When Irish eyes aren’t smiling

Irish Gothic and Noel Coward romance on the stage, and remembering actress Hayden Gywnne

On Theatre

There never was a river in an Ibsen play or a gun in a Chekhov without a drowning or a shooting as the outcome. Nor are there many stage renditions of Irish life in the countryside which proffer good cheer about familial coexistence.

Marina Carr’s 1996 play introduced a millennial generation to the Irish Gothic tradition of domestic disharmony. Portia Coughlan’s eponymous antiheroine is played in the Almeida’s revival by Alison Oliver (Frances in Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends in the BBC adaptation).

In Carrie Cracknell’s lamp-lit production, Portia’s thirtieth birthday begins with the waif-like celebrant drinking whisky at 10am. A gnawing obsession with a past loved one hints at kinship with Hedda Gabler in Portia’s devastating combination of ennui and bored cruelty to those around her.

Married off to Raphael, a tepid factory owner (Chris Walley), by her farmer father (a brilliant thumbnail of coercive control by Mark Halloran), who measures his family relationships like a feudal baron in terms of acreage and fences, her loveless home life is offset by forays to the rocky banks of the fast-flowing Belmont river, venue for encounters with the local George Best lookalike. Not uncoincidentally, it is also the site of her twin brother Gabriel’s death 15 years before.

Secrets, lies, mourning and the relationship between the living and the dead are at the heart of the story and her brother’s childhood singing voice represents his ethereal, unearthly presence. Unmoored characters are “borne back ceaselessly into the past” as F. Scott Fitzgerald, another scribe of Irish heritage put it.

It’s silly, stylish and a tad dated but, as Coward would have wanted it, beguiling

Carr has an unerring ear for the speech rhythms of the Irish Midlands and a knack for spiky dialogue. “Sure,” Portia tells the Western-obsessed local barman. “You’re the kind of cowboy who gets shot in the first scene of the movie.” It’s not the most cheerful night in the stalls — you might even call it bleak —but the theatrical luck of the Irish holds, drawing new audiences to ghosts, changelings and bad-tempered old matriarchs.

For those who prefer feuds delivered in posher accents, Private Lives at the Ambassador’s Theatre fields Elyot and Amanda (Patricia Hodge and Nigel Havers, left) as the star-crossed and just extremely cross bickering ex-spouses, reunited while on honeymoon with their new partners.

These two bankable warhorses (Hodge is 77 and Havers 70) play up the OAP love action with rheumatically challenging sofa romps. Snips to the text remove the more egregious references to domestic violence but beyond that, there’s not much you can do to update 1930s Noel Coward.

The best of its repartee still glitters as the couple who can neither live together nor apart are “jagged with sophistication”, squabbling in a Deauville hotel and an Art Deco love nest. It’s silly, stylish and a tad dated but, as Coward would have wanted it, beguiling.

These final theatre outings of the year have been tinged with sadness for me and many others who admired the actress Haydn Gwynne, who has died from cancer at just 66 after a short illness.

We became friends in a bizarre theatrical way: she was “playing” Lady Macbeth in a “Shakespeare for Schools” benefit event (she was dedicated to keeping drama alive in cash-strapped state schools). The Scottish play was being put on trial, with the (real life) High Court judge Michael Burton presiding.

Jeremy Paxman and I were the luckless jurors trying to mete out justice. Haydn, improvising at top speed (insisting on washing her hands in the dock) and declaring that she has been misjudged by the patriarchy for centuries, called in to give evidence the witches — a cross-dressing troupe who claimed to be having a gender-fluid rave on the heath.

Haydn combined the true professional’s ability to segue from one role to the next with equal gusto. Her last two outings were as Mary Berry in the Great British Bake Off in the West End (“Do come to see me dressed as a giant scone” she messaged) and the Donmar’s play about Winston Churchill and the 1926 strike, where she played an etiolated Stanley Baldwin plotting against Winston.

From her Drop the Dead Donkey TV debut to classical theatre — a lovely, austere Queen Elizabeth to Kevin Spacey’s Richard III, throaty Margaret Thatcher opposite Helen Mirren in The Audience and manic Polly Peachum in the National’s Threepenny Opera, her versatility made her a casting agent’s delight. She relished her outing as Mrs Wilkinson in Billy Elliot on Broadway and her final TV role as a pastiche of Camilla in The Windsors played to her natural love of vaudeville. “I do love getting a wig on,” she observed.

Haydn had a kind, but sharp eye for the paradoxes of stardom. A devoted Equity union member, she once went on a demo of similarly leftie luminaries alongside the late Alan Rickman. After a stint of marching and banner-waving, they reached Park Lane, at which point he murmured that they had done their bit for the movement — and peeled the two of them off for a lavish tea and scones at the Dorchester, a destination, as she put it, “not best known for its commitment to the class struggle”.

Few in her profession combined success and kindness so democratically. A performance of Sondheim’s Old Friends, in which she should now have been acting was devoted by Sir Cameron Mackintosh to her memory. From this old friend, a heartfelt standing ovation.

This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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