By David Hennessy
IFTA winning actress Charlene McKenna from Monaghan can currently be seen onstage at The Almeida in London in a new version of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, adapted and directed by Richard Eyre. Well known from BBC’s Ripper Street which will soon be returning for its second series, Charlene’s other television credits include a recent appearance in Skins and RTE’s restaurant drama Raw for which she won the IFTA for Best Actress in 2009. Since getting her first break in Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto, she has also acted in films such as Middletown and Jump.
Charlene plays Regina, a maid to Lesley Manville’s Helene Alving. For all of her son Ozwald’s life, Helene has shielded him from the truth about his drunken and debauched father. Regina is drawn to Ozwald who has just returned from Paris and would like to escape with him but when both Regina and Ozwald find out the truth about the kind of man, Captain Alving was, neither will be the same again. “They both (Regina and Ozwald) independently have a yearning to escape, find a new life and way of thinking but it all goes upended. As is life,” Charlene laughs.
Expertly acted and directed, it builds to an emotional and stunning finale. Does it take it out of its cast? “It does. Everyone always says: ‘What do you do beforehand?’ We’re listening to Abba and Dolly Parton and bouncing around the dressing room because I think we feel to invest too much sadness into preparing is just too much so we’re actually working the other way around. Definitely exhausted by the end of it and a glass of wine is always needed.”
However, this is not to say the play is without its humour with some really unexpected laughs being delivered: “It is (funny). It’s the gallows humour which has so many laughs. We were specifically directed against the laughs in a way, Richard didn’t really care about that but yet they’re still there which also makes him brilliant as a director. If they laugh, they laugh and it’s a total bi-product. He wants to tell that story. It’s just so dark, it’s complete gallows humour and it’s very funny. What are you gonna do? You’re being faced with so many brutal truths about life and human nature that you kinda go: ‘You’ve got to laugh at that’.”
Ghosts runs for 90 minutes with no interval. Does it work best this way so the drama can continue at the pact it does? “It does. This is Richard’s own adaptation of the play, the normal play ran at two and a half hours or something, and when we were running through the new version, we realised that the only place to put the interval would be once you realise the orphanage is on fire. That comes in after 38/40 minutes so we were kind of said: ‘That doesn’t really work’. So there was no good place and Richard ideally didn’t want to break it up because we didn’t want to break the momentum because it really cranks up a notch, I think, by not breaking it. It’s kind of relentless.”
This is Charlene’s first time onstage in five years. What attracted her to the production? Was it the chance to work with multi-award winning Richard Eyre? Eyre has five Oliviers and will helm Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Stephen Ward when it comes to London in December: “Yeah, it was everything (about the production). I had had a meeting with my agent and we talked about theatre and I had said: ‘I definitely do want to get back onstage because it’s been a long time’. But I was like: ‘It really has to be the right production, the right size of a part, not too huge that I would be completely intimidated, having been away from it for so long..’ This came in with Richard directing, his adaptation, with only five in the cast and Lesley the other woman, I couldn’t have written it down better so it was perfect. It is good to be back. It’s amazing to be back with a production like this. It couldn’t be better.”
By keeping all the action in one sitting room, Ghosts makes the audience feel like flies on the wall as the characters and their vast back story is laid out piece by piece: “The play is only one day. It’s a day that turns into an evening and into a night, it’s only one day. It’s a real slice of that life and I think the set is amazing in terms of the way you can see through the whole house so you can get a glimpse of what’s going on in the dining room and in the conservatory and yet it’s all within this room. I think all that really meshes together well to give you a real taste of what it was like to be inside that house and I love that.
“You’re not fooling people with lots of trickery and costume changes and set changes, you’re very reliant on story and performance. The set and lighting’s phenomenal but there you are from start to end so we have to keep you entertained.”
For the full interview, pick up the October 19 Irish World.
Ghosts is showing at The Almeida Theatre N1 1TA until November 23. For more information, go to: http://www.almeida.co.uk/.
Ripper Street returns to BBC 1 on Monday October 28.