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Interview with Irene Kelleher – Mrs. Shakespeare – Smock Alley

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We had the chance to interview performer Irene Kelleher ahead of the opening of Mrs. Shakespeare in Smock Alley next Thursday. You can see the results below.

Mrs. Shakespeare runs in Smock Alley from Thurs 22nd – Sat 24th October at 8pm, Saturday Matinee @ 2pm in The Boys’ School

When was the play written?

The play was first written by Ian Wild in 1983 as a play set in Shakespeare’s brain while he was writing ‘Hamlet’. It was partly a skit on the skulduggery and shenanigans of Drama School, with students muttering darkly in corners over who was getting star roles and also more seriously, an exploration of the nature of catharsis. Ian never finished this project set in verse, so he threw it in a drawer. Twenty years later, in desperation, he reopened the drawer needing a short story for a collection being published by Fish. With a few nips and tucks and an odd to Gogol’s ‘Diary of a Madman’, he fashioned “Ophelia”, as it was then called, into thoroughly un-iambic prose. And there the matter should have lain. But the story grew restless, it was undeniably born to strut its hour upon the stage. After ten years of confinement between paperback covers, it burst forth into scripted form a second time, under the pseudonym ‘Mrs Shakespeare’ as if determined to gabble itself unto the stalls.

Tell us about Mrs Shakespeare…

​William Shakespeare finds himself reincarnated in the present day as a woman, which makes it all the more difficult to convince people that he/she is the great bard. The Globe and the RSC refuse point blank to stage her modern history plays, such as ‘Hitler the First’ and ‘Charles the Third (Not)’.

Frustrated by this lack of recognition, Mrs Shakespeare winds up in a mental asylum and comes to the conclusion that she has made a complete mess of writing ‘Hamlet’ 400 years earlier. Armed with a quill and beset by a rebellious cast of characters, who are anxious not to be re-written, she embarks on an epic reformulation of theatre’s most famous text under the new title of ‘Ophelia’ but her psychiatrist and the original dramatis personae of the play are so against the idea, they contrive between them, to send her mad.

How did you become involved in the production?

​The very first time I read this play was in April 2014. There was a local Shakespeare Festival taking place and Ian was looking for an actress to read for a rehearsed reading of one of his plays. He gave me the script of ‘Mrs Shakespeare’ and the first time I read it, my sides were sore from laughing. The play was so unlike anything I had ever read before and I knew immediately how I wanted to play the character and what I felt I could bring to the character. Ian’s script reminded me of the thing that attracted me at such an early age to the acting profession. That thing is the ability to lose yourself in another character. I love the whole process of completely immersing yourself in another person, even when they can be completely opposite to who you are in reality, a lot of times, this is even more fun when your real self and your character are so different. Characters like ‘Mrs. Shakespeare’ are an absolute dream for any actress because she goes through the whole spectrum of emotions, is utterly free and completely unselfconscious. The play could be described as a tragi-comedy and there are certainly a lot of comedic elements about the show, particularly as I act out ten different characters within the show. However, there is also poignancy and a tragic element to the show. It is, undoubtedly, the most empowering female role I have ever performed and I enjoy every second of it.

This production has had a remarkable run, touring the world. It must be great for something to start as a tiny idea and grow to something that people love?

It has been amazing to be part of a project that started as a small local project and toured and grown into something much bigger. Although we did feel that after that very first reading that we were on to something special as the audiences reaction was so warm and encouraging even though it was just a reading and we had no set or costume. We performed it last year in several theatres and performance venues in Munster and then brought it to the beautiful off Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre in New York last October. That was a fantastic experience.

Then this year we were toured the play to Stratford Upon Avon, which was a perfect setting for the show. We were very successful at the Brighton Fringe and were awarded the Argus Angel award and nominated for a Bobby Award and Overall best Performance at the Fringe. Then we also toured it to Bristol Shakespeare festival and the Edinburgh Fringe. The Edinburgh Fringe has been undoubtedly the highlight to date as we had full houses at nearly every show and it received such a brilliant reception there. The tour continues next summer as in July we are bringing the show to Oxford, Birmingham, Yorkshire and back to Stratford Upon Avon.

