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Striking a Cord

Eileen O’Higgins plays Anya in The Cord. PIctures: Manuel Harlan.

Actress Eileen O’Higgins told David Hennessy about returning to the stage with a new play about the travails of new fatherhood, London people thinking she and her Brooklyn co- star Saoirse Ronan went to school together and being a giant ‘toilet roll holder’ on Mary  Queen of Scots. 

Eileen O’Higgins is recognisable from her roles in the Oscar- nominated Brooklyn and Mary Queen of Scots, both alongside her friend and megastar, Saoirse Ronan.

Her other credits include the Netflix series loosely based on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, The Irregulars and BBC’s Northern Irish- set wartime drama, My Mother and Other Strangers.

More recently she has been playing Kathleen, the title character’s mother in the epic Western series, Billy the Kid.

The last time The Irish World spoke to Eileen she was starring in the dark comedy drama Dead Still with Michael Smiley and Kerr Logan.

This time she is returning to the stage.

The last theatre production Eileen was in was her breakthrough role playing a young pregnant woman in Hold Your Tongue, Hold Your Dead.

It was this performance that led to her being cast in the Colm Tóibín adaptation, Brooklyn.

Eileen is returning to the stage in The Cord, written and directed by Olivier Award- winning writer and director Bijan Sheibani, at the Bush Theatre.

The Cord is described as ‘an intensely frank and relatable insight into the challenges of being a parent and a child’.

The follow up to Sheibani’s 2019 Bush Theare hit The Arrival, The Cord sees Eileen O’Higgins and Irfan Shamji playing new parents Anya and Ash.

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The arrival of the baby has changed everything for Ash and Anya. While Anya has taken to it effortlessly and joyfully,  Ash watches his wife feeding their newborn son and feels aware of a growing chasm separating him from them, and him from his own mother.

As sleepless nights, relentless crying and hushed arguments take their toll, Ash grapples with the puzzle of how to be a father but also how to be a son as he confronts issues from his own childhood.

The cast is completed by Lucy Black who plays Ash’s mother Jane while the three actors are also joined onstage by cellist Colin Alexander.

Eileen O’Higgins told The Irish World: “The play is just so relatable, the writing is so accurate to how we live our lives.

“It’s so naturalistic, and when you watch these people, you can empathise with all of them so easily.

“You can understand how even tiredness can be the impetus for a whole string of events that can slightly go awry.

“I also was really intrigued and I think what makes this play unique is- I hadn’t really seen much done about somebody becoming a new dad, so much happens to the mum because she’s physically given birth.

“My character has this journey of becoming a new mum but the play follows Ash, and what it is to become a dad when you haven’t physically given birth to the baby or they don’t physically require you straightaway at the start, what your role is and how you move into that, and also how you move into creating your own family unit and how that might change the dynamic with your family.

“It really looks into his relationship with his own mother.

“His own mother had sort of postnatal psychosis when she had him, so I think he’s suddenly starting to address that having become a dad himself.

“The three of us are very intertwined.

“It really is really, really moving.

“It’s a family drama about a subject area that’s not really touched on very much.

“But it being Bijan’s play alone is a reason to come because he is such an exciting writer.

“Oh, and we have a cello.

“Everybody should come see a play with a cello.

“Colin is amazing and he does everything.

“We’re driving on a motorway at one point, you never knew that a cello could become the motorway.

“Sometimes the cello is the baby.

“Sometimes the cello is a car.

“Sometimes the cello is just somebody’s mental state.

“It’s incredible what one man can do with a cello.

“It’s definitely a character in itself.”

Eileen with Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn.

You certainly look emotional in some of the rehearsal shots I have seen, does the play put you through the wringer?

“Yeah, it’s an emotional one for sure. I think the characters really challenge each other.

“People are definitely really pushed.

“The characters are definitely really challenged with not only their new roles but the change in the other people that they knew.

“Ash and Anya were a very compatible, happy couple unit.

“There are subtle things like the breaking down of communication and how much you can take on for your other half when you’ve already got quite a full plate.

“There’s so much to it.

“I think that is actually real life, it’s complex.

“It’s not always tied up neatly in a bow and I think people can really understand that.

