‘If I could have a superpower, it would be to time-travel,’ Kathy Rose O’Brien tells me. She squints her eyes in thought. ‘I’ve no interest in being invisible, or making fire shoot out of my eyes, but I have always wanted to go back in time. It’s that idea of being able to be authentic…’ I can imagine her time travelling: watching, noting and listening. It’d be a superpower used only for good.
I’m not a journalist. I’m very content to be in the company of dead actresses (or their ghosts) but much in awe of the live professional kind. I was terrified at the prospect of a one-on-one meeting, but Kathy Rose O’Brien played the part of Rosie Redmond in the 2010 revival of The Plough and the Stars at the Abbey Theatre and I’m currently obsessed with the part. The only advice I was given: ‘Irish actor?! Sure, you don’t need to ask anything. They love to talk about themselves.’
Particularly bad advice if you’re meeting the beautiful Kathy Rose, who has the most gentle manner and such a capacity to listen and draw you out that you don’t even realise when the ‘interview’ has somehow become a conversation. She told me that she knew where Ria Mooney’s portrait hung in the Abbey and would give it a nod before her own appearance in The Plough and the Stars, wondering if she could channel her. With or without that spirit channel, these women have much in common. She shares with Ria Mooney an elegant grace, a wisdom belied by a sweet charm, and a desire to listen and understand people while she steadily works away at her own craft. I am now convinced it takes a certain quality of actress to play Rosie Redmond.
Rosie Redmond was the first prostitute on the Abbey stage, inciting riots when she appeared in the bar during the premiere of The Plough and The Stars in 1926. For the first read-through of the script, Lady Gregory (being the only woman Director) read the part and mortified Sean O’Casey. But while he consented to cut one of her songs, O’Casey held out against external pressure to keep her in the play.
For Ria Mooney, Rosie was the part that set her loose upon the world. Soon after, she left for London and from there, went to America. It was the last part she played on the Abbey stage before joining Eva Le Gallienne’s company in New York. There, she told the apprentices that she’d never in her life been as drunk as when she’d sipped red lemonade and water at the bar in the Plough. For Kathy Rose, Rosie was the part that brought her home.
When the riots broke out, Ria was on the stage. On the command of another actor, she moved back into the wings and hovered there while FJ McCormick publicly declared his antipathy for the play and WB Yeats came to O’Casey’s defence. To save her family from further shame, Ria insisted that she didn’t know what a prostitute did for money. She had to be escorted home each night, amid rumours of threatened kidnapping.
Kathy Rose is amused to hear how the other actresses took against Ria for taking the role, given her own casting experience. Originally interested in auditioning for Nora Clitheroe, the young bride, director Wayne Jordan asked her to try the “daughter of the digs”. She quickly realised that Rosie is ‘risky’ but she’s also ‘a little gem’. Having spent a year in London auditioning and waiting, the part was ‘a great gift’. While her parents have raised an eyebrow at other modern roles she’s taken on, there was none of the Irish Catholic disgust Ria experienced. ‘They were thrilled I was doing an O’Casey!’ she tells me. Kathy Rose packed her bags, came home and since that appearance on the Abbey stage has been working steadily in Dublin with no chance of ‘a rest’, imposed or otherwise.
It’s an oft-told tale that Ria Mooney braved the alleys at the back of the theatre to check the prostitutes’ clothes and make-up. She mimicked their rouged cheeks and powdered faces, and wrapped herself in a similar shawl. The Abbey in 2011 presented a particularly grubby and bruised Rosie, with Kathy Rose covered in synthetic pox marks and her teeth painted yellow each night. It had all the authenticity this actress craves.
