October 2006 Sunday Times

IN real life, Elizabeth I never met Mary Queen of Scots. Neither did the two of them share a confidante in Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. But in the theatre things are different and the great centrepiece of Friedrich Schiller's magisterial drama, Mary Stuart, is a confrontation between the two queens in which French Catholic Mary pleads with English Protestant Elizabeth to lift her death sentence.

It's a riveting piece of writing, but in the latest production by the National Theatre of Scotland, the joint stars are staying truer to history than fiction. It's nothing personal, say Siobhan Redmond and Catherine Cusack but, until the play opens in Glasgow, they're keeping their distance.

"In rehearsals, it did feel like we were in two courts," says Cusack, who plays Mary. "We'd end up at opposite ends of the rehearsal table."

"We're not sharing a dressing room either," says Redmond who, despite her Glasgow pedigree, is playing Elizabeth. "When Mary and Elizabeth are alike they're very alike, but where they're not alike, they're like women from different planets. They can't understand each other at all. So we haven't spent any time together because it's not helpful at this point."

It's rare to hear such uncollegiate talk from two actors as they sit side by side on the same couch, but the theme and structure of Schiller's play makes it possible. Apart from the pivotal scene, the two queens live in separate worlds, Mary holed up in Fotheringay Castle, Elizabeth holding sway at court in Westminster.

"I haven't seen most of what Catherine does in rehearsals – I'm just seeing it now we're running the whole play," says Redmond, wearing a dressing gown after removing her voluminous dress for the lunchtime break at Glasgow's Citizens' Theatre. "I like Catherine very much. Roll on the day – and I'm sure it's not far off – when we're secure enough to spend time together."

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Echoing the sexual rivalry between the two queens, Redmond looks over at Cusack in her loose-fitting rehearsal clothes and makes light of their ten-year age difference. "It feels like Brazilian drag queen versus child bride," jokes the 47-year-old.

"That's not true," counters Cusack, London-born daughter of the late great Irish actor Cyril Cusack and half-sister to Sinead, Niamh and Sorcha. "My brother was taken away by how stunningly gorgeous Siobhan looked this morning."

"But you look seven," persists Redmond. "I'll be had up for child murder. Chop the head off that child!"

Some would have liked the National Theatre of Scotland to make a flag-waving statement in its inaugural year, but Vicky Featherstone's production will confound the nationalists at every turn. This German play, translated by Glasgow's David Harrower, about a key moment in Anglo-Scots history is starring a Scottish actor as an English queen and an Anglo-Irish actor as a Franco-Scottish queen. Like the power politics of the play, which gives a forceful voice to both monarchs, the national politics of the production are grey not black and white.

"I was thinking about my short hair and the fact that I'm from down south via Dublin and then I thought, well, it's not a historically accurate play," says Cusack, who last worked with Featherstone on productions of Brighton Rock in 1993 and The Glass Menagerie in 1994. "Schiller's Mary and Elizabeth are up for interpretation by any number of actors in lots of ways."

"I'm expecting to have to get an armed guard to the station," says Redmond, aware that playing Elizabeth in Glasgow and Edinburgh will not make her the people's favourite. "It's brilliant that Catherine is playing Mary because if it had been a Scots woman people would have complained: 'But she should have come from Tillicoultry' or 'She should sound French'. Catherine has a slight otherness to her voice that you can't quite place, but is very alluring and absolutely perfect."

Cusack's father, whose 75-year screen career stretched from Knocknagow in 1918 to The Young Indian Jones Chronicles in 1993, took a central part in the Dublin theatre scene, though later expressed some regrets at the "chauvinistic" promotion of Irish playwrights. "Theatre has no national identity," he said: "I am a nationalist, but my native soil is the theatre." It’s a line that chimes with both women who have only ever worked in the acting profession and are most at home on stage.

"Going through the stage door feels like home," says Redmond. "I did run away from home a couple of times when I was small, claiming I was home sick. I had to have it explained to me that home sickness was a longing for home. But I don't feel home sick in the theatre, I feel as if I'm at home."

Coming from an acting family – one sister, Sinéad, married to Jeremy Irons, the others stars of Heartbeat (Niamh) and Casualty (Sorcha) – Cusack was initially wary about going into the profession, but slowly discovered it was where she too was most at home. "It took me a long time to realise it," she says. "Because of the family, I drifted into it without great will and determination to be there. I was really quite pathetic when I was young. I didn't have a big burning flame leading me from inside. I did a year of a drama degree at university to cement in my brain whether I wanted to do this. I started working and just carried on, and I guess it's in the last ten years that I've really felt at home and realised I have the best job in the world."

Fame is a by-product that puzzles them rather than irritates and they've both had similar tastes of it. Cusack played Carmel, the nanny from hell, in Coronation Street and, more recently, policewoman Frankie Sullivan in Ballykissangel. Redmond, meanwhile, has been seen in Sea of Souls, The Catherine Tate Show and EastEnders as Maeve Brown, wife of Victor, patron of the Walford Community Charitable Trust.

"People would think that I was a nurse who'd nursed them," says Cusack, remembering the aftermath of her two-year stint on Coronation Street. "I got some scary letters and some nice letters, but it didn't seem to last very long. It's good that I went through that – and a little bit with Ballykissangel – and you learn that it goes very quickly. That's a good lesson."

"I played a paediatrician and it took me ages to work out why people were telling me about their hips," says Redmond, who played Janice Taylor in Holby City. "The High Life is available on DVD now, so I still get an extra sausage on the plane because of playing Shona Spurtle, the stewardess. Bizarrely, they tell me they behave just like we did in the sitcom. My life is in their hands and they're telling me they're swigging miniature duty frees and checking out the size of the passengers' bums."

"My dad played a cardinal in a film in America and I got to go out for a couple of weeks – very exciting," says Cusack. "They did a big scene in which extras had to go by and kiss his ring. A woman from the crowd came up and asked him to bless her. He tried to explain that he was an actor and she said, 'I don’t mind, would you bless me?' He ended up doing it. You would – it'd be too hurtful not to."

The conversation has gone swimmingly but, interview over, it’s time for the two stage queens to leave the room. One at a time. "Thank you for introducing me to Catherine Cusack," quips Redmond as she heads to her dressing room alone.

Mary Stuart, Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, October 3–21; Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, October 27–November 18

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