When the music has stopped
Maureen Beattie told David Hennessy about her current play that looks at a violinist who can no longer play due to MS, being born in Donegal and why if her house was burning she would save her Irish passport.
Maureen Beattie is one of Scotland’s best known actresses.
Born into a famous showbusiness family, she has performed on the most revered stages in the UK.
She has recently finished playing Mrs Pearce in My Fair Lady at the London Coliseum after playing Helen in The Scent of Roses at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. Her other theatre credits include Yerma (Young Vic), Nuclear War (Royal Court) and The Ferryman (Gielgud Theatre).
Maureen’s screen work includes Casualty, playing David Tennant’s mother in Channel 4 drama Deadwater Fell and- obligatory for a Scottish actor- Taggart.
She has also been president of Equity, the trade union for arts and entertainment, and has been honoured with an OBE for her services to entertainment.
However, you may not know Maureen was born in Co. Donegal.
Maureen is currently starring in Tom Kempinski’s Duet for One with Tara Fitzgerald (Game of Thrones, Legend, Brassed Off) at the Orange Tree Theatre.
Duet for One is the story of Stephanie Abrahams, played by Fitzgerald, who is a world-renowned concert violinist at the peak of her career.
But when being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis means she can no longer play, her composer husband sends her to psychiatrist Dr Feldmann, played by Beattie, in the hope that Stephanie can find some other way- and the desire- to live.
Punctuated by violins, music is the third character in the play.
The Irish World asks Maureen how she’s enjoying the play just before realising ‘enjoy’ would most likely not be the best word for such an intense two hander.
“Enjoy probably isn’t the right word,” Maureen agrees.
“Tara, and I have been talking about the mountains that we climb to do this piece.
“It’s a delicate beast to play so every night, it’s a bit of a, ‘Take a deep breath and get on there’.
“But the pleasure, of course, is the fact that it is such a lovely play, I think, a gorgeous piece of work.
“And it is to know that the audiences that we have are appreciating it and enjoying it.”
Having always defined herself as a musician, Stephanie has lost a huge part of herself. This is something Maureen saw in her work with Equity when creative people could not work during the pandemic.
“It’s how we define ourselves and I think a lot of people who work in the arts, we very much define ourselves by our creativity and if that’s taken away..
“I was president of Equity until July last year when I stepped down and because of that role, I was particularly conscious of a number of people who went through incredible crises during the COVID pandemic.
“When it was at its worst and everything shut down, a lot of our members had profound crises because we are encouraged in our industry to define ourselves by how good we are and how much work we get.
“If that dries up, then that’s a really hard thing when a whole part of who you are is just taken from you.
“I thought about that a lot when we were rehearsing.
“There’s a wonderful therapist called Dorothy Rowe and she has written many books, but one of the books that she wrote is called Guide to Life.
“Her starting point is that every human being has a meaning structure and we start building it as soon as we’re born.
“As soon as we cry our first cry and take our first breath, we start to form our meaning structure and different people have different meaning structures, and if your meaning structure is seriously compromised, that’s what causes the most enormous turmoil like breakdowns.
“In fact, people can take their lives because their whole meaning structure has been cracked right down the middle.
“You have people who lose the love of their life and then cannot go on without them try their best, but just can’t do it and take end up taking their own lives because their reason for living has gone.
“That’s what happens to Stephanie without question.
“What she actually says is, ‘It’s where I live, playing the violin is where I live, it is my life’.
“She doesn’t say it but the implication being once it’s gone, it is pointless going on, because there is nothing. There’s nothing left to her life.”
While the character of Dr Feldman remains neutral and asks Stephanie questions about her life in order to help her find a way to ‘reach’ for another one of life’s branches despite music being a branch that is broken.
However, Maureen does erupt in a shocking explosion that shocks her patient. Sick of flippant remarks about suicide- something the doctor has seen patients resort to- she can take no more. Stephanie is shocked by her rage but even more so by the feeling that is behind it.
“She (Dr Feldman) cares about her. She cares about her.
