Cork actress Eileen Walsh told David Hennessy about her new play Girl on an Altar, how she is drawn to the work of playwright Marina Carr and why Magdalene Sisters remains so close to her heart 20 years after the film was made.
Eileen Walsh is recognisable from screen roles such as the hard hitting Magdalene Sisters, Sharon Horgan’s Catastrophe and Women on the Verge and more recently the film Wolf and Amazon hit series Modern Love.
Eileen won Tribeca Film Festival’s Award for Best Actress for her work in Eden.
Other credits include Benedict Cumberbatch’s Patrick Melrose and Pure Mule on television and the films Rialto, When Brendan Met Trudy and The Van.
However it was on the stage that she first came to prominence playing the part of Runt in the stage version of Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs opposite Cillian Murphy.
As great as screen acting is, Eileen always feels an ‘immense’ draw towards the stage.
She also feels an intense draw towards the playwright Marina Carr, the lauded playwright of By the Bog of Cats, Marble and Woman and Scarecrow.
Eileen will play the part of Clytemnestra in Girl on an Altar when it comes to the Kiln Theatre in Kilburn this month. The play is Marina’s new re-telling of the Greek myth that brings Clytemnestra’s story to the forefront and asks the question, is it possible to forgive the unforgiveable?
Girl on an Altar is also presented in a new partnership with the Abbey Theatre.
In Greek mythology, Clytemnestra was the wife of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, and the sister of Helen of Troy.
When Helen was taken to Troy, Agamemnon was eager to set sail with his forces but only after doing something terrible.
Girl on an Altar tells the story of what happens when he returns to his wife ten years later.
Eileen told The Irish World: “Clytemnestra was married to Agamemnon, who’s one of the greatest kings and leaders and heroes who went to Troy.
“But to get to Troy, he had to appease his warring factions, prove how strong he was, and he sacrificed our daughter.
“So that’s where the play opens, the play opens with a sacrifice.
“And then he goes to Troy for ten years and comes back an even bigger hero but he has to put his marriage back together.
“So by the second scene, you have him returning home after ten years.
“In the original story, he returned home and Clytemnestra killed him within five minutes full of revenge and hatred for him and love and everything else.
“But in this play, Marina has paused that five minutes and gone, ‘Right? What happens? What happens if we make them sit and have a scene together? What’s the passion that comes out of them? And how do they want to continue to hurt and punish each other even though they can’t help but have this chemistry and get drawn back together?’
“But the inevitable is always there. She kills him.”
It is a play that poses some big questions for its characters and the audience.
“Can you forgive somebody murdering your daughter? It’s a huge ask.
“But it’s very interesting.
“For him to admit that he was in the wrong, that brings their whole world down around them.
“That means that the Gods that they believe in were wrong, that they possibly don’t exist, that he shouldn’t have done it.
“He didn’t really need to do it if he was going to go to Troy anyway and he was the greatest king anyway.
“So what more did he need to prove?
“But as soon as he admits that, that brings his whole life down around him.
“So it’s a big ask of each other, but it’s how much do you need and love somebody in your life that you’re willing to admit the horrible bits of yourself as well?”
The Irish World can’t help but be reminded of Game of Thrones and its harrowing scenes of King Stannis sacrificing his own daughter.
Eileen agrees that this story is just as brutal as George RR Martin’s tale.
“There’s so much of that.
“Then I even end up having an affair with his cousin who got deposed off the throne by him.
“His own brothers were slaughtered by Agamemnon’s father.
“It’s exactly a Game of Thrones kind of history and background and just viciousness.
“No one is safe, everyone can be unseated.
“There is only six stories in the world.
“It’s like we have learned from the Greeks. The Greeks gave us six amazing stories and we have taken those and done different tunes on each of them.”
And Eileen was certain there was no better writer to re-interpret the classic text than Marina Carr.
“She’s amazing. She herself would say, big things happen in the world but they happen to people.
“For me, that’s her work in a nutshell.
“She does these epic stories, but she places them in the kitchen.
“She brings them back down to really domestic little scenes.
“You have these two demigods in Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and you just place them on a picnic rug and go, ‘There you go, have a glass of wine each and see if you can straighten out your relationship’.
“You go, ‘Oh wow’.
“I think her ability to tease out normal life from epic proportions is incredible.
“It makes it very easy to connect with for anyone, not just for somebody like me who adores her work but it means that you can come and see it because you love Greek stories or you can come and see it because you love Coronation Street and you love seeing what is happening behind everybody else’s closed door.
“And you forget how funny her writing is as well.
“It’s funny because we see ourselves.
“And it’s funny because we see our own relationships.
“And so even though they are these huge historical figures, they’re also able to say the smaller things that make us kind of go, ‘Ooh, did she just go there?’
“Marina never shies away from the horror so if there’s a chance of putting a little microscope on a couple with a murdered child, there’s no better woman for doing it.
“I think this is Clytemnestra if she lived next door.”
Eileen first acted in Marina’s work when she played the title role of Portia Coughlan at the Abbey in 2004. She would also star in Ariel at the same venue and has just finished a short film based on Carr’s most recent one woman play iGirl
“I feel very drawn to her work.
“I’ve got a long history with Marina.”
