October 2006 Sunday Times
CARA Kelly caught the theatre bug at a very young age. It was in 1971 as a wide-eyed seven-year-old that she visited the Citizens' Theatre to see Cinderella starring David Hayman as Buttons. "We've got a very special person in the audience today," he'd said, leading the whole theatre in a round of "Happy Birthday" for Kelly who was born on Christmas Day.
The little girl was elated, but the best was still to come. A beautiful Cinderella entered dressed as a princess with an entourage of four Shetland ponies. "It was the Shetland ponies that did it for me," she says. "I went home and told my sister I was going to be an actress."
She was as good as her word, which is how she comes to be sitting in the foyer of that same Glasgow theatre at the end of a day's rehearsal for Sean O'Casey's The Shadow of a Gunman. "I love the theatre and the way the audience contributes, making it different every night," she says.
Set during the Irish war of independence, O'Casey's first play takes place in a Dublin tenement where a newcomer, Donal Davoren, is taken to be an IRA soldier by his credulous neighbours. Amused by the idea, Davoren – really a poet – plays along, enjoying the charade of being the "shadow of a gunman". But things turn nasty when a genuine stash of bombs is found on the premises and the British army is at the door.
As Mrs Grigson, Kelly plays one of Davoren's neighbours from the tenement kitchen, stoically putting up with an alcoholic husband and delivering news of the army's activities. "She has to do comedy and tragedy, so it's a bit of a balancing act," says Kelly.
To find the 42-year-old in an Irish classic is no surprise. It was in this same theatre she starred last December in Molly Sweeney, Brian Friel's powerful three-hander about a Donegal woman who is reluctantly cured of her blindness by her overzealous husband. The return of her sight traumatises her to the point of insanity. Kelly gave a mesmerising performance that was warm-hearted, generous and tragic and earned her the gong for Best Female Performance in the Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland.
Despite many such Irish roles and the pronounced inflection of her speech, Kelly was actually born and brought up in Glasgow. Her father, a labourer from Fermanagh, and her mother, a cleaner from Armagh, emigrated to Scotland, but always maintained close links with Northern Ireland and eventually retired there. Holding onto their traditions, they brought their daughter up in the ceilidh culture they had always known.
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"I was mainly brought up here, but in an Irish culture," she says. "My dad had his own ceilidh band and in my family you had to sing, dance, play an instrument – or be at least civil! I wasn't much good at any of them, but what came out in me was an ability to mimic, to observe and to remember lines. I've got a lot of emotional connections to Ireland and it looms large in my life. It's a hybrid background, which I'm really grateful for because I've got a lot of work through that connection. "
Her love of Ireland is plain, but she knows it was Scotland that gave her family of Northern Irish Catholics a welcome. "Glasgow's open to me and it’s a city that's given me and my family work," she says. "Where my parents came from that was denied them."
The youngest of four children, she studied politics and history at Aberdeen University and trained for the stage at the RSAMD in Glasgow. She never shook the theatre bug even when she took a few years out in the late-90s to teach children with learning difficulties. "It became my objective to put on wee productions with them," she says. "If I got them to laugh that was good. It was a great job, I really enjoyed it and it helped me get rid of a lot of inhibitions in acting. If your purpose is to make people laugh, you're Coco the Clown and you'll do whatever you can to get them to react positively to you."
On stage, her career has taken in roles in London at the Royal Court, the Donmar Warehouse and the Almeida; in Edinburgh in a Fringe First-winning turn for Clyde Unity Theatre; and in a string of appearances at the Citizens' and Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum. But it was only with last year's Molly Sweeney that she began to be cast in leading roles. After that show, she was spotted by the National Theatre of Scotland and given a small part in Chris Hannan's Elizabeth Gordon Quinn. When Siobhan Redmond backed out of the title role, unhappy at the playwright's new version of the script, director John Tiffany asked Kelly to take her place. "It was a strange old situation because that only happens in Hollywood musicals," she says. "It's usually Judy Garland or young ingénues. It was like Cinderella."
As Kelly sees it, she got there thanks to a rare display of self-promotion. Usually happy to take work as it comes in her notoriously precarious profession, the soft-spoken performer realised she was desperate to play Molly Sweeney and made sure the Citizens' Theatre knew about it. "You start off thinking this business works through being patient and believing good things come to those who wait," she says. "But if you don't ask, you don't get. I asked for Molly Sweeney when I heard they were doing the play. It took a bit of guts to do that and it doesn't come naturally to me. But I'm glad I did pursue it because the play was a joy from end to end."
Kelly is a subtle, intelligent and truthful performer on stage, qualities that are not necessarily ideal for getting work in the first place. "You have to have a thick skin and a gossamer skin," she says. "To do the job you have to have such immediate access to your whole range of emotions. On the other hand, you have to develop the skin of a rhino to deal with the rejection, to get through the audition and to deal with the reviews. Each time you go in for a job you have to impress them anew and that doesn’t come too easy if you're shy or on the back foot."
She's wryly amused at the vagaries of a profession that has thrust her into the limelight at the age of 42 – this is only the third interview she's ever done – and feels it's time for her to be branching out. "In terms of getting lead parts the best age is probably in your early 30s," she says, aware she's too old for many classic roles such as Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. "But I'm hoping to spread my wings in other ways – like directing and writing. You see so many people get ahead – they have a lot of push that I've just got to conjure up from somewhere."
Shadow of a Gunman, Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, November 3–18
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