“The violin’s her favourite instrument and then she finds herself with Stephanie Abrahams, who is one of the greatest violinists of all time, up there with Paganini and Heifetz.
“There is a an emotional connection, which Feldman has to be very careful about because you cannot become subjective.
“When you’re talking to somebody and trying to help them in therapy, you have to remain objective.
“I think that the reason why Dr. Feldman has the explosion that she has is because she’s heard all the crap before, she’s heard it all.
“This woman is so close to the end and she cares passionately about her welfare in a way that she maybe is able to disengage with other patients generally.
“I think that’s why she allows that explosion out.”
What has it been like working with Tara? “Fantastic. She’s gorgeous.
“She’s a wonderful woman, an absolute delight and a brilliant actress. What more could you want?
“She did say to me just before we did the press night, ‘Gosh, imagine if one of us had been a really awful person, if one of us had been a real bitch’.
“I said, ‘Exactly’. Because it’s so symbiotic.
“You have just got to be there for one another and you have to be generous of spirit as well.
“You have to be a listening actor.
“Not, ‘Oh, hold on a minute. It’s my turn’.
“Really listening to what each other is saying.”
The show has had the support of those who suffer with multiple sclerosis.
MS is a disease that affects the central nervous system.
The actresses Selma Blair and Christina Applegate are two well known people to have been diagnosed.
The original play is reported to have been inspired by the true story of Jacqueline du Pré, a world famous cellist who had to give up her music due to multiple sclerosis. Despite her short career, she is still considered one of the best of all time.
“We had a conversation with a chap from Multiple Sclerosis UK.
“He has MS and he talked about his condition and he was delightful.
“One of the things about MS, of course, is that it really does affect different people in different ways big time.
“So you have a real situation where it can be in remission for 10 years and somebody else like Stephanie’s character has got what is going to without question just be progressively eating away at her ability to live a normal human being untrammelled by it.
“There’s two American actresses that both have MS and they both have written about it.
“Somebody else gave Tara a book which is a violinist who got MS.
“So there’s a lot of research going on to know that what’s happening on that stage is accurate.
“There was one chap in a couple of nights ago who was very complimentary about it.
“The way that he was talking, it sounded like he was very happy with what we’d done.”
The current production includes some updates from earlier runs. For instance, this is the psychiatrist has been played by a female.
“Richard Beecham, our director, updated it with full permission of Tom.
“First of all, he had permission to cast the part as a female.
“Obviously pronouns and things changed because of me.
“But also we’re much more au fait with the whole therapy thing so we change some of that as well because I would deliver some information and it was a bit like, ‘Yeah, we all know that now’, as opposed to being a revelation.
“So it’s been updated in several different ways, in a good way, I think.
“Tom certainly seems to be happy so that’s good.”
The play does make for uncomfortable viewing at times for the reason that you are witnessing someone’s therapy session which says a lot about the cast’s believability.
Another update is the use of a tablet to play some music at some point.
However, while technology has progressed and the world has modernised one thing that has not changed, sadly for those who suffer, is that there is still no cure for MS.
“My character does say, ‘As I understand it, considerable progress has been made in recent years, they are now using drugs, which seem to be most effective in extending the periods of remission’.
“I say that and I think that’s true.
“But then, of course, Stephanie says, ‘Yeah, but not for me. I tried it and it didn’t work for me’, because it doesn’t work for everybody.
“But for some people, it’s a fantastic new lease of life.”
Maureen was born in Bundoran, Co. Donegal.
The daughter of Scottish actor and comedian Johnny Beattie, known for River City, and his model wife Kitty Lamont, it was where Maureen’s parents were spending the summer when she was born.
“My father was a comedian and he went over to Bundoran to do the summer season at St. Patrick’s Hall there.
“My mother was a model and got to be about six months pregnant and couldn’t work anymore so she went across to join him, so I was born in Bundoran, Co Donegal and I’m thrilled about it because apart from anything else, I now have my European passport. I have an Irish passport which I’m completely thrilled about.
