Where is home for you? Is it still Ireland?
I live in Primrose Hill. I’ve lived there on and off for a long time. I couldn’t say that home was Ireland. I should say that; I should be there more often. My father is very old now, so I go home as often as possible. But I live alone in Primrose Hill, and I go to and fro wherever I need to be.
Do you love to travel?
I do love to be in more than one place. There’s a relationship with Los Angeles, but I also love to go anywhere else. I have a very untypical life.
You’re starring in Mother Courage and Her Children. Do you see it as an anti-war play?
It isn’t an anti-war play: it sort of says that war is the state of affairs, and there are moments of peace within war. That’s very challenging, I think, for an audience sitting in London. Five hundred yards from this theatre is the place that is declaring war. The play is entertainment, fundamentally, but I feel that it’s about war because war is a heightened way of being.
People are always proclaiming the death or the rebirth of political theatre. What’s your view?
I couldn’t say that phrase has been used once in our experience of this play. It’s got none of the earnestness associated with political theatre. It’s high classical, poetical theatre, thrilling with the roots of music hall and what we would now call populist theatre. The phrase “political theatre” has lost its meaning in the strictest sense, but I hope the audience has a wonderful time thinking about the issues.
How are you finding this, after Happy Days?
I wanted very much to do something, having done a Beckett sitting in a mound, with a lot of people. I was glad to get out of the mound.
Recently you directed an opera, Riders to the Sea. Did you enjoy the departure from acting?
I’ve spent an enormous amount of time in rehearsals in the past 20 years, and part-producing the work I’ve been part of, so directing is not a million miles to jump. With the opera, I was quite keen to do something outside my realm. It’s very good for any artist to throw themselves into the unknown. I’m going to do another opera, actually, in the spring.
If you weren’t in the arts, what would you be?
I would have been a philosophy teacher, probably no more than that. I read philosophy at university. All my family were doctors, but I probably wasn’t heading towards that.
You’re credited with an intellectual approach. How do you see the role of the intellectual?
You’ve got the wrong person. I’m not an intellectual; I’m loquacious. I love talking to intellectuals, but my participation is straw-sucking. Human experience is wide, and geographically very wide: you can go anywhere in the world. But some people really know the depth of it.
Who are your greatest influences?
I have worked with a lot of directors, and all of them have been fantastic because you learn different things. Peter Stein has been a big influence on me – I learned from him about doing a thing and not sideswiping at it. So if the script says, put the pen down, just put the pen down – don’t think of another way of doing it. Just put the pen down and see what that teaches you.
There are people I haven’t worked with, like Robert Lepage, who are enormous influences, who show why the theatre goes on being an
incandescent form. Then there are my more permanent collaborators. The feeling is that I have worked a lot with Deborah [Warner].
I have, but I’ve worked with an enormous amount of directors. Working again with somebody, you have a developed sense of not worrying. I know she always spots the things that are missing, and that they can be fixed later, and that gives you the confidence to stay lost for longer. Her values and aesthetics are fantastic.
Last year, you wrote that you had had a year full of death. How do you cope with grief?
God, I really have to think about what I’m saying. It’s really hard. I think there is a seam of sorrow beneath most of our delights. I do accept that, but I’m always affronted and shocked by it. The problem with grief is that the object of it isn’t there. But I have had very few griefs – I’ve had a very privileged, easy life.
Is there a plan?
Being in the arts, making something, it’s the most fantastic privilege to be in an unknown territory. There is no plan about how anything is going to come out at the end when you start it. You have a hunch, you go towards it, it comes towards you and finally things meet. But it’s always unknown. Terrifying, actually.
Are we all doomed?
You know, in my twenties, I hoped we were all doomed. It seemed more glamorous. And in my thirties I definitely thought we were all doomed. In my forties I panicked that only I was doomed. And now I really have turned. Lately, I’ve been in an incredibly positive frame of mind. And that’s the only frame of mind worth having, because we are all doomed.
“Mother Courage” is at the National Theatre until 8 December
1958 Born in County Cork, Ireland
1979 After a philosophy BA, joins Rada
1982 Joins the National Theatre. Three years later joins the RSC
1989 Plays Eileen Cole in My Left Foot. Stars in Persuasion (1995) and Jane Eyre (1996)
1990 First of three Laurence Olivier Awards
1997 Awarded honorary doctorate by Ireland’s National University, first of two
2001 Awarded CBE
2008 Directs the opera Riders to the Sea
Read the extended interview.