As soon as she starts talking, Kathy Rose remembers the intricate blocking of the act. In Jordan’s direction, she takes Fluther’s hat to the lip of the stage and the song, when it comes, is cabaret style. It doesn’t have to be pretty, the actress reminds me. Rosie’s torrent of emotions comes easily back to her: the whore is strong, desperate, angry, slighted. She’s a fighter, who knows all that’s going on but has to keep working, getting business, and then has to settle for Fluther who may not even pay for her wares. She’s sad and desperate and yet it somehow ends on a note of utter triumph. Kathy Rose admits with a note of regret that it’s impossible for an actress to feel she’s gotten it all, because it’s so well written. ‘But I’d need more years to go by before I’d go back to it,’ she says.
Rosie is the most curious character because she’s an essential fact of O’Casey’s Dublin and yet she exists in a self-contained world, with a different energy to all the rest. Her entire journey takes place in one act of the four-act play. She’s a spark of energy and light that comes with the powerful threat of real danger but then is gone again. I’d be tempted to say there’s no other character quite like her in the Irish theatrical canon. Except for …
The Hooker. In 2012 Alice in Funderland bounded onto the Abbey stage, a new musical with enough anarchic energy to take off the roof. And Kathy Rose found herself playing another prostitute. In a similar vein, ‘The Hooker’ has a brief appearance but this time she doesn’t even have a name or a definite nationality. This part may lack the multi-layered nuances of O’Casey’s girl, but is a compelling, if sad, parallel. The Hooker is thoroughly Ireland in the 21st century and yet, we both agree, there is the same sense of: Yes, let’s briefly acknowledge these women are there, but for God’s sake don’t investigate too closely because people don’t want the details.
Kathy Rose couldn’t let the issue go, after her work on The Plough and The Stars. ‘I found a cause,’ she tells me, asserting that the scales have fallen from her eyes in the last nine months. The standard research that began as a character study, looking at the history of prostitution in Ireland, led into on-going work with the Abbey Outreach programme and with Irish organisation Ruhama. It strikes me that Ria Mooney would be right there with her, if she were still around today.
But my research is not in prostitution; it’s in archives. I have to move on.
We’re both intrigued by the fact that while the Abbey have the original scripts, there was no sheet music for Dancing A Jig In The Bed and no consensus on the tune. After composer Conor Linehan tried listening to his mother sing her memory of it down the phone line, all they had was something dangerously close to Doggie In The Window. Kathy Rose spent the day in a booth, listening to VHS tapes with bad sound quality until the tune had been retrieved (or recomposed?) and recorded in sheet music.
There is something of a ‘rite of passage’ about the role of Rosie Redmond. Kathy Rose points out that the play actually holds all the stages of an Irish actress’s career. From Mollser or Rosie, you can move to Norah, to Mrs Gogan and then to Bessie Burgess. Some well-known Irish names are already on that track. As she says this, I feel a wave for sadness for Aideen O’Connor. She played Mollser (the consumptive child) shortly after she moved from the Abbey School to the Company, and continued to play the role until she was twenty-four. She never moved on. Was she a potential Rosie? Or could playing Rosie have made her a different actress?
I suggest to Kathy Rose that those 1930s women, for all the differences, have much in common with today’s Irish actresses and she agrees that they all chose a way of life that demands compromises. Despite having the brains to do other things, Kathy Rose saw acting “as a way of having lots of different lives.” Although she can already foresee the day that it becomes a problem, through falling in love, wanting a solid home, the feeling of being open to whole different worlds is something she’s not yet prepared to give up.
Kathy Rose is currently appearing in Bedroom Farce at the Gate Theatre, a riotous comedy where she plays an upwardly mobile wife. It’s getting close to curtain time but we’re still drinking tea and eating cake and she remains intent on listening, on musing, on talking about Ria Mooney and ‘my girls’ from the 1930s. I ask her if she would like to pose any question about their lives to these women, if there was the chance.
‘I want to know what they’d say SO much,’ she says. ‘ I want to know what they’d say about relations with men, how they felt as a woman …’
She trails off with a shake of her head; the list of questions is endless. For this sometimes-weary researcher, it’s so encouraging to hear her reaction. Right now, it doesn’t matter whether she’s talking as Kathy Rose feminist campaigner or Kathy Rose the actress; the listening will go on.