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Irish theatre is renowned for its playwrights, its politics and, to a lesser extent perhaps, its performers. It is widely considered a tradition of great literary wealth, of postcolonial significance, but what of the people who actually perform it? Who, night after night, take to our stages to sometimes almost empty houses in frustrating roles or substandard working conditions—what of the actors?

This chapter seeks to address the actor’s theatre in its complexity and elusiveness as an embodied phenomenon, with attention to some of the people, productions and issues raised by the topic, and occasional attempts to gain insight from the actors’ own words.

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  1. 1.

    Zeami, Performance Notes, translated by Tom Hare (New York: Columbia UP., 2008), 100.

  2. 2.

    See indicative list of names of actors towards the end of the chapter.

  3. 3.

    Such actors include Pat Kinevane and his work in the one-man show or solo-performance format Forgotten (2006), Silent (2011) and Underneath (2016). Pat Kinevane with Fishamble’s artistic director Jim Culleton, won the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre for Silent. See

  4. 4.

  5. 5.

    Jerzy Grotowski, (ed. Eugenio Barba) Towards a Poor Theatre (London: Bloomsbury, 1991 (1968)), 212

  6. 6.

    See Morash’s A History of Irish Theatre 1601–2000, Cambridge, 2002, Sweeney’s Performing the Body in Irish Theatre Palgrave Macmillan 2008, and Pilkington’s Theatre and Ireland Palgrave Macmillan 2010.

  7. 7.

    W.G Fay and Catherine Carswell, The Fays of the Abbey Theatre,, 34.

  8. 8.

    Ibid., 5.

  9. 9.

    See also Tom Madden’s The Making of an Artist: Creating the Irishman Micheál MacLiammóir (Dublin: The Liffey Press, 2015).

  10. 10.

    Wolfgang Saxon, “Siobhan Mckenna Is Dead; Actress Known For St. Joan”, The New York Times, November 17, 1986,, par.8.

  11. 11.

    Éamon Kelly, The Journeyman, (Colorado: The Irish American Book Company, 1998), 127–8.

  12. 12.

    Ibid., 85–6.

  13. 13.

    Anne Bogart, And then, you act (London: Routledge, 2007), 39.

  14. 14.

    Hugh Leonard quoted in Theatre Talk: Voices of Irish Theatre Practitioners, eds. Lillian Chambers, Ger FitzGibbon and Eamonn Jordan (Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2001), 260.

  15. 15.

    Jim Norton quoted in Patrick O’Kane, Actors’ Voices: The People Behind the Performances (London: Oberon Books, 2012), 293.

  16. 16.

    Ibid., 292.

  17. 17.

    Chambers et al., Theatre Talk, 155.

  18. 18.

    Ibid., 157.

  19. 19.

    See “Olwen Fouéré’s corpus: the performer’s body and her body of work” by Shonagh Hill in Radical Contemporary Theatre practices by Women in Ireland, eds. Miriam Haughton and Mária Kurdi (Carysfort, 2015).

  20. 20.

    I clearly remember, years ago, watching Fouéré participate in an open workshop on the Abbey stage conducted by Berlin’s Schaubühne. As one of those in “the audience” I remember being struck by her honesty and her ability to remain open to learning while participating in what was essentially a performance. She was remarkable because of this—as probably the most experienced actor there she also seemed, to me at least, to be the most present, and the most humble.

  21. 21.

    Fintan Walsh, “Sodome: My Love”,, par. 4.

  22. 22.

    See also Cathy Leeney’s “Second skin: costume and body: power and desire”, in Radical Contemporary Theatre practices by Women in Ireland, eds. Miriam Haughton and Mária Kurdi (Carysfort, 2015).

  23. 23.

  24. 24.

  25. 25.

    Peter Brook, There are no secrets: Thoughts on Acting and Theatre (London: Methuen, 1993), 33.

  26. 26.

    Sarah Hemming, “Interview: Lisa Dwan”, The Financial Times,, par.4.

  27. 27.

    Michael Coffey, “Lisa Dwan and Walter Asmus”, BOMB Magazine, April 12, 2016,, par. 10.

  28. 28.

    Belinda McKeon, “Lisa Dwan: ‘Beckett Made These Wounds Universal’”, The Guardian, September 17, 2016,, par. 12.

  29. 29.

    See Fouéré entry.

  30. 30.

    Maria Rolston, “Charlie Murphy is drawn back into the darkness with new show Arlington”, Irish Examiner, July 5, 2016,, par.20.

  31. 31.

    Norton quoted in O’Kane, Actors’ Voices, 302.

  32. 32.

    Anon, “Left Holding Baby Offstage”, The Irish Times, November 12, 1998,, par.1.


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Correspondence to Bernadette Sweeney .

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Sweeney, B. (2018). Irish Theatre: An Actor’s Theatre. In: Jordan, E., Weitz, E. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Contemporary Irish Theatre and Performance. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

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