Sicilian tensions… in a small Irish village

Linehan in rehearsal

The feisty doyenne of Irish theatre, Rosaleen Linehan speaks to Shelley Marsden as her new play Liola opens at the National Theatre…

“There’s a healthy dose of sex, which is never a bad thing – and lots of singing and dancing”, says the gregarious Rosaleen Linehan of her new stage role in Luigi Pirandello’s Liola, originally set in 19th century Sicily. Unlike more intellectually weighty works (such as the Italian playwright’s most famed work, Six Characters In Search of An Author) she says this high-spirited production, which stars Rory Keenan in the title role, is refreshingly light-hearted. “Of course, its core is a dealing with hypocrisy. It’s a study on the hypocritical attitude of people in a small village towards any behaviour which is not just the usual.”

Pirandello wrote three plays very quickly in his youth, and Liola – written entirely in Siclian dialect – was one of them. “It’s a young man’s play, so it’s very bold and full of fun.” It’s rarely performed, even in Italy, and the actress confesses her only encounters with it have been via the internet. What really drew her to taking part was Tany Ronder’s unique, rather saucy adaptation, particularly as she had worked with her already on her translation of Lorca’s Blood Wedding at The Almeida Theatre.

“With Tanya involved, I knew I was onto a hot piece!” she says, with an impish laugh. “Ronder and Richard Eyre [former director of the National Theatre] came up with this incredible new version which is performed entirely by an Irish cast and gypsy musicians. I think they came up with that new landscape because they felt a small village in Ireland reflected a small village in Italy. Strangely enough, in Blood Wedding everybody came from different countries! But it fits very well. There’s no reference in the text to ‘Oirish’, though, if you know what I mean. There’s no ‘Begorrah’s or ‘Aren’t you a wonderful girl’ in there. It’s written straight.

Linehan’s character is linked to that of a central character in Liola, a girl who is married to a rather unpleasant old man that she’s been forced to marry because he wants a child, and his first wife didn’t give him one. Says Leenehan: “She’s still head over heels in love with Liola, who is a young, rather randy gentlemen, a free spirit with children scattered all round the place. It’s the culminationof that. I am her aunt, but I’ve been basically her ‘mother’ from birth because her mother died. So I am fiercely protective of her, standing up for her and making sure justice is done for her.”

If anyone has seen the 76 year old actress on stage, they’ll know that she doesn’t normally ‘do’ motherly. But her character is extremeley sardonic with her friends about life and the universe, something Leenehan – whose background was in musical comedy on Irish radio before it was acting – can connect with in a big way. “She’s not a totally cosy cosy person, which is like me. I’m like a tigress about this girl.”

She may not play maternal parts much, but the Dubliner must have played just about everything else on stage. She’s one of the most respected Irish actresses doing what she does, but it’s an assertion that leads to a pained groan from the lady herself. “God I know, well I’m old enough now, so I suppose I am! For a long time I was always the youngest which was lovely and now I’m the oldest in every production. But it has it’s own charms, I suppose…”

Not every actress would have her staying power, but embarking on a new theatre project gives Linehan the huge buzz it always has. And it’s not so much the opening nights or the waiting nervously to read what critics have made of her latest play, but the process of rehearsals that gives her the biggest rush. Isn’t that a little geeky?! “You could say so!”, laughs Linehan. “I just love being in rehearsal, and discovering things I never knew before. My husband says I prefer rehearsals to performance; he says I’m one of those people that would prefer to go to language classes than visit the country! I just adore the process, the learning”.

The process for Liola has been delightful, she says. The cast is huge, with both children and adults, but don’t expect to see Leenehan jumping around in any of the dancing sections. “Thanks be to god I’m not in those bits, but I’m in a lot of the choruses. The music is spectacularly, really. It’s a big orchestra for a play in the theatre – we have six, seven musicians. And they all have to be over 55, which suits me. I have somebody to flirt with!”

Linehan has had a mighty career, including an acclaimed turn as Kate in Friel’s Dancing At Lughnasa (which saw her nominated for a Tony Award in 1992). But ask her to cast her mind back to one of the characters she has relished the most, and like other actress that have played the role, it’s Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s one-woman tour de force, Happy Days:I think every actress in the world should play her if they can. I did it over a period of about five years, in different countries and different continents; I had a wonderful director and it’s a wonderful play – a great gift to be given.

For the full interview, see the printed edition of the Irish World, issue 3 August 2013.

Liola opens at the Lyttleton Theatre on 7 August and runs until 6 November. Visit to book.



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