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INTERVIEW: Niamh Cusack on life in lockdown #ArtistsInRetreat

Niamh as Lady Macbeth in the RSC's most recent production
Niamh as Lady Macbeth in the RSC's most recent production

During the lockdown Herald arts finds out how local creatives are dealing with their downtime. Here Niamh Cusack shares her thoughts. The actor played Lady Macbeth at the RSC in the 2018 production, which can be seen online here.

Tell us about what you do, and how you got started.I am an actress. I shouldn’t have been an actress, I was supposed to be the Cusack daughter who got away – a flute player who came from a family of actors.

I studied flute at the Royal Academy of Music, then worked in Dublin in the RTE Symphony Orchestra, but after two years of working professionally, alongside people for whom music was their oxygen, I realised that it simply wasn’t my vocation. I came back to London, and I planned to enrol in an adult education course in French at the City Lit in Covent Garden – I had an idea I might do a degree in languages. The French course was full but there was an acting course, one day a week, available: Movement , Voice and Acting. So I put my name down. The class was run by two very talented teachers, Powell Jones and Valerie Colgan, and after my first day I knew that this was what I was supposed to be doing. Me and acting fitted!

The following year I started drama school at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. It was supposed to be a three year course, but towards the end of my first year I auditioned for the Gate Theatre in Dublin (in those days you could actually write to a theatre like the Gate and get an audition!). I was cast as Hester Worseley, a prim young American, in the Oscar Wilde play A Woman of No Importance. There followed a Bouccicault play at the Gate, then Three Sisters at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, after which I arrived at the RSC.

In that first season I played Desdemona in Terry Hands’ production of Othello. Ben Kingsley played the title role and David Suchet was Iago. It was a baptism of fire but I learnt so much – David and Terry were both great teachers.

Where are you spending the lockdown and who are you with?I am spending lockdown with my husband, Finbar, in our house in London. Just us two. Our son is living with his girlfriend.

How are you staying connected with the outside world?I email family and friends. We speak to our son on Facetime, and we have had a couple of dinners or glasses of wine with friends that way too. Some of my friends in Dublin do Zoom calls every few weeks.

Are you managing to do any kind of work?I have continued to mentor my student at Guildhall, working on speeches on FaceTime. And I contributed briefly to the RSC’s Education outreach online.

What are the upsides and downsides to being in lockdown/isolation?I am happier living life at this pace, I think. Not rushing around so much. I love that it has been quieter everywhere... fewer planes, less traffic. It has been a chance to reflect on what’s important in life. I am struck by people’s kindness, courage, dedication determination.

The downside is that I am not the most organised of people and so, although there are a couple of things I manage to do EVERY day, I do tend to wander from one activity to another.

Do you have any cultural recommendations for keeping entertained during the isolation?Books: I have read Commonwealth and The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, a writer I never read before, and really loved them. Both stories are about families, siblings and what makes them who they are. And I was lucky enough to get a chance to read Rachel Joyce’s new book, Miss Benson’s Beetle, in proof copy. It comes out in July. It is the story of a female friendship and it is moving, tender and funny. Rachel and I worked together long ago at the RSC when I played Rosalind in As You Like It and she was a wonderful Celia. But writing was her passion and she eventually gave up acting to devote herself to it. She writes really beautifully.

I was determined to read some non-fiction books and I would recommend Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, a history of walking (I LOVE walking). She describes the relationship between walking and thinking and walking and culture, walking and politics, how walking, the kind of walking we do, has changed over centuries and decades. Only thing to warn you: the print is VERY small, so you need to be in the full of your health to read it!

Favourite film: So Long my Son , a Chinese film by Wang Xiaoshuai, has the most wonderful performances in it, particularly the central couple. It is the story of a marriage struggling to survive the loss of a child, against the back drop of the one child policy in China. It spans from the 1980s to the present day and its structure turns it into a puzzle – in which the full picture only becomes clear at the very end. You really feel that you have lived alongside these people. It’s three hours long... perfect for an empty evening.

Favourite documentary: 63 Up – director Mike Apted following a number of people from when they were seven years old to now. It was incredibly moving and revealing about class and the question of nature versus nurture. And of course it makes you think about what it is to be a human being, to have a life. Which is maybe one of the gifts of this whole period.

I have also dipped into a number of telly series: Normal People and Ozark were two I really enjoyed. The former really captures young love in this love story of two rather damaged, confused young people. And the latter is a tall yarn of a thriller that sometimes made me laugh out loud with the outrageously awful situations the central couple get themselves into. The bad people are very, very bad. Grisly murders and dead bodies abound!

I have started listening to podcasts for the first time: three favourites are Talking Politics which is a London Review of Books podcast; the New Yorker Fiction Podcast; and, This Jungian Life where a trio of Jungian analysts (Americans) discuss different aspects of being alive.

Any other tips for not going stir crazy?I have been recording a poem a day and sending them to friends and family. It has been a really joyous thing to do: I have discovered poets and poems I didn’t know. And that, along with a cycle ride each day by the river, has kept me sane.

Niamh as Desdemona to Ben Kingsley’s Othello at the RSC in 1985
Niamh as Desdemona to Ben Kingsley’s Othello at the RSC in 1985

What will be the first thing you do when self-isolation is lifted?I am really looking forward to going for a walk with our son and showing him the route we have found along the river to Hampton Palace. And walking and talking with friends and family.

What help would you like to see being given to the arts community?I am really hoping that the government will make access to financial support for creative artists as straightforward as possible. There are many creative artists: actors, poets, writers, artists, musicians, dancers, sculptors, directors, who have always lived on the breadline, people who have never earned enough money to put any away for a rainy day. And once the arts venues are reopened, I think encouraging people back to those kinds of gatherings will be essential. Speaking on behalf of the theatre community I feel I want to remind those in power that theatre has been one of the jewels in the British crown, a major tourist attraction and a major export. Let’s not forget that. Subsidising tickets sales even more, would be a step in the right direction too.

Theatre cannot be replaced. Since ancient times people have needed a place to gather, to connect through that shared experience, to understand themselves and empathise with others through the stories they see played out in front of them. I would like to think that our society and government will not just pay lip service to that notion, but actually make it a priority.

What lesson would you hope mankind could learn from the coronavirus catastrophe?I think our pace of life is too fast, too rushed. I would hope that people have been connected with the value of a simpler life. I have really relished my quieter existence and I aspire to retaining some of that simplicity.

ONLY FLYING WHEN ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. The drop in air pollution has got to be a real lesson to us all.

Our key workers need to be paid properly and given the respect they are due ALWAYS.

Maybe we need to think about what we deem a successful life? I think a universal basic income may well be a way forward to a different, more equal society.

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