Actor Bryan Murray on his Alzheimer’s: ‘There is no short-term memory. It is not the end of the world for me. But – there is a but’

Bryan Murray stars in Deirdre Kinahan’s new play at the Peacock. His role intersects with his own reality as he plays a man with Alzheimer’s

In the rehearsal room of the Abbey Theatre, while the tram rumbles by and Dublin’s city centre is yawning out of its noonday laziness, Bryan Murray is experiencing an on-stage epiphany. He’s playing the role of James O’Brien, a veteran actor with Alzheimer’s. And it is no secret that Murray himself has been coping with Alzheimer’s for the past three years. Now, he is going through a choreographed, physical piece with Matthew Malone, his younger on-stage alter-ego, to the sounds of Paul Frost’s evocative string composition. Your eyes move between Malone’s hypnotic movement and Murray.

It’s hard to fully convey what the senior actor is doing here. He moves in economical, piercing bursts and, while the expression on his face is placid and almost neutral, he is somehow conveying a torrent of emotions. The performance brings to mind the end of David Bowie’s video Where Are We Now?, where the singer is searching for the lost 1970s and, denuded of all glamour and his face pensive, has never been so expressive.

“There is no short-term memory,” Murray will confirm later, seated beside his partner, the actor Una Crawford O’Brien. And yet his recollection of the figures who floated through the Abbey Theatre 40 years ago is super-sharp.

“Yes, super-sharp,” he nods.


“It is weird. That is the bit that is frightening to me. If I can to that today, why can’t I remember what happened two months ago?”

Or even yesterday. Alzheimer’s is a cruel and mysterious diagnosis. For Murray and the team behind Deirdre Kinahan’s new play, An Old Song, Half Forgotten, it makes for a unique and limitlessly courageous theatrical experiment. The decision was taken early to liberate Murray from the pressure of having to learn and recite or even to read his lines: instead, they are spoken to him by another actor, Darragh Feehely, through an ear-piece. And he delivers them instantaneously. Because Murray’s short-term memory has been completely compromised, he is effectively dealing with new material at every single rehearsal – and when he performs at the Peacock. What that means is that the audience will be watching an extraordinary combination of faculties at work. Murray will be acting blind. Every time he hears the words through the tiny earpiece, he will be interpreting them anew. Director Louise Lowe has been working to ensure any delay between the actors is reduced to the minimum. So Murray has to absorb and deliver a suitable tone and expression and delivery in real time while trusting entirely four decades of theatrical instinct. It sounds like a mind-blowing dare.

“I think one of the extraordinary things of Bryan and Una is they have accepted this reality,” says Kinahan.

“There is a part in the play where he says: ‘I can remember Mam. I can remember Danny. But yesterday is a fog.’ He delivers that. But that is his reality. And the play goes there. And when Bryan is reading it in the moment, he is absolutely in it. Bryan of old – Irish RM Brian – is there. He can conceive and throw out all of those brilliantly astute understandings that actors just instinctively do as you go through a process. The only thing is that it won’t necessarily be there the next day.

“But then, a part of us wonders – because the Alzheimer’s Society said to us when you break ground, you don’t quite know what is underneath – so maybe, just maybe, even in the brutal reality of this condition, something lands and builds and stays to allow for that magnificent wholesome performance we are all hoping for at the end. But we have all gone into this with our eyes open. You can’t let the sense or risk or fear that it might all crumble in. You just gotta believe, without being foolhardy.”

At 73, Murray remains sprightly and energetic. He is relaxed company, light on his feet and it’s still easy to see in his face the dark-haired, laughing rogue who charmed viewers in Strumpet City and The Irish RM. He grew up in humble circumstances, spending the first six years of his life in a tenement-era home in 1950s Islandbridge and, although he initially followed his brothers into an electrician’s apprenticeship, he couldn’t shake the conviction that he wanted to be – needed to be – an actor.

Leaning forward, he relives the day he first saw Jim Bartley in the soap opera Tolka Row and went along to auditions in the Abbey after Paddy Brennan, who was teaching him his sparky trade, told him about Abbey workshops he saw advertised for the Mater Dei in Cabra.

The Abbey is a second home for Murray: it is clear that he loves this building. His face alive, he summons the key figures in his life. It was a passing remark from Cyril Cusack – “I have no doubt you will make it. Just keep going” – that gave him the belief that he could belong in this world.