“It’s how people overcome things and come back together and unpack things to work out what they’re annoyed about, or what they’re struggling with, and all sorts of things like that.

“I’m talking about my relationship to him quite a lot but it’s also the relationship between him and his mum and sort of how early childhood events can really influence how you go through your life holding on to fears or worries but you don’t know why you have them.

“So there’s all of those things that sort of are playing out.

“I think it’s really nice to see people who genuinely care for each other.

“There’s no villain in the story.

“These are real people.

“Nobody is perfect.

“I think it’s just about getting into understanding why people behave in certain ways.

“I think, as an audience sort of looking in at the three, you can empathise with everybody’s point of view of how they’re seeing it.

“You go, ‘Oh yeah, I can totally understand why she’s got frustrated with that’. Or, ‘Yeah, that’s got nothing to do with you but you’re receiving the brunt end of that and you don’t understand why’.

“I think the audience are sort of like the overall seer.

“It’s almost like a knot of entwined threads and then through the play things start to get picked out to be like characters understanding or growing really and settling into their new roles, new life.”

How has Anya taken to being a mother? If Ash is struggling…

“Anya has taken to it. Anya has really embraced it and is really enjoying it and revelling in it.

“I think it’s just very upsetting for her to see that her partner hasn’t jumped on the rollercoaster and isn’t seeing everything through the same rose tinted glasses.

“I think she’s definitely connected, having a lovely time.

“Actually the start of the play there’s some great joy for me because I spend so much time talking to this baby because I am thrilled with every burp, every smile. Everything the baby does is pure joy, entertainment and the best thing that could have possibly happened.

“Anya’s adjusting as all people do but she’s really definitely enjoying being a mum.

“I think what’s difficult is that she’s very aware that her other half is not having the same experience as she is.

“Anya does know that it’s something to do with how his mum was when he was born.

“It’s just very, very relatable.

“It’s like people’s families that they’ll see.

“There’s big emotion in it.

“But it’s big emotion that I think people will relate to because there is no baddie, there’s just people struggling with certain things.

“It’s also very difficult when you’re struggling with something and see the effect that it has on somebody you’re close to, even though you do not mean to upset them in any way.”

“I’m really looking forward to it.

“I have to say, anytime in my life that I’ve done a play. Like, the last play I did, I actually was in Boston, and I came back and got Brooklyn, so they’ve always sort of come with like huge life changing events.

“There’s just a joy to performing live that sort of tops up the battery or something.

“I love it. I love doing TV and film as well though. I really do.

“There’s just something nice about being able to do new writing as well, like a brand new play that nobody’s seen before and tell a story that is modern and relevant and made for people right now, today.

“It’s not something that you look at and go, ‘Those themes are still relatable’.

“This is for now. This is for us.”

Eileen in My Mother and Other Strangers.

You just mentioned Brooklyn there.

It must be ten years since you were working on that one now, can you believe it?

“I know this because I had a friendversary.

“That’s the first time that I met Saoirse even though people in London can’t tell the difference between a County Down accent and a real Dublin accent.

“They always go, ‘Did you go to school together?’

“And I’m like, ‘No, I don’t know what school we were at. It must have been Castlewellan via Carlow’.

“I was like, ‘No’.

“We actually met on St. Patrick’s Day on a rehearsal for Brooklyn in Soho.

“I can’t believe it was 10 years ago.

“That was a very special job.

“I think I knew from the offset that that was a very special job.

“Again when I read it, I just completely related because I’d moved to London. I’d moved away.

“I think I’m so lucky to be in it.

“The fact that I got to tell Colm Tóibín’s work was really special.

“I will always remember arriving in Enniscorthy with all the signs up.

“I think Enniscorthy could feel that the film was going to be what it was because I’ve never turned up to a film set before where the banners were like, ‘Welcome. We’re so pleased to see you’.

“I think that’s testament to Colm and probably Saoirse because she wasn’t that far away in Carlow.”

Of course that wasn’t the only film Eileen did with Saoirse Ronan as they were both in Mary Queen of Scots along with Margot Robbie and a host of other stars.

Along with Maria-Victoria Drăguș, Chantelle Hoyle and Liah O’Prey, Eileen played one of the ‘Four Marys’ who were Saoirse Ronan’s Mary’s personal attendants.

“I’m really close with all the Marys. There’s five Marys and we spent so much time together.

“We spent months together basically like giant toilet roll holders, because we had these majessive costumes- That’s not even a word but oh my god, they were exquisite.

“But they were heavy and we weren’t allowed to get them wrinkly.

“So they got us circular bar stools and we would lift the skirts and then you were allowed to take the weight off your feet and the skirt went all around.

“My granny had one of those Barbies with one of those crochet things that covered up the spare toilet roll and that is the only image that I could ever think of every time we got on these barstools: We were giant toilet roll holders with little heads on top.

“We spent a good four months of life just eating lunch on an ironing board because it was the only thing that could come up high enough and wearing things that made us look like we were about to get haircuts, we were bonded.

“We had a delightful time going through the courts of Scotland for sure.

“That’s the thing with this job: The people you get to meet. You get friends for life.

“Sometimes you cross paths with people and I do think you were meant to meet them.
“They just stay.

“They’re like the bit of gold that didn’t go through the filter and then you realise that you’ve shared 10 years of life together and all the time you felt like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory winning a gold ticket just to get into a film.

“I hadn’t really thought about that before.”

Eileen in The Irregulars.

Eileen spent many years in London but when she first left her home in Castlewellan, Co. Down it was to go to Cardiff to study at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

“They used to come to Belfast and Dublin to audition people.

“That was really lucky because my mum was pregnant at the time with my youngest sister.

“I just felt it was really indulgent to say that I wanted to be an actor and I felt like it was okay to ask for a lift to Belfast but I certainly didn’t feel like I could go, ‘Can I go to London?’ Or, ‘Can I get on an airplane?’

“I’m one of six children. I lived in rural Ireland. It just didn’t seem feasible or real, it just wasn’t the world that I lived in.

“But then when they were going to Belfast, I said, I wanted to go and then I got through.

“And then my dad took me to Cardiff.

“He waited for four hours for these auditions to take place and then I came out and I didn’t know how it went.

“And they called on the Monday and gave me an unconditional offer.

“So I went.

“I think that was the biggest move.

“The Brooklyn moment was probably when mummy and daddy drove off in Cardiff and I realised I didn’t know anybody in the landmass.

“In Scotland, Wales or England I didn’t know anybody.

“So I was thinking, ‘Oh, big change’.

“There must have been some reason why I was sure that I wanted to do the audition.

“I definitely wanted to act.

“I think it was just realising that you could do that as a job.

“People go, ‘You want to act?’

“It’s all changed now.

“Look how well the Irish actors are doing.

“It’s incredible.”

Eileen in Billy the Kid.

Speaking of special career moments, the Billy the Kid role must be one of those..

“That was because every Sunday my dad makes an incredible Sunday roast and then post-Sunday roast I feel like it was always a Western or a submarine movie.

“You know when you’re in that food coma and you either hear that (submarine beep) or else John Wayne is walking into some ranch, that is Sunday afternoon.

“Billy the Kid was another one.

“And every scene in Billy the kid we did it.

“There was no pretending.

“Everything was like, ‘The cart’s going to overthrow, you’re gonna get thrown in a river’.

“And then you’d look at it and go, ‘That cart’s gonna fall over and then we’re going to get thrown in a river and we’re gonna spend all day pretending to drown’.

“Tom was absolutely amazing, now he is the Tom Blyth from the new Hunger Games spin off.

“I think that it’ll be a once in a lifetime one.

“But I recommend doing a Western.

“There’s definitely nothing like it and you will always be upstaged by a horse, always.

“You can be doing your best acting and they always need a pee and it’s not a wee pee, it’s a long pee.

“So we’ve gone cowboys, I’m hoping for space but I’ve not really made it to modern day that much to be honest with you, but I feel the future’s coming for me.”

You do have the present day in this play..

“You’re absolutely right. It’s so modern day and in the present here.

The Cord runs 12 April- 25 May at The Bush Theatre.

For more information and to book, click here.

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