Portia Coughlan tells the story of a woman who hears her dead twin calling to her from the grave and deals with themes of incest and the challenges of motherhood.
“It’s not easy.
“But then again, none of her work is easy.
“And yet I can happily leave it at the stage door.
“I did a performed reading as well years ago of On Raftery’s Hill, and that’s another incredible piece of hers.
“But it is hard and that’s why I love her stuff.
“It’s not easy. It’s a big emotional ask of any actor. But once you go there, the payoff is huge so it’s worth it.”
In Girl on an Altar, Annabelle Comyn will direct Eileen and her Irish cast mate Kate Stanley Brennan.
The cast is completed by Nina Bowers, Daon Broni, Jim Findley and David Walmsley.
When it comes to The Kiln, Girl on an Altar will follow Black Love as the latest offering of a new partnership between the theatre and Dublin’s famed Abbey.
“Black Love was just finishing up as we started (rehearsing) so it’s kind of like passing on the torch.
“I think the Abbey and the Kiln are looking forward to having a joint relationship for a while yet.”
Eileen performed at the theatre when it was known as The Tricycle when Bryony Lavery’s The Believers came there on tour but she has long been based in the London area.
“I’ve been here a long time, over ten years now.
“I’m Willesden Junction so very close and my lovely dentist is on the Kilburn High Road, so I’m here quite a bit.
“I mean, I’ve been up and down this road be it for takeaways, or shopping or dentistry.
“But I think there’s still very much an Irish flavour to Kilburn.
“You see the older Irish community that are one foot here and one foot back home still and I think that’s kind of sad and romantic in equal measure.”
When asked if she is happier doing screen or stage work, Eileen says: “I think it depends on who I get to work with.
“If I’m lucky enough to be doing a Sharon Horgan project that feels very comfortable and exciting.
“And Peter Mackie Burns (Rialto) is another gorgeous director that is very actor centred and performance driven and so getting to do films with him is amazing.
“But I think there definitely comes a time where you suddenly go, ‘I need theatre’.
“I don’t feel that so much with film or TV.
“I mean obviously the money is great and the profile is great and all that kind of stuff, but the draw I feel to theatre is immense.
“That you just go, ‘I need it’.
“I couldn’t act without theatre being 80% of my work.
“Recently I went to New York with my sister with Enda Walsh’s play The Same.
“And I would do Enda’s work until the cows came home.”
It all began for you with Enda Walsh’s work, didn’t it?
“Just before Disco Pigs, I’d done a play called Danti Dan.
“That was written by Gina Moxley and Enda saw that and then Enda approached me then with The Disco Pigs script.
“And then obviously, that’s the thing that kind of launched me really or gave us all such a huge projection, including Cillian.
“So yeah, it was incredible.
“And both Cill and I have kind of maintained a relationship with that company, Corcadorca, and have gone back several times and worked with them and also maintained a relationship with Enda.
“So Enda’s recent play The Same was done with Corcadorca so it was a lovely bringing together of Enda’s writing and Pat Kiernan’s direction from years ago, and me and my sister Catherine.
“So yeah, I’m very lucky to have Enda in my life.”
Growing up near Turner’s Cross in Cork City, Eileen credits her sister Catherine, also an actor who has worked largely in theatre and won an Irish Times Best Actress Award, for inspiring her to try acting.
“We grew up not knowing that acting would have been a choice really.
“Catherine did the school play and her drama teacher suggested her for the National Youth Theatre. And that was her.
“She was just off on her career path before she knew it, at 17 she left home and lived in Dublin.
“I just thought she was the greatest thing since sliced pan getting to live her Metropolitan Life.
“She ended up putting me into Saturday morning classes in The Crawford (Art Gallery).
“And then before I knew it, I was doing Danti Dan.
“So Catherine was definitely the launch for me.”
It is 20 years this year since Eileen starred in The Magdalene Sisters, Peter Mullan’s film about three girls sent to the Magdalene Laundries.
Also starring Nora- Jane Noone, Anne- Marie Duff and Dorothy Duffy, it exposed the world to the horrors suffered by girls sent to such institutions as ‘fallen women’.
Since then inquiries into the Magdalene Laundries and mother and baby homes have revealed more of how badly the women and children were treated in such institutions.
“It is a story that obviously has stayed very close to my heart, to all our hearts.
“Still, two of the girls are my best friends. We have remained incredibly close, both Dorothy and Anne- Marie, and I’d be lost without them.
“I’m a terrible actor for making friends with people and whatever but then I don’t stay in contact. I’m a terrible person with cards or phone calls or anything- And yet those two women have remained in my life steadfastly.
“So Magdalene means a huge amount to me.
“And Peter Mullan’s passion behind it was a great leading light for us all, and it was such an important story.
“It is never ending,” she says of the more recent revelations and investigations.
“We have so much left to discover for the hurt of all those people and all those women damaged and families split up.
“It’s incredibly sad and vital that we as a nation continue to go back and delve into it and not forget, and get reparation of some kind for both those little bodies, and the grown ups that have been scarred by it.
“But I’m very proud of it as a piece.
“I hope it remains in people’s memory.”
Girl on an Altar opens at Kiln Theatre on 25 May, with previews from 19 May, and runs until 25 June.
For more information and to book tickets, click here.