The actress discusses her role in the Lyric Theatre's production of Pentecost
Last year, Derry-Londonderry born actress Judith Roddy found herself at a Q and A film director Danny Boyle was giving for young, aspiring film students at the Foyle Film Festival. How, one student wondered, did Boyle get where he is? How did he get his break?
Boyle told the student that the error of striving for success lay in "wanting to get away". He advised him to write and direct about the places and people he knew: who you are and where you're from, he said, is your strength, and you bring it with you. Anyone can aspire to a different life, but the richest life arises from embracing your roots.
That was how Roddy felt about her home town, and it is how she feels still.
And soon, the experienced young actress, who stood out in the premiere of Sam Shepard's A Particle Of Dread at the Playhouse Theatre last year, will be joining the cast of said play for its US Premiere in New York from this Sunday, October 19, onwards. But for now, she is enjoying – or should that be "enduring"? – another particular dread in Stewart Parker's Pentecost, currently in the final week of a one-month run at Belfast's Lyric Theatre.
The production has received praise from all corners, this website describing it as "a remarkable achievement – intelligent without being impertinent, driven without being didactic". Roddy herself was attracted to the production because of its late writer: "(Parker) was razor sharp and eloquent. His work, particularly this play, holds a mirror to both us and our times. His characters are striking, but they can melt you with humour."
Pentecost especially resonates with Roddy because she is from Northern Ireland yet rarely gets the opportunity to work in these parts. It is the first play she has starred in at the Lyric. Like A Particle Of Dread, there's a contained foreboding energy in Pentecost that penetrates a confined space: both plays feel like memory pieces, recollections of strange haunted histories.
But Roddy also finds beauty and challenge in the language of Pentecost: claustrophobia sets the scene from the outset, ensuring that focus is in textual inhabitation.
"There's directness and honesty here like no other in the north, but also terrific buoyancy", she says. "The text has to be lived in, but not leaned on. Parker has done the work; lightness of touch on the actors' part is the challenge."
Roddy has often been cast in very physical roles on stage. Prior to Pentecost, she played Susie Monican in the National Theatre's production of The Silver Tassie, who was a big presence in a cast of twenty-two. The role of Marian, who functions as some sort of "leader of the pack" in a party of five – four people, and one ghost – appears no different, both roles giving Roddy a welcome opportunity to "score" their physicality, like music. "The 'score' here lies in the arc of the play, with Parker setting up moments and breaking them with laughter in the same beat. I love it."
When rehearsing, Roddy found it impossible to ignore Marian's strength, practicality and sense of humour, but ultimately, what all those things were masking in her. Portraying the character's stern but open exterior was paramount. "If, as an actor, I choose to play her as damaged or neurotic, I've nowhere to go. I chose a more difficult path, because while there might be little sympathy for her, the payoff is undeniably better: she reveals her very core as the play unravels. It feels more truthful to me, and most important.”
Yet despite the undeniably unifying bond that forms among the four human characters, no bond seems more significant than that between Marian and the ghost of Lily, the previous owner of a house Marian is now trying to habitate. Both, it would appear, have more in common with one another than either would like to admit, and Roddy sees this bond as essential: two characters united by a shared loss.
"Without the connection, Marian would never reveal herself, and Lily would never tell her story. It creates moments of stillness in the play. The audience can see a tangible character going through a crisis, and another character reliving her past and a haunted presence."
It's an indisputably downcast tone that Pentecost presents, one that represents much collapse: in characters, society and religion. But Roddy sees a less downbeat message, one in which Marian ceases to bite her own wounds and the characters come to accept and make peace with themselves.
"Pentecost is a play about history. It speaks of the past through the present in the characters and looks to the future. The resolved cadence in the piece is very tricky, but magical. The lights may literally be off in the play, but there's brightness in its future."
And there's brightness in Roddy's future as she prepares to set off for an experience like no other on Broadway. "I'll be there until the New Year, and possibly longer. It's an exciting time. The nieces and nephews better improve their Skype skills or they won't get any Christmas presents!"
Pentecost runs at Belfast's Lyric Theatre until Saturday October 18.