The Boys’ school is a very intimate space, with the performer on top of the audience. Does your show require this intimacy?

The Boy’s School is a beautiful venue and one of my favourite spaces to perform in Dublin as it is so unique. The show has toured to so many venues which have been so different that it is hard to say which venue suits the play best. Ian and I both agree on the two best shows of it to date were in two extremely different venues, one was a very intimate 40 seater venue and the other was a very large 500 seated proscenium arch theatre. However, I do think that the atmosphere of the Boys School will very much suit this play as it has an other worldly feel to it and I predict that it will particularly suit those sections in Elsinore. The play is very much a story to the audience so I think that the intimacy will really add to that feel.

How many characters do you play over the course of the play?

I play seven different characters in the play: Mrs. Shakespeare, Henry the physiatrist, Polonius, The Gravedigger, Claudius, Hamlet, Ophelia along with a few talking skulls!

Shakespeare has some great female characters, but they rarely take the headlines. Is this a chance to redress the balance?

One of the things that I always felt about ‘Hamlet’ is that Ophelia’s tragedy is very much brushed over quickly. That was one of the things that I loved about Ian’s script as it finally gave Ophelia a voice. One line of ‘Mrs. Shakespeare’ is: “the tragedy is that your tragedy isn’t”, which is very much true of Ophelia. Ian Wild’s ‘Mrs. Shakespeare’ makes Ophelia the main character of the play and if I was ever cast in the role of Ophelia in a production of ‘Hamlet’, after doing ‘Mrs. Shakespeare’, Hamlet would not know what had hit him! Shakespeare certainly has some brilliant, fully developed and rounded female characters, particularly in his later plays where powerful creations appeared like Lady Macbeth, Cymbeline, Isabella in Measure for Measure and Miranda, however the male roles generally have so much more depth to them and are fully thought out, complicated creations.

We have to remember though, that when Shakespeare wrote these plays that women were not even allowed on stage. Ian Wild’s Mrs. Shakespeare celebrates Shakespeare’s Ophelia but moves her into the limelight.

Many people consider Shakespeare as untouchable. Have you received any unusual reactions to the play?

Ultimately the play is a homage to the Bard and those that are big fans of Shakespeare’s work have been the plays biggest fans. I think, especially if you have read and love ‘Hamlet’ you will get more out of this play and really enjoy it, judging on audience feedback we have received throughout the tour.

However, some audience members did say that even though they found Shakespeare very daunting, they felt encouraged to reread Hamlet again after the show and look at it in a different light. The one repeated response from audience members is “I will never look at Ophelia in the same way again.”

There is no doubt that the shows have been a much easier sell in the UK than at home in Ireland. ​I think that the word ‘Shakespeare’ in Ireland can sometimes prove to be daunting to an audience. Particularly, in my parent’s generation, many of them were forced to learn off large chunks of the text in school, without really understanding what the plays were about. They weren’t given a love for Shakespeare or shown how relevant his stories, characters and themes are to contemporary life. This can make ‘Mrs Shakespeare’ a difficult sell in Ireland at times, particularly when we take it to more rural areas. However, some audience members who admit to being put off Shakespeare in school, after seeing the show they feel a desire to try again with his work – and that can only be a positive thing!

Do you think the Bard would approve of your play?

I could only hope that he would view it the way Gill Sutherland described it as “not simply irreverent to Shakespeare, more a glorious homage with a modern twist.” And he may describe the central character in his own words: “and though she be but little, she is fierce.”

Mrs. Shakespeare runs in Smock Alley from Thurs 22nd – Sat 24th October at 8pm, Saturday Matinee @ 2pm in The Boys’ School

Categories: Header, Theatre, Theatre Review

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