As well as The Approach, Cathy has spent three years now as steely matriarch Patricia Hennessy in TV3’S Red Rock. She played another steely, rather monstrous woman — Sister Claire in the film Philomena, with Judi Dench and Steve Coogan — and will shortly appear on the BBC in The Woman In White, adapted from the Wilkie Collins novel. Anyone who watched Alison Spittle’s very charming and funny series Nowhere Fast on RTE2 recently will recognise Cathy as Alison’s glamorous, tactless but ultimately devoted mother, Caroline.
On stage, she has appeared in a remarkable gamut of work, from the classics of O’casey, Singe and Shakespeare, through to contemporary, in a career that has spanned decades. And yet “every time I do it, I get more scared”, she says, “even though I’ve been doing it for so many years. I started rehearsals for this one going ‘oh God, what if I f *ck it up…?’”
There may be more-than-usual justification for that apprehension, given that Mark O’rowe essentially wrote The Approach for her and costars Aisling O’sullivan and Derbhle Crotty.
“We’ve been waiting to do this for a good while. Mark O’rowe wrote it for the three of us, and the writing is beautiful: Three women, three journeys, three conversations. It’s about how people communicate — and how they survive or fail if they don’t communicate enough. We workshopped it two years ago and did a read-through with Mark, then he went away and did another draft. It took time to get us all together, so it was very exciting going in.”
Exciting, and slightly terrifying. “Mark is a genius, and the loveliest man in the business. And the two girls, Derbhle and Aisling, are legends, and friends. There’s a wonderful chemistry. He wrote it for us — the greatest gift you can give. So you don’t want to f *ck it up. You don’t want to f *ck it up for Mark, or for Aisling or Derbhle.”
Add in the fact that this is a Landmark production, and 14 years ago Cathy played Kyra in David Hare’s Skylight, Landmark’s first ever production. “On the first day of rehearsal I had this wave of emotion — where have those years gone?” she says.
So clearly the stakes are high. Is it a kind of performance anxiety that grips her?
“I wouldn’t call it performance anxiety for me,” she says, “because I couldn’t do anything else — I tried and couldn’t stay away. It’s the adrenalin. Knowing ‘this is really good, now make it the best it can be…’”
The ‘trying to stay away’ happened early in Cathy’s career, when she decided to become a national school teacher instead of acting, daunted by the insecurity of the profession.
“I was very young. I did drama and English in Trinity, and I remember the day after I graduated, mum and dad drove me down to Limerick, to the Island Theatre Company, in the Belltable, and that was my first part, a play by Walter Macken called Home is the Hero. I had a great summer, I did The Tempest, Hamlet, and then it started to stop, and I thought ‘I don’t know if I’m cut out for this insecurity, for the strength you need to bang doors down…’” And so she turned to Plan B. “I always wanted to be a national school teacher. I think that’s a performance in itself! My first teacher was Maire Geoghegan-quinn” (as a child, Cathy was also directed in Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Presidential First Lady Sabina Higgins). “She was amazing. I still have this memory of her standing at the top of the class, saying ‘ I am somebody who can’t walk, how do you communicate with me how to walk?” I was five.”
Cathy got a job in the CAO office for a few months, prior to teaching, and ignored all her agent’s efforts to coax her back with talk of an audition for this or that part, until eventually, one day “Mike Diskin, who ran the Town Hall Theatre in Galway, he was doing a production of Eclipse, and he came down to the CAO office, to my desk and said ‘what are you doing?’ I was going ‘oh God, oh God…’ but I did it. And when we were on tour I did an audition for Glenroe, and I got the part, I was Lucy Reilly, the vet, and that was for two years; it’s almost like I was