“Cyril was a god,” he says quietly.

“Cyril was very special.”

When he was understudy to Donal McCann for Brendan Behan’s The Hostage, he didn’t just learn the part, he stood in the shadows night after night to watch McCann’s every expression. “He could flick it around like that. You’d see him flash from one thing to the next straightaway. And it was just… fantastic.” For one performance, McCann arrived in the worse for wear after a hectic bout of socialising. Murray stepped in at short notice. Afterwards, he was summoned to the office of John Slevin – Murray points to a notional office somewhere in the vaults and recounts the conversation as though it is happening now. “‘You did a magnificent job. We’d like to offer you a place as a member of the Abbey Theatre Company.’ That was the way in.”

That was Dublin in the summer of 1970. Murray was still a kid. He was a seasoned actor when he starred, a decade later, with McCann and Peter O’Toole in Strumpet City, then RTÉ’s most expensive production. And his depiction of Flurry Knox, the slippery, charming Anglo-Irish sidekick to Peter Bowles’s perplexed, naive resident magistrate in the Irish RM, held a curious place in the national imagination. The comedy drama was an affectionate portrayal of the Anglo-Irish relationship during the hopeless, relentlessly violent years of the Troubles. Murray’s Knox caught something of the half-truths and evasiveness of the time, all delivered with his disarming smile. Years later, the series made a popular transfer to the US, which led to Murray starring in a series of adverts for Irish Spring soap for five years. That sideline, he cheerfully told Brendan Courtney in Keys to My Life, paid a handsome million dollars.

His face came to mean something very different in 1990s Britain when he signed up for the role of Trevor Jordache, the plausible and deeply sinister arrival in Channel 4′s Liverpudlian soap, Brookside. The storyline was, for the time, shocking: Jordache is a domestic physical and sexual abuser who terrorises his family and infamously ends up buried under the patio. (“Twenty-four years later! You’ve aged very well. Has it been cold under those slabs?” Anna Friel, who played his daughter, Beth Jordache, joked with Murray when they were reunited on the Ray D’Arcy television show).

“I’m so pleased you brought Trevor up because Trevor was the man. It was incredible. It just came down out of nowhere,” Murray says, recalling the atmosphere on set after the first physical abuse scene, with the actress Sandra Maitland.

“Sandra is fantastic. She’s got a great, great style about her. She is emotional, she can be hard. She’s soft inside really. We knew what coming down the line. Sandra said something to me after the first scene where I have to beat her up which I thought was fantastic. She said to me; did you notice anything in the studio after the beating. No? All of the girls that normally would be talking to you all took a step backwards. And two days later, I had to have a police escort into the studio.” For years, the British public recognised Murray as Jordache. It was a vivid, dynamic role during the last decade that terrestrial television was king.

Murray was twice married and shares a daughter with Angela Harding and four children with his second wife, Juliet Ramsey. Crawford and Murray met in 2005, on the set of Fair City, in which they play a married couple. It was Crawford who first noticed that Murray was struggling to remember lines, a skill which had come easily to him. Last year, they decided to go public with his diagnosis.

“We discussed that at length,” Crawford says.

“Because Bryan didn’t really acknowledge it for the first couple of years. That was, in a way, more difficult. Because then people know that there’s a reason for Bryan either repeating himself or forgetting things, or whatever it is. And Bryan decided that when he did come out about it, that he would do whatever he could to assist other people who were being diagnosed at the time; that if they could see that he was still able to work, and that he was still able to do the things that he loves the best. I mean, I am his partner, but I know acting is his first love. That’s true! So not to be able to do it would have been heart-breaking.

So here he is doing what he absolutely loves. And like, I was horrified when I realised that 30 people are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in Ireland every day. There are over 160,000 people with Alzheimer’s in Ireland at the moment. So say if someone is diagnosed today and they see Brian in Fair City or in this play…”

Murray, listening to this, cuts in to say: “It is not the end of the world for me. But – there is a but. Not everyone has someone like this person to take care of them. This person … is God.

“I wish,” Crawford says, laughing.

