Bringing a Joycean character to life

Aileen Mythen, who plays Miss O’Callaghan in The Dead, reveals how she went about bringing a Joycean character to life.

I am delighted to be back in the Abbey Theatre again, this time playing a completely different character to before; in fact you could say the polar opposite (I played several inner city Dublin characters in Alice in Funderland). I now find myself playing Joycean character, Miss O’Callaghan, a well educated wealthy piano student from the early 1900s. Miss O’Callaghan, a student of Mary Jane’s, is from the Monkstown/Dalkey line and has been invited to the Morkan’s annual dance and dinner, which happens on the feast of the Epiphany, 6 January.

The beautifully designed costume by Joan Bergin (not to mention the corset and layers of undergarments) certainly makes a change from the sexy red pvc creations in Alice in Funderland (I believe a first in the Abbey). I honestly don’t know how women wore corsets in those days. It is my first time to wear a corset in a play and it is incredible how much it affects your entire posture, breathing etc. The dress, however, is a different story. Wearing it gives me great pleasure and the costume department will have to cut me out of it!

I cannot tell you how excited I was when I originally heard that the Abbey were producing The Dead and Joe Dowling was returning to direct it. This story has always been my favourite from Joyce’s Dubliners and although as a student I had studied Joyce, it wasn’t until years later that I had a true understanding of the emotions that run through this story.

‘Oh dear god, why is Mary Jane wearing that dress? Isn’t it the same as last year?’

Frank McGuinness has done an incredible job of remaining true to Joyce’s words while also adding his own wonderful slant. In the original story Miss O’Callaghan is only mentioned a few times but in Frank’s adaption he has padded out the scene with the three young female students, which gives us more to play with. In this scene it’s clear that these girls, unlike the Morkans, are not used to economising or having to ‘make do’. They come from wealthy backgrounds but are also delighted and honoured to be part of this annual gathering at the Morkan’s house. Miss O’Callaghan is a little more mature than the other two (not art imitating life I can assure you!) and although she joins in on the girly banter she is very aware of not causing offence in front of any of ‘the three graces’. As Frank would say himself they are ‘Ones’ (wans), which is such a brilliant typically Irish way of describing them.

The important thing for me in bringing Miss O’Callaghan to life has been to understand the period and the way these girls would have moved and behaved, especially in front of other people. I had been to the Usher’s Island house where Joyce’s aunts once lived. In fact my sister in law had organised some family parties there so we had our own version of the Morkan’s ‘dance and dinner’ on several occasions. This really helped in imagining what the party would have been like as I was familiar with the setting.

The entire process so far has been such a joy and I have loved every minute of bringing Miss O’Callaghan to life. It has been a real pleasure to work with theatre legends who I have admired from afar for such a long time.

As Wayne Jordan so eloquently put it…

AMAZEBALLS, you are going to be talking about this one when you are sitting in the nursing home in years to come’.

Try and stop me!!

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