ARTS AND FEATURES — 13 February 2014

Niamh Cusack as Sonya

Shelley Marsden talks to Niamh Cusack as she prepares to finally bring Cheykov’s Sonya to the stage…

Niamh Cusack admits she has always wanted to play Sonya in Uncle Vanya. The instantly faimilar Irish actress, 51, has played many brilliant women on TV and stage, but Sonya was never one of them.  She’s too old to play her now – so her latest role, in a roundabout way, has finally allowed her to do so.

She is playing Sonya opposite Sean Gallagher’s Andrey in a new production of Brian Friel’s two-hander Afterplay, coming up as part of Sheffield Theatre’s Friel season, to coincide with the playwright’s 85th birthday year.

Sonya, the unsung star of Uncle Vanya’s household (she falls head over heels with family doctor Astrov, but is ignored in favour of the stunning Yelena) with the help of a chance encounter, a whole lot of vodka and a good amount of Russian-style gloom, meets Andrey from Cheykov’s The Three Sisters – the brother whose reckless gambling leads to the family home having to be remortgaged.

In Friel’s vision, Andrey and Sonya meet by chancein 1920s Moscow, and the emotional trauma of their back stories still weighs heavily. Andrey has become a fantasist, in order to protect himself from the pain of a marriage in tatters and a ruined career, while Sonya clings stubbornly to her reality; a gift for bureaucratic efficiency and an unquenchable love for Astrov.

Says Niamh: “They meet in a coffee shop in Moscow; like a brief encounter, and you quickly realise there’s potential for romance there. They end up revealing themselves to each other entirely, and find they are kindred spirits. It’s a beautiful piece actually, really beautiful…”

She loves this idea of a chance meeting; two random people discovering that they really click. “It’s happened to me, and I’m sure it’s happened to most people.  We all want those moments, and we remember them when they happen.

She adds: “The thing with Friel and Cheykov is, they understand everybody, everyman every woman. There’s a universal thread in this play. I think it’ll appeal to all age groups; people who have a lot of history and people who don’t. There’s such truth and heart in it.”

The premise, of bringing two old Cheykov characters together like this, might sound contrived but Niamh believes if anyone was going to pull it off, it was Friel: “Like Cheykov, he has a deep interest in humanity. Both are very ‘human’ writers, and Friel has been very loyal to the original plays, but then he’s moved those characters on. And it’s believable.”

Sonya is now even more alone than before – her father has died, Yelena and Astrov have actually got together (though that isn’t a particularly happy marriage) and Uncle Vanya’s dead.  She’s running the estate on her own; it’s collapsed so she’s really on her uppers.  It seems natural that Sonya should assuage her loneliness in a run-down café and find an echo of her own solitude in downtrodden concert violinist Andrey.

Niamh reckons Sonya is even darker in Friel’s moving portrait of her some twenty years on, but as stoical about her dire situation as ever. “Her persona is very determined; controlled and efficient. But life hasn’t exactly been kind to her. She still wants to battle on and she’s still in love with Michael Astrof, that’s the big thing for her. She still dreams about him.”

For the full interview, see this week’s Irish World (issue 15 Feb 2014).

Afterplay is at Crucible Lyceum, Sheffield from February 6 – March 1. Call Box Office 0114 249 6000 or see www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk to book.

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