The couple go into the Abbey every day together for rehearsals. On this day, Crawford watches the actors and knits while the crew goes through stage directions. Right now, their life is still rich. Murray is singularly lacking in self-pity. “I can be a worrier sometimes. But not much. The Alzheimer’s is there. I wish I didn’t have it. We are still alive and listening to music and have a glass of wine and all that stuff.” He walks Bob, the dog that Crawford got for him. Like all Dublin men, he curses the traffic. “There’s too many effing traffic lights,” he says. “I hear this every day,” Crawford sighs. If they watch a television series, they will binge-watch it so he can follow the plot in one sitting.

Murray’s mother suffered from Alzheimer’s in later years. So, too, did Crawford’s mother and grandmother. “It would be something that I would be terrified of,” she says candidly.

Louise Lowe’s mother also had Alzheimer’s; she died just a few months ago. “It has been part of my life for a number of years,” Lowe says. “And maybe I would feel different about this if it was something I had no experience with. But I do. And I suppose Bryan coming at us fresh every day feels so almost an actor’s dream. Because you are looking for that authenticity and truth from a reaction that’s not built on something that you did before. It’s never stale. Every day it is magnetic and a really interesting way in. Some days you just go: wow. Or you watch things that are retained now in his muscle memory. That has been fascinating to watch. I’ve known Bryan for a long time, and he is such an Irish institution, and I’ve always loved watching his energy. There is something very charming about him as a person that makes every day here a joy.”

The origin of An Old Song lies in a bleak phone call Murray had to make to Deirdre Kinahan. They had been preparing to tour with her play Halcyon Days when he was diagnosed. He had no choice but to drop out.

“And he was just devastated at the notion of never going on stage again,” Kinahan tells me.

“And, you know, for an artist … it’s a bit like telling a piano player they’ve lost the use of their fingers, you know, and that, I mean, that joy is just gone.”

Kinahan had come through treatment for breast cancer two years earlier.

“And I remember during chemo, my head was just mush. I couldn’t read, I couldn’t watch television. I just, I was completely debilitated kind of intellectually. And I remember being terrified, like, is this it? Like, is my creativity gone? You know and, of course, the first thing you think of is your husband and children, but also that whole side of your life, the thought of losing it. So, I think when Bryan said that to me, I’m never going to be on stage again, I could just connect with it. And with the horror of that. And I just said, Well, who says you’ll never be on stage again? Maybe I could write something for you.”

Ostensibly, the story concerns a successful Dublin stage actor who makes good in London, marries a woman named Sarah and has, as Kinahan describes it, “a very fruitful, beautiful life” before being afflicted with Alzheimer’s.

“We meet him when that whole life and person is fractured, splintered and disintegrating, as the disease begins to chip away at not only his memory but his story, his inside life, his patterns, his capacity to understand where he is.”

Which is a residential home in London. The visit of a four-piece quartet gives the actor a gateway to recollection. Initially, Kinahan wrote Murray’s part as a big, bells-and-whistles character. But when they met last June for a development treatment, she quickly understood that the true soul of the story lay in the spaces that Murray – man and actor – was inhabiting before her eyes. “So I sucked a lot of the drama out of the life of the character. And I allowed the drama and the charge be the conceit of this production.”

It’s what makes what is happening so precious and strange. Bryan Murray has never been more unmasked. He’s drifted through the zeitgeist of Irish drama for decades, an instantly familiar face. But see him now. When the play opens, both audience and cast will know that the lead is in new territory.

“Imagine,” Kinahan says.

“He is going to go on stage. The lights are going to go on. The curtain is going to come up. The audience will be sitting there. And he has no idea what is coming next. You know? We are fumbling in the dark right now. But he trusts in his talent, his joy, his love of the process, in my play and in all of us to make this work.”

Goodwill and fingers crossed will only take them so far. There is no safety net – but Murray’s understudy is no less than Barry McGovern, his closest friend from their early days in the Abbey and one of Ireland’s greatest ever stage actors. This is not, he warns with the famous laconic smile, any kind of swansong. Actors can’t retire. They don’t know how. Still, there’s a chance that this rich, peculiar moment when art and affliction intersect will become one of Bryan Murray’s most remembered roles. When every night is opening night.

SoFFt productions and the Abbey Theatre’s An Old Song, Half Forgotten opens on the Peacock stage of the Abbey on Thursday, April 20th, with previews from Friday, April 14th; it runs until Saturday, May 6th