Sisters on stage: ‘There’s an emotional shorthand between us’

Barbara and Jane Brennan have come together to star in a new production of Enda Walsh’s The New Electric Ballroom

Barbara and Jane Brennan are sitting side by side on a long plush couch in the Gate Theatre green room, their tidy grey heads bobbing as they point out a picture of their mother Daphne Carroll on the wall behind them. In the photograph – a still image from a 1991 production of Endgame, their mother’s head peeks out over the rim of a dustbin – a nightcap taming her short white tresses. The sisters laugh as they remember going to see the show. “Remember the kids came?” Jane says, and the pair of them in unison cry: “‘Oh granny looks so cute!’” It must have been one of the only times in history that such an adjective has been used to describe a decrepit character in a Beckett play.

Both Barbara and Jane have a long history at the Gate Theatre, as their parents did before them. Their father, Denis Brennan, was a regular performer at the Gate from the 1950s onwards, and Carroll was also a regular on the city-centre stage throughout her long career. Barbara and her mother even worked together on the theatre’s stage in the 1990s, not long after Jane played opposite her sister for the first time in a production of Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba on the very same stage. It has been years since the women have been lucky enough to work together they say, crediting The Gate’s new artistic director Roisin McBrinn with the idea. “We have both known Roisin for a long time, since she was just out of college,” Jane says – “She directed me at the Abbey and the Helix,” Barbara interjects – “and I know she had always wanted to do this play. But why she thought of us? I don’t know.” Jane looks at her sister for confirmation. “I suppose you’ll have to ask her.”

The siblings have come together to star in a new production of the 2008 play The New Electric Ballroom, an absurdist fable from Enda Walsh, about a pair of ageing sisters who are stuck in the memory of their youthful past. Walsh’s play is an unsentimental portrayal of failing bodies and minds, and the comfort that storytelling offers. Jane eloquently describes the play’s themes as “ineffable, which is interesting because the play is so much about language, how these two women become boxed in by words, are doomed to repeat theEnda Walsh and Donnacha Dennehy come full circle with final offering in operatic trilogyir stories as a sort of protection”. Being sisters has helped them get acclimatised quickly to the rehearsal room and the challenges of learning the densely verbal script they say. “There’s no ice to break, which makes it easier,” according to Jane. “There’s an emotional shorthand between us.” “We don’t bitch at each other,” Barbara chips in pragmatically: “We aren’t in competition.” As they go on to reminisce about their childhood – putting on extempore plays in the living room of their Rathgar home, their actor brother Stephen dressed up in their mother’s clothes and christened Toots – it becomes clear that rivalry was never part of their dynamic.

As the older sister by 10 years, Barbara explains, “I was almost a different generation, really.” Jane elaborates upon the sentiment: “I was Barbara’s little dolly. I was really quite spoiled by her. I was the baby of the family [which also includes the actors Catherine and Paul Brennan]. They actually called me Baby.” Coming from a family of performers – their uncle Harry O’Donovan was a comedy scriptwriter known for his work with Jimmy O’Dea, while their grandmother performed on 2RN, the first radio broadcasting station in the Irish Free State – it was perhaps inevitable that the siblings should find themselves drawn to the acting profession. Barbara laughs: “It’s not exactly like we were running away to join the circus.”


Indeed, for Barbara’s first acting job, her mother cast her. Carroll was a member of the Radio Éireann Players repertory and the company needed a child to play the part of Sasha in a dramatised version of Chekov’s short story, The Darling. “I was about eight,” Barbara recalls, “and they needed a child who could read. Read, now, not act. And I could read, so my mother brought me down to Henry Street, which was where the radio centre was then, and I stood on an orange crate and read the part. It was a little boy you know, but I did it.” By the time she was in her teens, Barbara was spending summers “in rep” in Killarney, under the tutelage of Pat Turner “who had worked here [at The Gate] with Michael and Hilton. We did plays in the town hall and the International Hotel and it was a great experience. You weren’t just acting. You worked front of house, selling tickets; you were stage managing another night. It was a great apprenticeship, getting to know all aspects of the theatre.” Barbara describes those early years of her career wryly, as “chequered”. Back in Dublin, she trained as a dancer, working in the chorus of the pantomimes at the Gaiety, getting small parts in musicals. Her big break was playing Sally Bowles in Cabaret. “That was the real beginning for me, when I started getting offered bigger roles.”

Jane’s start in the theatre was not so precocious. “My mother didn’t really think I had it in me,” she confesses. “I was a very shy child and I think she thought I didn’t have the temperament, but I decided eventually I would like to have a go.” She trained at the Oscar School of Theatre in Ballsbridge, before securing a few small roles with Druid Theatre’s ensemble in Galway. “That was my lucky spell,” she says. “I was really nurtured and mentored by that great ensemble in the early 1980s.” She met her future husband, the playwright Tom Murphy, there too. When Jane was cast in the lead role in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion at The Gate in 1987, “that launched me in Dublin really”. The sisters marvel at what Barbara calls “the luck of the whole thing. We were really so lucky: to get a decent part at the right time. There are many very talented people who never get that break.”

They also insist upon their good fortune in being nurtured by a generation of older actors as they learned their own craft. Jane name-checks some of them: Anna Manahan, Aiden Grennell, David Kelly, Joan O’Hara (who played their mother in The House of Bernarda Alba all those years ago). “Watching those older actors,” Jane says, “was such an important part of our learning.” They both regret that the repertory and company systems that enabled them to work with such theatrical stalwarts has passed. “The system is broken,” Jane says ruefully. “The companies, the big plays where you see the ‘aul ones’ on stage, where younger actors can learn from them: that’s all gone. People can’t afford to do big plays any more, because the support for the company model isn’t there. And it has made it very difficult to be a jobbing actor. We are actors not makers,” she continues, acknowledging her sister too. “The people leaving drama school who want to act these days are expected to be writers and producers as well.” Barbara chuckles: “we’re the aul ones now.”

However, as they know, having worked with older actresses in their time, there are plenty of substantial roles for “aul ones” if producers are willing to stage them. I ask if they have anything particular in mind, a meaty role that they might like to play in the future. They both pause for a considerable moment, then Jane pipes up. “Well, if I didn’t die of fright first, I think, maybe Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” “That’s what I was going to say!” Barbara expostulates. “Though we should be careful what we wish for.” “Yes, that script!” Jane replies. “[Learning] lines gets harder as you get older, y’know?” “That’s true,” Barbara agrees, “and there’s no way around it. You’ve really got to swot.” They could play the role on alternate nights, I suggest, but Jane has a better idea: “maybe we could just swap over at the interval: that would be more manageable!” In the meantime, director Emma Jordan is waiting for them in the rehearsal room to check that they have been doing their homework and to help them figure out the finickity mechanics of portraying incontinence on the stage.

The New Electric Ballroom runs at the Gate Theatre from February 23rd to April 1st

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer