Presentation of the Ulysses Medal on Sinead Cusack

Posted: July 4, 2013 in Uncategorized

Text of the inroductory address delivered by Profesor Tony Roche on 15 June 2013, on the occasion of the presentation of the Ulysses Medal on Sinead Cusack

Deputy-President, Honoured Guests, Ladies and Gentleman.

Sinead Cusack is the eldest daughter of two renowned Irish theatre actors, Cyril and Maureen. After acting at the Abbey Theatre in the 1960s as one of the brightest of a rising generation of Irish actors, she went to England in the 1970s and debuted with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-on-Avon. Sinead Cusack says that initially she was intimidated by the greatness of Shakespeare, thinking she should just stand stock still and deliver the lines. But she persevered and learned to make the lines her own by concentrating on Shakespeare’s profound understanding of human nature rather than on his intimidating greatness. Since then, she has played a great many of the dominant, independent but embattled heroines of those wise Shakespearean comedies, receiving  a Tony Award nomination in New York for her performance as Beatrice in Much AdoAbout Nothing. But she has gone further in her characteristically intrepid Shakespearean journey, tackling the most substantial of the female roles in the tragedies, Lady Macbeth, and Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, one of her greatest achievements. Most recently, she has played Paulina in that great late Shakespearean romance, The Winter’s Tale, directed by Sam Mendes in the Bridge Project that was shared between the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York and the Old Vic in London.

Sinead Cusack has not neglected the Irish side of her theatrical lineage and instead has kept a consistent and core strand of Irish work running through her career.  In the 1970s, she was the best Pegeen Mike I have ever seen, in a TV production of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World with John Hurt as Christy Mahon. Fiery, spirited, beautiful, independent, she brought a fine contemporary edge to the part. Two years ago, in an important first production between the two National Theatres of these islands, she played one of the most iconic roles in the Irish theatrical canon, Juno in Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. Again, she made sure that the play was not just discussed for the male double act of Captain Boyle and Joxer Daley but for the interplay between her character and her husband, played by Ciaran Hinds. We were more aware than usual that this was a woman who was slaving in manual labour to put sausages in the pan for a disabled son, a striking daughter and a shiftless, chronically work-shy and alcoholic husband. Before our eyes, this ordinary woman grew in tragic depth until she commanded the increasingly bare stage with her courage and fortitude.

Sinead Cusack has made a no less major and garlanded contribution to the work of contemporary writers. In 2006, she pulled off an utterly convincing double role of a younger and older woman in Tom Stoppard’s Rock and Roll for which she received a Tony nomination for Featured Actress and a Drama Desk Award nomination for Best Actress. But it is her electrifying performances in plays by Brian Friel, Frank McGuinness, Sebastian Barry and Conor McPherson that we should particularly celebrate today. The most difficult role of her career, she says, was Mai O’Hara in Sebastian Barry’s Our Lady of Sligo in 1998. The play is primarily centred on an old Irish woman, lying in bed, dying of cancer; there are occasionally other characters and flashbacks but in the main it is a series of long, demanding monologues. The degree of her success in bringing this neglected old woman to unforgettable life   can be measured not only by the audiences worldwide who flocked to see the play but by the prestigious theatre awards it garnered: an Olivier nomination and the Evening Standard award and the Critics Circle Theatre Award for Best Actress. Sinead Cusack has reminded us forcefully that Brian Friel was writing major roles for women before Dancing at Lughnasa in her performances as Alice in Aristocrats and Grace in Faith Healer. I cannot imagine a better Grace: beautiful, bearing the loss of her child by a husband who describes her as ‘barren’, exercising all the forensic skill of her legal training the better to understand but not cure her passionate attachment to the faith healer. Her recent performance in Conor McPherson’s stage version of The Birds at the Gate brought a strong female role to the fore as the playwright moved into new and exciting territory. And there is Frank McGuinness, with whom she has collaborated memorably over the years. He wrote the version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in which she starred with her father and her own two sisters, Sorcha and Niamh, at the Gate in 1990. McGuinness has also written screen roles for her, most recently a savage, tender, searing two-hander for Sky Arts, Crocodile. In it, Sinead Cusack plays a white lawyer approaching an imprisoned black woman she has been hired to defend. The white woman says she has gone to London to study law, from another country (it is implied from Ireland). In the imperial centre she has listened and she has learned, but she has retained her own personality, her own independence and her own imagination.

Frank McGuinness scripted these lines and the part with Sinead Cusack in mind, and they describe what she herself has achieved. She has gone from Ireland to an extraordinary career worldwide on stage and screen – rising in particular to the challenges of the poetic theatre of Shakespeare and Chekhov – but she has brought all of this home not only with frequent appearances on the Irish stage and in Irish film but with her award-winning and definitive work in the very greatest of our native playwrights.

Praehonorabilis Pro-Praeses, totaque Universitas,

Praesento vobis hanc meam filiam, quam scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneam esse quae admittatur, honoris causa, ad gradum Doctoratus in Litteris; idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo, totique Academiae.

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