get the more you think actually it’s just a job.”

“My mother didn’t want any of us to be actors, she felt it was a lousy profession to be in”

A career highlight was acting alongside her sisters and father in a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in Dublin and London’s Royal Court in 1990. “It was a privilege. It was not easy because we were thrown together in a very intense situation, but it is probably the proudest moment in my acting career.”

Also in the cast of that production was Finbar Lynch (then known as Barry Lynch), Cusack’s now husband and father to her son Calam. They have since appeared on stage together several times, most recently in Brian Friel’s Dancing At Lughnasa at the Old Vic last year. “I admire him hugely as an actor and I love acting with him,” says Cusack. “He’s a very, very lively, spontaneous kind of actor and I think I’m better working with him.”

Unlike her mother, she wouldn’t discourage Calam from following in his parents’ footsteps if he wanted to do it, though “I certainly would discourage him if he thought he was going to become a movie star, because I think that’s so rare and it’s not the reason to go into the business.”

With his family tree, he has a lot to live up to. But his mother has shown that pursuing an acting career is not always as disastrous as his grandmother predicted. “I think I’m incredibly lucky,” says Cusack. “I have rarely done a job that I haven’t enjoyed. I mean, 28 years in the business. It’s brilliant. That’s exactly what it is.”

CB