“You know that thing some journalists ask you, ‘If the house was burning down, what’s the one thing you would save?’
“Well I would save my Irish passport because I’m so thrilled to be a European again, I think Brexit is just such a calamity.
“Unless you’re one of the hedge funders that managed to make a lot of money out of it, because all you cared about is yourself and your money, its impact is horrific and on my industry, it has been awful because of people now not being employed in Europe.
“It’s impacted massively on all that sort of thing because of the hoops that now have to be jumped through by the admin people.
“It’s awful. It’s shocking, tragic.”
Have you got the chance to go back to Ireland since? “Well, funnily enough I managed to go once with my mum before she died, which I’m really thrilled about.
“So she was able to say, ‘That was the place where we stayed’. She was able to show me the building I was born in and she was able to point all those things out to me and I also managed to go over there with my dad, which was lovely before he died.
“Most recently I was in Dublin in August/ September 2021 making a film Sunlight.
“It was such a wonderful experience to do the film.
“Dublin is such a great city. I love Dublin.
“I had my birthday while I was there so I hired a car and I went across and I spent my birthday in the place of my birth for the first time because I was about three weeks old when I was brought back to Scotland.
The film Sunlight sees Maureen starring with Barry Ward and Liam Carney and includes a character very much in the same situation as Stephanie in Duet for One.
“It’s about a man who has an illness like multiple sclerosis, an illness, which is eating away at him meaning that he is less and less able to look after himself, and more and more and more dependent on others.
“So he decides to take his life.
“I play a woman who comes to help him to do that because a lot of times people don’t want their families to be involved because it can lead to criminal prosecution, and all kinds of things.
“That law, I believe it needs to change.
“I feel quite passionate about it which helped me.
“There’s another character in the film who believes the exact opposite and that life must go on for this man.
“He wants this character to go on living and he wants him to stay because he can’t bear the idea of him being dead and all that sort of thing.”
Sunlight premiered at the Dublin International Film Festival on Saturday.
In Duet for One, Stephanie speaks of sharing music with her mother who passed away very young and then battling with her father to pursue the violin.
It was doubtlessly different for Maureen whose parents were in the industry.
Were they always supportive? “It was a mixture of support but also pragmatism.
“They had faith in my ability and thought I had talent, but were very conscious of the fact that, particularly dad, this is not a business where you’re guaranteed life’s work.
“It was really great.
“When I was at drama school, there were a couple of people who actually said, ‘You know, my parents just really barely speak to me, because they just can’t bear the idea of me doing this’.
“And I’ve come across people in the industry as well, who said, ‘I went to drama school and my parents never spoke to me again’. It’s extraordinary.
“Stephanie talks about her father and goes, ‘He was just a little business man, he had no idea. He could not comprehend what I was about at all.
“And I think that’s true for some people.”
In 2020 Maureen was honoured with an OBE.
“Very proud of it, very proud of it.
“I know a lot of people have problems with it because of the empire thing but actually, it’s got nothing to do with the empire anymore.
“It’s what we’ve got. It is what we’ve got to say to somebody, well done.
“I’ve been to the palace twice, once for my own OBE and once when my dad got an MBE.
“You actually just sit there and you watch all these people who have done the most incredible things in their lives.
“They have literally given up their lives for other people.
“There was a young man, I think he was a captain in a tank regiment and he went into certain death to make sure that his men were going to be safe, and by a miracle he didn’t die.
“So he was given the highest military honour possible and you watch people like that and we’ve got to say well done.
“My OBE is for services to the entertainment industry, and really is because of the Safe Spaces campaign that I ran with Equity, which was in response to the Harvey Weinstein scandal and all that sort of thing.
“I’m very proud of it.
“It (Sexism)’s still there but we are more aware of it.
“I like to think that it’s happening less, the perpetrators are more aware that they’re likely to be, ‘You, sling your hook’.
“And I think we played our part in that.”
Duet for One is at the Orange Tree Theatre until 18 March.
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